Age of Empires is one of the older strategy game series. Before Supreme Commander, before Sins of a Solar Empire, before even StarCraft, there was Age of Empires.
As a fan of planning and scheming, the series has been a staple to my PC gaming diet for some time. You could not believe my excitement when I saw that there would be an HD remake of both Age of Empires II and the Age of Conquerors expansion for Steam. Middle ages, here I come.
Age of Empires II HD Edition
Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment, Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: April 9, 2013 (PC)
Those of you that haven’t played AoE II in a while will probably have some pretty fond memories of the aging strategy title. You’ll likely think of it as one of the greats; spectacularly innovative, well-balanced and displaying a level of detail that would make Renaissance painters blush. Then … you’ll start the game.
As great as it might be, the number of changes that have been made here are the absolute bare minimum. There are no HD textures, all of the original sound effects and voice clips have been kept, and none of the mechanics have changed. Everything is exactly as we all left it -- for better or worse.
Little in AoE II has aged as well as one might hope. Those used to more sophisticated strategy games might find this golden oldie a bit frustrating. There’s no auto-explore, no unit command queues, no building queues, selecting a group of units will often select stray workers, control groups are pretty limited both in terms of number of units you can select and number of control groups allowed, and worker AI leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Even so, there’s a kind of purity to the whole thing. Micromanagement and care are a lot more important than they have been in years and the lack of affordances and hand-holding gives a rougher but sometimes more precise experience. I found myself setting rally points much more effectively, and I would often dedicate five of my control groups to villagers or workers specifically to help cycle through economic management. For example, in my main lumber-gathering camps, I’d keep one worker in a control group so I could easily reposition the camp, and jump to that group of workers for quick action.
Additionally, I became much more careful with base construction patterns and the arrangement of my buildings and supply lines. Keeping everything organized with so little help from the computer is hard enough, and I figured working around my own foolish base design would make the whole thing intolerable.
This bare-bones approach encourages a much more aggressive, and obsessive style of play. There’s no room for complacency; you can't afford to stop moving or quit paying attention. Quite unlike StarCraft, which is often the same for the first three minutes or so of every match -- build worker after worker, secure more food, then crank out some military. At the very least, AoE will have you manually scouting and switching between various starting food sources while also securing housing, wood supplies, and getting everything set-up for the tech advancement. It’s different enough each time that it’s never the same game twice.
Each of the civilizations is also fairly balanced with a few small exceptions here and there. Generally speaking though, the game is a very appropriate gauge of an enormous number of tactical as well as bigger-strategy skills. The game moves fast enough with other competent players that you’ll need to be pretty aggressive to keep up, without being so inaccessible that newer or less well-practiced players will be doomed before they ever start.
Similarly, the campaign will take you through some of the more interesting, albeit distressing, moments in the middle ages. It’s all more or less historically accurate, though handled with a fair amount of tact, such that it never veers into unnecessarily offensive territory. If you can teach your children how to play effectively, it’s honestly not a bad tool to teach them a few things about major historical conflicts. I remember learning about the Aztecs and the city of Tenochtitlan from this thing. Enough that I can still spell that city-name properly with one try. Whoever said games weren’t effective teachers?
In all seriousness though, this game is fantastically well-made, even if it a little rough around the edges. Some of the bigger issues with trying to run the thing on modern computers (such as the color bug, and the mouse scroll bug) have been fixed. Plus AoE II now supports a huge range of monitor resolutions, which is nice, even if we’re still stuck with these old textures, but there is Steam Workshop support so things could change down the line by fans.
Yeah, it actually took me longer than I’d like to admit to notice and fully grasp the importance of that inclusion. It’s only been a few days since the game dropped and there are already a pretty decent set of HD texture packs, gameplay tweaks, and tons and tons of other goodies. In the same way that Skyrim took my initial investment of 75 hours and magically extended that to something in the neighborhood of 500, the Workshop for AoE II is an amazing bonus. And, combined with access to multiplayer via Steam, it's really the only addition the game needs.
All told, while a little frustrating if you’re not into tons of micro-management, Age of Empires II HD with the Workshop and updated multiplayer features is an excellent title. The brilliance of the game’s design is still there, you just might need to look past its age to see it.