I'm not the world's best gamer by any stretch and I've never claimed to be. The fact that I'm not even a fast learner serves me well within my occupations. After all these years of playing games I can still relate to them as an average gamer which allows me to write my reviews from that perspective as opposed to the been-there-done-that egghead that has played too many games in his time and should be working for NASA instead of sitting in his room fixated on his PC while mom cautiously brings in his macaroni and cheese supper. Keep in mind this imaginary guy is 35-years old. Did I mention that he also has Lord of the Rings posters on his wall? Or is that a given?

I actually think I invented new swear words while playing Armies of Exigo, if you can call getting your ass kicked "playing." It was more like press start and die. Although fantasy-based RTS games aren't exactly my forte, I've played enough of them to be more than familiar with the gameplay strategies. But having played Armies of Exigo, you would think that I just graduated from Snakes and Ladders. This is one tough game. #%$ me!

AOE (for short) is a traditional, old school strategy game. It may not interest those that are fans of the new style of RTS games but it appears that it was developed to test what the old guard has learned after so many years of RTS gaming. I found this game to be more of an exam than a test. And by exam, I mean someone putting the rubber glove on.

This may sound like sour grapes because I can't beat the damn thing but because of the ramped up difficulty level, I didn't find anything fun about the game. It's not that there's too many options and I just can't figure them all out, it's just that so many of the options are overridden when the battle is on. For instance, there is a formation option which allows you to line up your various units (infantry, ranged, melee etc.) in any order that you prefer. When the battle takes place the AI takes over and the units return to their classic positions as if you're not quite in control of your faculties. I agree that for the most part this "classic" formation is the best but sometimes a different strategy is worth trying especially when you're getting your ass handed to you on a platter in every mission.

Part of the problem, or at least a heavy contributor, is that the enemy launches a full-scale attack almost immediately. You don't have time to get yourself together. You also can't pause the game to issue commands. There are lots of micromanagement issues to take care of. Failure to take care of even the simplistic of matters seems to result in a loss. There is little, if no, room for error in this game. Successful conclusions are not open-ended. It seems there is only one way to win and I have yet to find that way. There are 12 missions for each of the three fighting factions. Considering that each mission can last a couple of hours that's a lot of gameplay time.

The three factions consist of The Empire, Beastmen and The Fallen. The Empire is a mix of human and elves while the Beastmen consist of the standard ogres and trolls. The Fallen is a race of demons that have issues with both The Empire and the Beastmen. The story is well represented in the cutscenes but it's just your standard fantasy story. Some may say "classic" but I say generic. It won't put the Lord of the Rings franchise out of business, nor will the nerds that like this game as long as there are new posters to buy.

Aside from the above-view battleground, there are underground routes which can be used for battle as well as resource mining. There's a two-tiered map that you can toggle with a push of the button to keep you eyes on what's happening below and above ground. I thought there would be more opportunity to use the underground network to perhaps flank the enemy but the only time it's truly useful is when the game forces you to go underground. That's why I prefer the online modes. This single-player mode is just too damn bossy.

Online play is sporadic at best. You won't find a crowd of people at any given time. You'll have to find groups that play at regular intervals and hope to join in. Games such as capture the flag and king of the hill are a great diversion from the single player campaigns but considering that these aren't the best versions of these modes it's little wonder there's not that many players online.

The one thing that AOE has going for it is its polished presentation. The graphics are highly detailed, though there is a decided lack of 3D environments. The voices are well recorded but a little bit corny. The interface is clean, clear and easy to use. The instructions equip you for battle but they don't give away any secrets. You're going to have to play this game for a long time to learn how to win, or you may just get lucky and get all of the sequences rights. AOE is definitely not for the casual gamer. In this case, it's not even for the professional gamer. It's for the hardcore, fanatical, tactical strategist - or "super nerd," as I like to call anyone that's smarter than I am.

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System: PC
Dev: Blackhole Games
Pub: EA
Release: Nov 2004
Players: 1 - Multi Online
Review by Cole