To play Imperialism II: Age of Exploration is to take a giant step back in time. The designers of the game approached this sequel in the right way -- they weren't consumed with the idea of fixing ideas and concepts that weren't broken to begin with, but concentrated on expanding, enhancing and improving areas that were right in the original. And that covers a vast amount of material.
For players of Imperialism, the visual aspects will seem very familiar and comfortable. At its core, the game remains very close to the first one. However, viewed in the light of the similarities, the impact of just changing the environment, setting and era makes this sequel seem like a whole different game. Rather than resting on the considerable laurels of the original that concerned itself with a more recent facet of modern life, industry, Imperialism II goes back and presents life, as the title states, in the age of exploration.
As such, the game has a much tighter focus, or at least it seems that way. This could certainly be attributable to the many previous games in the exploration genre that feature this very familiar theme. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of this follow up title is measurable over it predecessor, a game I liked quite a bit. Part of my enjoyment with the sequel is the ease with which gameplay is mastered; for those who have never played Imperialism, the tutorials make it fairly easy to get up to speed.
The game isn't about flashy graphics, great sound or spectacular cut scenes. I'm one of those players who demands a fairly high AI to compete against and the designers of Imperialism II: Age of Exploration seem to take that aspect seriously, as if realizing there are many fans who still enjoy solo play and aren't concerned with human multi-player bashing. That's not to say the AI is perfect -- very few, if any, are -- but it appears to be overtly weak in only a couple of limited areas. Considering the vast ground that is covered in this sequel, those limitations are easily overlooked.
The very premise of what the player is trying to accomplish should be enough to whet the appetites of any true fans of the exploration genre. The game mixes resource management (somewhat differently than what you might be used to, but definitely not in such a detailed manner as to bog play down), strategic planning (don't think executing a half-baked plan will be sufficient in this volatile, changing environment) and, of course, military might, albeit not the be-all, end-all of gameplay. The importance of trade, diplomacy (probably the weakest aspect of the game), research and technology and a transportation system that is essential to linking goods with trade markets (thankfully it doesn't require minute micro-management) cannot be underestimated.
The very basic commodity of food to feed your population is central to success. And hasn't that been true throughout recorded history? Nice to see the level of importance devoted to this aspect, regardless of how boring it might seem. Overall though, there are many details that must be attended to if you're to compete on solid footing with opponents. The game's era encompasses a 300-year stretch covering the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, an era before industrialization of the modern world changed the direction in which humanity was headed forever.
You begin the game as a member nation of the Old World and, oddly enough, must exploit the map-darkened, exploration-beckoning, virgin territory known only as the New World to improve your lot. Simply dominating the New World is a hollow victory indeed if you can't convert the newly found riches and raw materials in a way that supplements your main purpose -- expansion, growth and control of your influence in the Old World. The object in Imperialism II: Age of Exploration is no more complex than that -- controlling at least half of the known Old World. It is only through the exploitation of the vast riches ripe for plucking in the fertile civilizations discovered through exploration that you can build your home nation's strengths.
An overriding theme of Imperialism II's gameplay revolves around growth. Economic, military, trade, population and technology growth represent the backbone of your nation. Without growth, you'll soon be consumed by more powerful nations only too happy to subjugate your land and people. A superb addition to the sequel is the carefully developed technology tree found within the game. There is enough gameplay here to allow the player to choose between a militaristic buildup or a technological blitz, using more peaceful means to conquer and divide. Nothing prevents the inter-linking of these philosophies and, in fact, that is a tough element to master in the game.
Imperialism II: Age of Exploration is still a turn-based strategy game in which all sides move at the same time, but not before all players have completed their orders for the turn. The simple fact that not any one approach to how you wish to develop your nation's standing is favored over any other, or, for that matter represents a clear and concise advantage, makes playing Imperialism II: Age of Exploration a bit more interesting than many similar games in the genre.
A wide array of gameplay customization options guarantee no two games will be identical. The major choice, at the very beginning of the game, is the decision to use a historical map of Europe as the starting point or throw your fate to the wind by having the program generate a random map. A solid selection of scenarios and countries to choose as your home nation complement the many variations of gameplay available. Ranging from five difficulty settings to the complexity of the world in which you want to operate, these options present unlimited mix of game parameters. The only caution I offer strategy-game players is the emphasis of the game being more attuned to peaceful strategies than simply being a power struggle between opposing militaries.
Graphics: Acceptable, although not overpowering.
Sound: The music actually brings the rating up a notch. Ambient sounds and specific unit commands aren't particularly the high point but the musical application fits very nicely within the scope of the game.
Enjoyment: There is a tremendous amount of gameplay to be found but it may require more patience than the average gamer may be used to expending on a strategy/exploration title. Well thought out approaches and an overall strategy is important; without it, many players will find themselves failing more often than not.
Replay Value: Nothing to prevent this game from remaining on hard drives for long periods of time. In fact, a full appreciation of the game's variables can only be experienced through repeated playings with different parameters.
People who downloaded Imperialism 2: The Age of Exploration have also downloaded:
Imperialism, Civilization 2, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Panzer General 2, Caesar 3, Colonization for Windows, Europa Universalis 2, Civil War Generals 2
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