One of my New Year Resolutions (apart from boring real-life stuff like normalizing habitat conditions) was to play through campaigns of RTS games that I’ve never finished in the past. I started playing Age of Empires: Definitive Edition a couple of weeks ago, so it became my first candidate. Everything went smoothly until the first mission of the Babylon campaign, where I got my ass kicked so hard that it made me wish to reconsider my gaming choices.
The mission is called The Holy Man. There’s a river crossing the map vertically in the middle with a sole marshland crossing. On each side of the river, there’s an adversary camp—a yellow player on the east and a more advanced red player on the west. You start with a lone priest. So you must convert enemy workers quickly to establish a base and get your economy going before the enemy raids begin. The reds have military units from the start, so the obvious choice of first conversion victim is the yellow player. Most of the yellow workers packed together hunting, but some scattered ones seemed easier to convert. That’s when I first slipped into save scumming. The reason is that sometimes all the workers trigger and come after your priest as a lynch mob, but sometimes they mind their own business as if you’re not trying to brainwash them into recoloring their pants. Also, the conversion time seems totally random—sometimes it takes a wololo and a half to convert the worker, but other times even five wololos aren’t enough, and your priest ends up beaten to death with giant dinosaur bones.
With a certain amount of pain and curses, I finally managed to build a functional town and bring the yellow bastards down. But shortly enough, the red raiding parties began to flow in. As I’ve said earlier—the red player has a technological head start, so you’re engaged in a race for survival pretty much from the get-go. Save scumming ruled once again. I’ve almost realized that I suck at RTS and shouldn’t bother anymore; I have to choose another genre to be obsessed with. I was really close to booting up some hundred-hour-long RPG with tree-dialogues and multiple choices—it was a tough time.
But then I remembered why I initially fell in love with RTS games and what made me click with Command & Conquer and Warcraft back when the world was young and the skies were azure.
Turtling is even better when you can build walls. You can build walls in Age of Empires. So I built them. I walled off my town and kept the marshland crossing chokepoint under the guard of watchtowers. And so the war of attrition began.
The red was spamming me with chariots and slingers that were dying by the dozens under my walls. Red watchtowers covered most of his half of the map, and his workers were fast and stubborn in rebuilding them. Red priests were persistent and seemingly luckier than mine in converting my troops. So it was a trench war. Foreseeing the depletion of gold and stone mines, I managed little by little to cut the adversary out of his resources close to the riverbank. Then, with a massive push, I raised an outpost on the opposite riverside, walling off the enemy from even more resources. And then, I waited, I held the line, and when I felt the moment was right—I struck!
I’ve struck with a vengeance, bringing all my wrath and impatience to finally finish this mission on their stupid AI heads. I’ve stomped them into the mud. I’ve burnt them and pissed on their ashes. I’ve triumphed, and the earth shook.
I continued the campaign with no further problems. If you asked me what happened in the next couple of missions, I’d hardly find an answer—probably kicked the shit out of someone in a usual non-memorable way while having great fun. Every mission here is fun—it’s Age of Empires! But missions like The Holy Man… They stick with you. They become your history, and it’s priceless. How could I even think about trading it off for some hundred-hour-long RPG?!
By the way, while having a crisis of faith and thinking about RPGs to play, I stumbled upon the Dune Legacy. I don’t know where I’ve been all this time, but I discovered this gem only this week. It’s an open-source, cross-platform engine for the original Dune II with additional campaigns, a skirmish mode, and many modern QoL interface improvements. I’m having a blast with it!
One of the most critical aspects of digital games preservation is retaining their playability. I think it shouldn’t be limited to only bridging the technological gap between old software and new hardware but should also keep the gameplay engaging for modern audiences. It’s not easy to keep the balance between modernizing the game feel and reforging the original gameplay to the point that it becomes a different game—but Dune Legacy does everything right. It made me want to return to Arrakis once again, this time without suffering through the interface’s antiquities.
Finally, I can’t resist the urge to brag about one of the New Year presents my dear friends blessed me with. It’s a debut LP vinyl of the best death metal band of all time! It becomes the third Bolt Thrower’s vinyl in my collection, in addition to War Master and Those Once Loyal, and someday I’ll get the remaining five.
No better reason is needed to declare Bolt Thrower’s In Battle There Is No Law! as a soundtrack of the week!