Age of Empires from Ensemble Studious combines the history of research that we know from Civilization with real-time warfare from Warcraft. This is a remarkable feature, for most other strategy games that are going to be released this year will be very much like clones of Command & Conquer. The majority of the new games will play in the future; there are only a handful of fantasy strategy games so there will be less competition in that market. These factors make AoE one of the most promising titles in this year.
While most strategy games offer a fairly small selection of races or populations, Age of Empires lets you choose among twelve tribes. Each tribe will have their distinct strengths and weaknesses such as stronger or weaker walls, increased range for certain units, increased rate of fire or cheaper peasants. The units and the architecture of the buildings will also reflect the origin of the tribe. Babylon buildings will be made of stout stone walls while greeks will have advanced phalanx units.
Such a diversity guarantees an interesting campaign, but it may also be hard for players to memorize twelve different tile sets and exploit the strategies that are possible with each tribe. This will probably lead to the "extinction" of some tribes in multi player games because some tribes will likely be weaker than others. Of course the programmers and testers try to balance the tribes well, but some strategies are not developed till several weeks of playing. Because there is a plentiful variety of units and maps will change from game to game, players will be forced to adjust their strategies and unit selections to the map. It makes no sense to make catapults if there is no wood for them.
Without any doubt, the artwork is one of the most outstanding one that has been made for games so far. This has made AoE popular at the E3 in Atlanta this summer, and while it does not guarantee a good game, it is certainly necessary for a success. The engine has been rewritten in assembler and can therefore support resolutions up to 1024 x 768 with a fast frame rate.
The most revolutionary feature is a restriction to only 50 units and buildings. If you have reached that, you will be forced to retire (delete) your units and buidings. This may be in favor of an offensive strategy and offers better control of your units. I hope that it enhances the game play.
The first release will not contain gates that open for allies and unit formations, but most other features that people have demanded will be included:
For more info about Age of Empires, read my interview with Dave Pottinger, AI programmer of AoE.