Let me be clear: I’m not going to pick a winner. Age of Empires and StarCraft are both franchises that I have an immense amount of respect for. StarCraft II’s esports scene is still doing wonders while Age of Empires(AoE) continues to entice both longtime fans and newcomers with its historic bent and engrossing gameplay. But if you plan on dipping your toes into the real-time strategy genre, picking between these behemoths is a daunting task. As a longtime player who places both of these franchises on a mental pedestal, here’s what makes them tick under the hood.
I might have been born before some of these games but that didn’t stop me from sinking hundreds of hours into them as a kid. Both of them are enjoyable romps with boatloads of micromanagement but there are plenty of things that set them apart. I used to spend hours just reading up on real-life battles and generals in the Age of Empires’ massive built-in encyclopedia. While I tinkered with StarCraft only when I was older, its thoughtful level design and focus on esports were evident right from the start. And with that, let’s dive right in.
Of Nature and Resources
To keep things straightforward, most of my comparisons will involve Age of Empires II and StarCraft II. The underlying systems work the same across titles in each franchise but these games are my personal favorites. Age of Empires III tried shaking things up but most fans would agree that they detracted from AoE II’s proven success. With that out of the way, let’s start with the fundamentals.
Resources let you develop your settlement and train your troops. StarCraft keeps things simple with two resources: minerals and vespene gas. Worker units harvest these for you and drop them off at your main base. These resources tend to be found at specific locations on the map, with each source lasting for quite some time. Workers tend to mind their business fairly well which means that you’re free to do more important things like setting up your defenses or training your army. Age of Empires heaps four resources onto your poor villagers’ heads, forcing you to keep track of multiple resource streams. Wood, food, stone, and gold tie into the game’s historic aspirations but it can make for some intense micromanagement throughout the game. You can’t just send villagers to resource spots near your town center and call it a day.
Resources dry up sooner in Age of Empires and upgrades let you whittle them down even more quickly. You’ll have to build mills, lumber camps, and mining camps across the map to take advantage of said resources. Some levels even force you to contest with your opponents for food or ore. And did I mention that there are multiple ways to harvest resources? While farming provides you a near-endless stream of food, hunting and foraging are quicker. And if you let your opponents gain an advantage early in the game, you’re as good as gone. Learning how to herd animals towards your town center is an art unto itself. To be honest, after AoE’s cumbersome resource system, StarCraft was a welcome breath of fresh air.
Putting the “Me” in Economy
The rate at which you get a grip on your resources can make or break your offensive and defensive attempts in a strategy game. While Age of Empires burdens you with more resources to juggle, it also gives you more options to gather them. These options increase if you’re playing the game with an ally or two. Tribute options mean that you could ask friends for help if you’re low on resources. An added bonus is the ability to sway enemies to your side with a less than subtle bribe. This adds a layer of top-tier backstabbing and board-game-esque mental gymnastics to a game that already thrives on conflict.
Age of Empires’ market is another mechanic that lets players iron out their weaknesses while filling their coffers in the process. Trade carts and merchant ships can ply routes to friendly markets and docks to give you a steady trickle of gold. Be warned that these units are vulnerable to enemy attacks. In addition, the market also lets you trade gold for resources and vice versa, helping you sell off excess supplies or stem losses as foes claim your territory. Having resource spots peppered across the map means that even if you lose one to an opponent, your economy doesn’t take a nosedive.
But in StarCraft, lose a base and you’ll soon be in a world of hurt. In fact, the game ends if all your buildings bite the dust. This means that, unlike Age of Empires, you can’t hide a bunch of units and force opponents to find and chase your last scout cavalry down. A Mongolian horde of mounted Mangudai archers on your tail is a pleasure you need to experience to understand. It makes even more sense with StarCraft’s invisible dark templars but I guess I’ll have to settle for scout cavalry rodeos.
Of Ages and Empires
Comparing the learning curves of Age of Empires and StarCraft is a tricky affair. And no, it’s not because I love both of them. It is because both of them take wildly different paths to unit upgrades and developments. Age of Empires relies on a system where you need to build specific buildings to progress from one age to another. Advancing to another age nets you access to new buildings, units, and upgrades. A dizzying tech tree means that you’ll have to chart things out in advance if you’re looking to survive until the Imperial age. But StarCraft eschews the “age” idea completely, letting players build new buildings and units as long as the prerequisites are met.
