Ensemble Studios took strategy gaming to the masses
Over two years have passed since the shutting down of Ensemble Studios, one of the industry's most accomplished developers of real-time strategy games. Not only was Ensemble responsible for a trilogy of highly successful Age of Empires titles, various expansion packs and Age of Mythology, they also gave us Halo Wars, a console RTS that utilised intuitive controls to create a strategy gaming experience on the Xbox 360 — something that could previously only be enjoyed by PC gamers. However, the true accomplishment of Ensemble doesn't lie in merely developing games. It lies in the fact that they are able to do it so that everyone can enjoy them — be it hardcore or casual players.
The game that started it all was 1997's Age of Empires. While not critically acclaimed at the time of launch, AoE spawned the beginning of an era — an era where strategy games would be enjoyed by everyone. From a gameplay standpoint, AoE would create a formula that would since be followed in every game developed by Ensemble Studios with the word ‘Age' in the title. Its various distinct, playable civilisations and detailed unit animation proved to be the most attractive features to reviewers (who described the game as a combination of Warcraft II and Civilization II), but it was its accessibility (despite a fair degree of complexity in gameplay) that won over legions of casual players who had never played a videogame before. In fact, even today, if a casual player wanted you to instal a game on their laptop, the first game they would ask for would be ‘Age of Empires'. The game's first expansion pack ‘Rise of Rome' would be a critical hit, adding several new features, Roman architecture and four new playable civilisations — it was almost as if it was a whole new game. Two years later, a sequel would arrive.
Age of Empires II: Age of Kings would come out in 1999 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Improvements were made on every front with loads of new features being added. The title was ground-breaking in terms of features and innovative additions such as alerts for idle units (villagers, mostly), customisable hotkeys, player profiles and sprawling historical cities with recognisable architecture. Five short-to-medium length campaigns based on historical battles (and covering 1000 years of history) featuring ‘hero' units such as Joan of Arc and Saladin were a huge draw, while the game's balanced multiplayer added infinite hours of gameplay. AoE II's expansion pack titled ‘Conquerors' would release the following year sporting huge improvements to unit AI, two new playable civilisations, maps and four additional single player campaigns — it would seem that there was no end to the amount of content Ensemble would be plugging into the franchise. But they would have other plans.
Ensemble would take a break from Empire building and focus on creating a new IP — one that featured gods and mythical beings. Age of Mythology would go on to become (like Ensemble's previous efforts) hugely successful, both critically and commercially. For the first time, the developers would opt to use a 3D engine that would allow camera panning and zooming — a feature that was highly praised. Once again, an expansion pack (‘Titans') would come out a year after the original adding maps, an original campaign and several new features. Age of Empires III and its two expansions ‘The Warchiefs' and ‘The Asian Dynasties' (developed in association with Rise of Nations developers Big Huge Games), would see the return to the 2D engine while featuring 3D elements. The game would be hugely praised for its gorgeous graphics (it looks great even by today's standards). However, in 2008, it would be announced that Halo Wars would be Ensemble's last game and that the studio would be closed following its release. It was to be an end of an era — an era where millions would play conqueror on their personal computers.