Rediscovering Age of Empires II in 2020

For the last couple of weeks or more, the blog has been almost entirely dedicated to Star Trek: Picard. I didn’t plan it that way, but with Picard being the one series in the last few years that I’ve been most excited for, that was all I wanted to write about! However, this isn’t supposed to be only a Star Trek blog and I do like to write about other topics. Having said what I wanted to say about the series premiere, I’ve got a window of opportunity before the second episode is released on Friday to change lanes.

In the late 1990s, the original Age of Empires was the first real-time strategy game I played on PC. I later picked up its expansion – The Rise of Rome – and also jumped into a few other RTS titles that were popular in that era, including Command and Conquer, Red Alert, and of course the Star Trek Armada titles.

A couple of years later, Age of Empires II was released, and I picked that up as part of a pack that also included its expansion, The Conquerors. It quickly became one of my most-played games of the early 2000s, and I would play via LAN with friends as often as I could as well as taking on the AI. Those LAN games were great – though a pain in the backside to organise if memory serves! But I’m sure part of that is the rose tint of nostalgia as I look back on my teenage years and young adulthood.

Age of Empires II was re-released in 2013, along with a new expansion pack, titled the HD Edition. I did pick it up shortly thereafter when it was on sale, but for a number of reasons I never really got around to doing much with it. It simply sat, as many games do, in my Steam library. With the success of the HD Edition, Microsoft announced plans to fully remaster the original Age of Empires, and though it seemed to take forever, it was eventually released last year – and I had a lot of fun getting back into the game that started my interest in strategy games.

A scout explores the area early in the game. The black area is unexplored – covered by the “fog of war”.

It took a little longer for Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition to be released, but it finally came out towards the end of last year, and I picked it up around New Year, inspired by the enjoyment I’d garnered from the other title in the series.

I’ve mentioned before that my ability and desire to indulge in long gaming sessions has waned as my health has worsened and as I’ve got older. There are a number of titles since really the mid-late 2000s that I just haven’t got around to playing, despite their concepts sounding interesting. My most-played game of the last couple of years at least is Civilization VI, which I like because it’s turn-based. Success in such games has less to do with reflexes and speed and more to do with overall strategy, plus if I need to take a break I’m not going to return to the screen to find my empire overrun!

Because the Age of Empires series is real-time strategy, I wasn’t sure at first how well I’d be able to handle it. I didn’t want to waste my money – even though the games are only £15 each – on something that I would struggle to play and not really enjoy, but after I got on alright with the first game I was happy to try the second as well. I will have dabbled in Age of Empires II since the mid-2000s; I mentioned the HD Edition and I’m sure I will have played a handful of matches before setting it to one side. But this month, January 2020, has been my first real dive back in. Since picking up the game at the beginning of the month I’ve sunk close to 20 hours into it. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot to some people, but that’s getting close to one full day just in one month!

Remasters of games can be jarring, I think, especially when the look is dramatically overhauled. I never played the original Resident Evil 2 (I didn’t have a PlayStation back in those days) but I gather that its 2019 remaster essentially makes it a wholly new experience. I’m not sure how I’d feel about that, really, if I were a fan. But for Age of Empires II, the look and feel of the game has been retained. The graphics are massively updated, of course, but the game feels exactly the same as it did when I was a regular player back in the early 2000s.

Because it had been such a long time since I’d played, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. Once I’d downloaded the game, I had the annoying experience – all too common in the present day – of having to download a multi-gigabyte patch to be able to play in the highest resolution. That was frustrating, but when it was finally all set up I ran through the loading cinematic and got to the main menu. And it was very similar to how I remembered it – with a few additions for the modern day, like being able to watch live streams.

The early stages of a random map game – the castle is there to keep the player’s king safe.

It’s possible that I played the campaign missions – linear stories with specific objectives – some time when I was first into Age of Empires II. But I much preferred the “random map” games – where you start with a handful of villagers and have to gather resources, build up your empire, and take out other players. Each of the civilisations in the game plays slightly differently – some may favour naval strategies, others may be more about siege warfare, etc. – and the expansion packs have added several new ones since the last time I played, which was nice.

There’s a game mode called “regicide”, where each civilisation gets a king. It’s still a random map game, but the king – as in chess – is the key unit, and if he dies that player is eliminated. This is my preferred game mode, because having the whole game hinge on a single unit adds something to it – and makes it far less frustrating when defeating an opponent only for them to have hidden one random unit or building far away from their base!

That was my favourite game mode when I first played, too, so naturally I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. And it was great fun, establishing my little town, building up defences, and slowly making sure I had enough troops and siege weapons to begin my attack! It took a few games before I truly got back into the swing of it, but by now it feels like I never stopped playing – despite what must be a fifteen-year hiatus by now!

It’s always nice to rediscover something. I felt the same way when I replayed Shenmue I & II when that was released in 2018, because nostalgia can be a powerful thing. That’s why shows like Star Trek: Picard exist, at the end of the day – to play on people’s nostalgia because there’s money to be made. And there’s nothing wrong with a film, series, or game using nostalgia as a key selling point – so long as it’s done right. And Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition absolutely does it right.

I’ve been having great fun re-learning how to play; everything from the best locations for buildings and farms to the best way to structure an attacking army has all been enjoyable. The expression “just like riding a bike” means that you never really forget a skill, and after finding my feet again in the first few games I played, I found myself playing the way I did when I had the original game – the same town layout, the same organisation, the same battle tactics. It really felt like picking up the same game – even though it has been massively improved.

Graphics are of course a huge part of that. Where there were once simple 2D sprites, Definitive Edition has each individual unit fully rendered in 3D. Buildings collapse into a pile of rubble in real-time instead of just disintegrating, and the game manages the really impressive feat of simultaneously retaining its original art style while massively updating it.

Trebuchets firing on a castle.

But some of the biggest improvements are in AI. Units are less likely to get lost or end up stuck in a part of the map you never intended to send them to. Villagers are much better at being efficient in their resource gathering. It’s possible to leave farms permanently set to be rebuilt when they expire – gosh it was annoying to have to always go back and manually queue that up every few minutes in the older version! And AI players now play fair – no more cheating and granting themselves extra units or extra resources. They play to win, too, and with much better tactical awareness than in the past. Even for someone who plays on easy mode, that’s still noticeable and AI opponents can still be challenging.

Overall I’ve had a lot of fun rediscovering this classic real-time strategy game. It’s been a fun way to spend some time, and I’m sure I’ll play more in the coming weeks – if for no other reason than to try to collect more Steam achievements!

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is available now on Steam and the Microsoft Store on PC. Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is the copyright of Forgotten Empires and Xbox Game Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.