Speaking of units and buildings, there’s another tenet where both franchises are poles apart. StarCraft’s three civilizations, the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss, are the most diverse set of races I’ve ever had the good fortune of controlling in a strategy game. WarCraft III comes close but they share a lot of DNA as they’re both made by Blizzard. While their tech trees are more like tech shrubs, each of StarCraft’s races come with an assortment of unique buildings and characters that range from tiny alien Zerg spawn to massive Terran spaceships. It doesn’t take long for players to get their hands on the flashiest units with all the bizarre abilities. Economy management remains the same but unit compositions and upgrades are as distinct as they get.
Age of Empires II alone has 35 civilizations. Let that sink in. It’s no surprise that they aren’t as distinct as StarCraft’s iconic three. Even decades of crunch can’t create a game like that while keeping competitive play in mind. Either way, each civilization doesn’t stray far from the common tech tree (it’s more like an ecosystem) but they still have notable advantages and disadvantages on a per-unit level that you’ll have to be aware of. Civilizations also come with a unique unit or two but they aren’t showstoppers unless you know how to use them.
On the other hand, StarCraft’s Terran nukes can end a game in an instant. Despite their latest entries being over a decade old, both Age of Empires and StarCraft titles have done an incredible job with respect to balancing civilizations out. Constant updates and user feedback grant these franchises an undying legacy and a promising future.
The Height of Your Abilities
The contrast when it comes to how abilities work in each game Age of Empires and StarCraft is pretty stark. The former barely lets you do anything besides unpacking and packing your trebuchets. As for troop stances, both games nail the basics but StarCraft’s pathfinding is definitely better. True, Age of Empires III tried making abilities a thing but it didn’t exactly strike a chord with its fanbase. Age of Mythology did have some success with them but its abilities weren’t game-changing. On the other hand, StarCraft doubles down on abilities. There’s a lot more than careful right-clicking going on. For instance, all three of StarCraft’s races come with their share of invisible units, making units that can detect them a necessity.
Most of StarCraft’s units possess abilities that let you drastically tilt the playing field. And don’t get me started on the Terran’s flying buildings. Right from the Terran marine’s stimpack ability that trades health for a damage boost to the Zergs’ burrowing ability that renders them invisible, there’s an absurd variety on offer. Each unit has its own synergies and counters with respect to other units. Some can combine to form even more powerful ones. In StarCraft’s impeccable campaigns, you get to play as iconic heroes who have abilities that can take out groups of foes in the blink of an eye. Going this route means that StarCraft’s battles toss players into a micromanagement frenzy that is no less than a dance of death. And if you’re wondering how a melee unit is supposed to take its anger out on floating airships, here’s an extra dose of sophistication.
While hitting targets from a height nets you a damage boost in Age of Empires, StarCraft’s flying units complicates things. There are flying units that can only fight flying foes, ones that can only target ground units, and some that do both. While this will already take a while for you to wrap your head around, imagine encounters where ground units point their rifles towards a floating airship. Or worse, units that can switch between flying and ground modes. That’s how StarCraft works, you just have to roll with it. It’s another intricate layer to the art of war that is already bursting at the seams with complexity. Thank goodness StarCraft doesn’t have naval units.
Stone, Papyrus, Blades
If you think of it, every strategy game boils down to exploiting chinks in the armor of your foes. StarCraft relies more on technique rather than the blade itself. Sneaky raids and clever stratagems depend on the abilities and health pools of your enemy’s troops and not on the nature of the units themselves. But Age of Empires turns this idea on its head by rewarding you for picking the right units for an encounter. Its rock-paper-scissors approach means that engagements are effectively numbers-within-numbers games.
You’d feel confident about a knight mowing down some swordsmen like they were straws because they do bonus damage against them. But if your foe’s got spearmen nearby, your high horse no longer works in your favor. This opens up an incredible number of possibilities, especially in competitive play. With units that can switch from one form to another, military engagements need you to factor in these strengths and weaknesses to attain victory. Even powerful unique units can be countered if you know what works best against them. Whittle down enemy squads with clever maneuvers and you’ll rid them of resources that could have been better spent elsewhere.
