Overall Score 73%
Aevum Obscurum - Royal AO
I can honestly say that for the first time in my life, I regret not paying more attention in Latin classes back in my first year of high school. If I had been more attentive in the classroom, I could have saved 2 minutes out of my life by not having to Google "Aevum Obscurum" to discern the meaning of the title of this weeks review game. Turns out that it roughly translates to "Dark Age", an apt title for a game of millitary strategy whereby the player competes to control all of Europe in those heady days of the early 14th century.
OK, let me get some gripes off my chest first and foremost. Aevum Obscurum (henceforth referred to as AO) is an online multiplayer strategy game that requires a connection to the internet to run. I will stress that point again, there is no form of offline play whatsoever. By upgrading the free version of the client (which lets you join multiplayer games only), you get to play single player games in a skirmish mode with AI opponents, however you must be connected to the internet at all times while the client is running to do so. Multiplayer games are divided roughly into 2 categories, longhaul games in which the time between turns can vary between about 8 to 336 hours, and blitz games in which turn times are measured in minutes rather than hours, but for some reason seem to be incredibly unpopular on the server. It seems to me that AO is only going to appeal to a very niche group of gamers because of these reasons. An average game on longhaul mode would likely last for at least a month, quite possibly much longer, and presumably the gamer would need to be involved in quite a few games simultaneously to get any enjoyment out of this.
If I join longhaul games, I end up missing turns and dropping out due to work or family commitments and if I start up a blitz game it seems nobody will join. Not being a fan of online multiplayer gaming certainly does not help things. Therefore, my observations of AO will come almost exclusively from playing in skirmish modes versus the AI in a single player environment.
It is somehow ironic then, that I do enjoy playing AO in the fast paced style of a solo game. The gameplay is quite similar to the tabletop classic "Risk" in the way armies are recruited from the players base and then move out conquering neutral or occupied territories by force of numbers. There are no random elements in combat, victory is decided solely on the size of the attacking force versus the size of the defending force, taking into account defensive fortification bonus. Basically, the size of the player's empire dictates the size of the army that he can field, and bigger is always better in AO. Ships can be employed to transport armies over bodies of water and amphibious assualts are possible. Towers can be erected in the players' territories that allow spying on adjacent enemy lands to reveal troop numbers and the enemy king's position, if lucky! The king starts in the capital and can be moved around the map just like armies, but beware, if your king is defeated, your empire will fall. The amount of moves that a player may undertake on any given turn is dictated by the amount of cash in the treasury and a generic "move meter". Half of your unused moves on the meter are carried over to the next turn. Tax rates can be adjusted, higher rates yield more income but have a negative effect on morale making it more costly to recruit soldiers. More capital spending can increase your economy in the long term to provide higher income from taxes and this spending rate is adjustable as well. There are a wide range of strategic choices for the player to make, and although by the mid to late game the victor seems to be more or less decided, AO is a reasonably absorbing experience.
A few interface troubles make for a little frustration from time to time. For example, as the player inputs orders for his troops, those orders are stored in the queue, but no record of them is available. It might be prudent when playing on lage maps to have a pencil and notepad handy to keep track of what you have already ordered. Also, the amount of fiddly clicking on the map to move troops around seems a bit unnecassary, but once the user becomes familiar with the control scheme, this is not as much of a problem.
You can play as the Kindom of England, the Papal States, the Byzantine Empire or any one of dozens of other pre-defined races, although the difference between them is purely in the names. The defaut map of Europe is huge, and can accomodate well over 20 players comfortably. Other maps are available for free download with my favourite being the world map for ultra large scale "Risk"like batles.
The lack of any kind of background music tracks is a little disappointing. This style of game would benefit the most from some atmospheric tracks whilst the player is pondering the next turn's moves. My mind is immediately drawn to the wonderful music that accompanies the gameplay in Civilization 4. Something in that vein would be ideal. There are only very few sound effects, the most memorable being a thunderclap (yes, you did read that correctly) at the beginning of each turn. Graphics are suitable for a tabletop style game, but are by no means impressive.
I can only really recommend AO to dedicated and hardcore strategy fans. If you are the type of player that enjoys playing chess by correspondance, or have enjoyed play-by-email type wargames in the past, then AO may be for you. My advice for the more casual gamers and gamers that do not have access to a persistant internet connection would be to look elsewhere.
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