Genghis Khan is on a roll. With villagers bringing in a plentiful supply of gold from the mines and wheat from the farms, his populace is flourishing and victory is nearly assured in the ongoing battles to the north. Now the warlord can look forward to a quiet evening in with a small selection of his favourite concubines. But what's this? There's been an uprising to the south and the enemies are massing on the border. How will Genghis cope? Will he remove vital military units from the northern frontlines to aid his defence, or cease expanding his empire while he trains more militia and cavalry to see off this new threat? Alternatively, will Genghis just hide indoors with the concubines and hope his allies to the west come to the rescue? Decisions, decisions.
What we have here is just one challenging situation that faces players of Age of Empires: Age of Kings on the DS, albeit one that actually features more jabbing at the touch screen and less mention of nubile lady servants. Taking its template from Ensemble Studio's 1999 PC classic Age of Empires II and bolting on a handheld-friendly turn based engine, The Age of Kings is a vintage strategy game all the way. To be honest, this release is so old school it should come complete with lumpy custard and a cane-wielding headteacher, yet it does have an undeniable retro charm that manages to quickly engage the player. The only real concession to modernity comes with the DS-friendly stylus control, which faithfully mimics the mouse and keyboard system of the original game.
A well-constructed series of tutorial missions, all based around the story of French legend Joan of Arc, teach you the main skills that must be mastered to advance through the game. Basic play revolves around a combination of resource gathering and military strategy (with some missions focussed on one or the other and some combining both play modes), so there is little here to surprise veterans of the genre. Gold and wheat sources must be secured by training up and deploying villagers to find them on the map. With a steady stream of food and money coming into your town centre, it's then possible to build the initial barracks and stables required to train soldiers and cavalry.
Each mission normally begins with a handful of units (villagers and soldiers) to start you off but more will need to be readied if you are going to conquer the level. Research is also a major feature in the game and only by splashing out cash on the latest gizmos like looms or leather-soled shoes can your town progress enough to Age Up. Achieving this status gives you access to more advanced technologies (ballistics, siege craft, spying) that can give a vital strategic edge over enemies that are stuck in the dark ages. The more advanced your civilisation is, the more military units and buildings are available to you, so it's essential to keep enough money aside to research every option that comes your away. The maps are relatively small, with everyone fighting to secure the best resources, and missions normally begin with a mad dash for the nearest gold deposit or patch of wheat.
'Usefully, Age of Kings includes a Combat Advisor who gives you his wise assessment of the outcome of the battle before you commit to action.'
Combat is a standard turn-based affair, with melee units only able to attack adjacent enemies, while projectile units can pick off bad guys from a safer distance. Seizing key strategic points like bridges and mountain ranges (which give an aiming boost to bowmen) is integral to success - as is keeping a watchful eye on enemy units, who attack and defend with pretty sophisticated AI for a handheld game. Usefully, Age of Kings includes a Combat Advisor who gives you his wise assessment of the outcome of the battle before you commit to action. The only gripe I have with the combat is how quickly your maximum number of units is capped. Some early missions are nearly insurmountable as you are forced to take on enemies with a comparatively puny army. This does encourage you to hone your strategic skills but it can be off-putting to those who don't keep Sun Tzu's The Art of War as toilet reading material.
Where the game really excels is in its attention to historical detail. As you play through the main campaign you command five different civilisations (from the Britons to the Franks and the Mongols) and each battle is governed by a Hero unit. There is a definite thrill to be had from leading icons like Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan or Richard the Lionheart into battle and each hero has special powers to heal their armies or boost their stats. Before each mission, you are given a brief but informative history class on the background for the conflict, which adds an extra layer of atmosphere to the game and never drags on - unlike the droning of the average school history teacher.
The only area Age of Kings does falter is in its presentation. The music, while tailored to the time and place of each mission, is extremely repetitive and should be switched off immediately to avoid anyone in earshot from wrenching the console from your hands and hurling it out the window. The DS is not ideally equipped for offering intricate graphics either and the tiny units are often impossible to tell apart when they clump together. This can make controlling a scrap unnecessarily clumsy and taxing on your peepers. It's also worth noting that each mission can take up to an hour to complete, so remembering to save battles at key points is vital if you want to avoid having to painfully start from scratch.
Apart from these minor quibbles, Age of Empires: Age of Kings is a noble, if distinctly old fashioned, effort to capture the magic of a classic series in the palm of your hand. Amazingly, it even gives the sublime Advance Wars Dual Strike a run for its strategy money. The epic main campaign alone will keep you battling away for weeks and there are wireless multiplayer scenarios for up to four players to try out too. It might be a bit too hardcore for the casual DS crowd, and certainly a bit long in the tooth compared to most modern strategy titles, but gamers wanting to wage war on the move need look no further.