Let’s be clear on this one: Age of Empires was – and is – one of the best strategy games ever made. Ensemble Studios (Rest in peace) has achieved one of Bill Gates’ original goals with the 1999 release of this now beloved title. That lofty goal?
That people can learn about history through entertainment.
And indeed, all these years later, everyone who has played Age of Empires II knows of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) as well as other historical figures. I’d imagine this percentage will probably be a lot lower for people who haven’t played the game.
Age of Empires II Definitive Edition is a remaster of the 1999 classic which came out for Windows 95, Windows 98 and Macintosh, to name a few platforms of old. It is one of Microsoft’s most acclaimed games to date, and is one of the top 10 highest scoring games on Metacritic published by Microsoft, only behind Halo, Gears of War and Forza.
What’s unique about Age of Empires is that it’s a real time strategy game. And let’s face it, RTS as a genre hasn’t really evolved all that much since the early 2000’s. So what you might be wondering is – has this tried and true classic withstood the passage of time?
What is old may never be new
From the get go you’ll notice this is an old game with a fresh coat of paint. The menu’s are sufficient, but not as polished and modern as we see today. The graphical overhaul is beautiful, and is where Microsoft and Forgotten Empires (the main studio behind this remaster), have especially hit the nail on the head. There is an overwhelming wave of nostalgia that will wash over old fans. From the moment you start a fresh new campaign, a new multiplayer game or a historic battle – it feels like you’re back in 1999. Sure, the old square monitor is gone and your game is suddenly widescreen – but everything is recognizable and feels like Age of Empires used to – It feels like coming home.
It’s also clear that this is a fresh coat of paint with some minor tweaks, and not much else. The 2D sprites are still 2D sprites, and this can be a little annoying when multitasking. You’ll lose sight of units because they’ll be behind trees or buildings and to a degree, it certainly limits the immersion somewhat.
The in-game user interface is bulky and – somewhat fittingly – historical. The fonts feel like you’re back in the 20th century. Where the games visuals shine in 4K, the UI sadly just can’t keep it. Where it doesn’t lag behind is in options. The user interface is fully scalable and Forgotten Empires has added plenty of options to bring this game up to speed with modern times. There are toggles that show the amount of resources in gold or stone mines and in trees, there are queue icons in the top left of the screen which show your current production and there is the essential idle worker icon in bright yellow.
The developers have also made some upgrades to the AI, and it’s a welcome addition. While not on par with the AI of newer strategy games, it’s an assured step up from the original release. Setting the AI to “extreme” setting can make them a true pain in the ass to counter and takes quite some skill to defeat.
With the Game Pass PC version of the game I did fall victim to a few crashes here and there. Fortunately, this never happened ‘in-game’; so I never lost any progress. The crashes I did experience occurred during a loading screen or when launching the game.
In order to reap the benefits of the 4K/120 FPS options now available, you’ll need a fairly decent rig. PC Players with more modest machines can lower the quality by deselecting the 4K texture pack, or by locking the game to 60 FPS will find it improves the performance somewhat. But on this front the developers still have some work to do.
A must for history fans
Alright. There is a lot to unpack here. Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition has a lot of content. Like, LOADS.
This game is a living history lesson. I’m fairly sure you’ll learn more about medieval history from Age of Empires than you’ll have ever learned at high school. There are plenty of campaigns with all kinds of perspectives. Such as the aforementioned Joan D’Arc campaign, the story of William Wallace of Scotland and the newly added campaign The Last Khans – a beautiful new campaign that tells the story of Kotyan Khan, who has to defend his people from the Mongol horde. Other added campaigns are the Bulgarians, the Tatar and the Inca. The new voice work that accompanies these are more fitting and very well done. It adds an extra level of polish to the already special campaigns.
And while every campaign is worth replaying from start to finish, Forgotten Empires has also adjusted a couple of them, either for gameplay or historical reasons. These include the Goth, Byzantine, Indian and Italian campaigns.
If you’ve never played Age Of Empires before, when summing up all these campaign names you’ll start to notice this isn’t a small game. There is a lot of content to play. Finishing the main campaigns will easily take 25 hours, but will probably take you more than 30. Finishing everything in full will probably take more than 100 hours, if not more. That’s a lot of history lessons packed into one game.
The campaigns are somewhat varied, with some isometric storytelling adventure game campaigns, some castle defense missions and the classic real time strategy missions, but it is this area where Age Of Empires starts to show it’s ‘age’ (no pun intended) RTS as a genre has evolved over the years, and newer RTS games have shown there are new ways to do real time strategy missions. Games like WarCraft III and StarCraft II have more diversified missions structures, with more RPG, tower defense and MOBA elements mixed in. Perhaps by the time Age of Empire IV rolls around, this will be something that developers Relic have embraced.
If you’ve got any interest in history, this game is a must play. The wonderful voice overs, the historical settings and characters and the stories that are being told in the campaigns are beautifully crafted.
Playing alone isn’t as thrilling as playing with others
Here is a divisive opinion: real time strategy games are best when played in multiplayer.
The campaigns of Age of Empires II are memorable, but my best memories of this game are from the multiplayer experience. I remember attending dozens of LAN’s where Age of Empires II was one of the main attractions. Playing in multiplayer gives extra thrills and forces you to master your craft. Build orders, economic dominance and microing your units suddenly become game changers.
The multiplayer experience of the original Age of Empires, while iconic, has always been a little difficult. The matchmaking was okay at best and the lobbies weren’t as newcomer friendly as I had wished. Meanwhile with the HD version of the game popularity on Steam has risen to an all time high. The peer to peer systems have been replaced by dedicated servers, and this is why I’m very happy with the crossplay between the Xbox Game Pass and Steam versions of the game. I’ve played a couple of matches with someone on Steam and it feels liberating to be able to play on different platforms. There were some issues with finding the lobby, but once resolved the experience was flawless.
Playing versus AI with your friends, or having stressful and sometimes frustrating 1v1 matches with them is a joyful experience. It brings back a lot of memories.
I’d recommend watching professional Age of Empires players on Twitch after playing a couple of matches via the matchmaking system. It’s eye-opening to see the difference in skill. Real time strategy games really show that they’re hard to master.
The definitive edition of Age of Empires II has been made with a lot of love and care for the original – the nostalgia it creates in itself is almost a form of time travel. The passion Forgotten Empires and Microsoft have for this title really shines through. Though there are some performance issues, which hampers the experience a little bit, overall this is a remaster done the right way and fills me with hope for the eventual release of Age of Empires IV.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is available on Steam and Xbox Game Pass for PC.