True, this wouldn’t make sense in StarCraft because of the sheer variety of units on offer but Age of Empires’ usage of familiar chess pieces means that these rules complement an already riveting game. And while I’m on the subject of units, transporting units is smarter in StarCraft. The size of the unit decides how many slots it occupies in a vehicle. After all, twenty archers aren’t supposed to occupy the same space in a transport ship as twenty elephants.
Campaign For More
Age of Empires’ desire to be a history teacher means that it can’t go planet-hopping as StarCraft does. But that doesn’t mean it’s wholly faithful to yesteryear’s tacticians and battlegrounds. I’d say Age of Empires strikes a fair balance between accuracy and fun but it’s no surprise that campaign missions aren’t a word-for-word rendition of real-life events. AoE’s narrative sequences have been done with due respect to stories that precede videogames. But while the levels had a decent amount of variety to them, the games’ age shows.
On the other end of the spectrum, StarCraft takes a sci-fi campaign that would fit in a regular action game and makes it work marvels in a real-time strategy environment. From “the floor is lava” missions to encounters in space, StarCraft goes all in. You’ve got memorable characters finding themselves in deadly situations and twists that end up making a difference across the game’s fictional worlds. Unit designs and features are as bizarre as you’d expect, with regular soldiers looking like ants in comparison to alien creatures that defy reason. And while Age of Empires’ randomness keeps levels fresh, StarCraft’s immaculate attention to detail blew me away. Its thoughtful level design took into account the units you must have unlocked by then. This made me feel like StarCraft respected my abilities and threw challenges at me accordingly.
You unlocked units as you progressed in the campaign, a decision that kept missions fresh. If you wanted to finish objectives or challenges (another StarCraft staple) you could always replay these missions with new units. The intricate upgrade system outside StarCraft’s missions felt like your army made noticeable strides alongside the narrative. Age of Empires III attempted this but I still think StarCraft did it better. StarCraft II even had missions where your choices altered the outcome of said mission. True, Age of Empires can’t rewrite history. But StarCraft’s flexibility and attention to detail made me rethink the heights that RTS campaigns can achieve.
StarCraft’s ambitions for esports play are reflected in its approach to multiplayer. Players resigning from a match usually ruin strategy games but StarCraft tackles this by giving you control of your inactive ally’s units. While seamless matchmaking makes playing online a breeze, StarCraft’s custom game scene is a far cry from the haven of modes in AoE. The former’s modes are limited in comparison to Age of Empires’ matches that are basically free-for-all catfights disguised as team battles. Players can switch sides at any moment, making encounters all the more memorable.
Maps are fairly straightforward in StarCraft, letting players re-enact the same strategy with similar results unless they face a competent foe. Minerals and vespene gas are always concentrated in specific locations, keeping matches quick and ruthless. It’s a bonus if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands. But Age of Empires’ randomness ensures that players are kept on their toes even if they’re really good at the game. It rewards people who take their time to discover and grab key positions before their enemies do.
AoE II also gives you dozens of options that let you tinker with each match’s rules based on your whims and fancies. And that’s before you take its repertoire of custom scenarios into consideration. Modes like regicide and wonder victories fundamentally change Age of Empires matches. But if I were a competitive player, it makes sense to fine-tune and perfect the vanilla modes the way StarCraft did. Age of Empires clearly intends its games to reach as many people as possible by picking accessibility over competitive elements. Rest assured that both games can be played competitively, with limitless strategies to explore and counter.
Don’t Make Me Choose
When it comes to LAN parties with friends, Age of Empires wins by quite a bit. Its randomness and open nature make for a world of possibilities. Fixed action patterns exist but they aren’t the status quo, especially against a strong foe. But if you’re into quick rounds and a competitive ladder to climb, StarCraft is your best bet in the real-time strategy genre. Its emphasis on actions per minute means that it really has no equal in the competitive RTS stage. The sci-fi franchise effectively distills the RTS formula while keeping most of its charm intact.
As for the single-player campaigns, nostalgia ensures that I hold Age of Empires’ levels in high regard despite StarCraft’s brilliant approach to its narrative. Heck, the latter even has co-op missions that you can tackle with a friend. In the end, both StarCraft and Age of Empires are franchises where millions of fans have found solace, franchises whose futures are bright.
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