Age of Empires is a classic franchise in the RTS and empire building genre. Age of Empires II is widely considered to be the best game of the bunch, so fans were understandably delighted when a remaster was announced. How does it hold up today?
Reintroducing Age of Empires II
Building upon the smash hit that Age of Empires became, the sequel expanded to cover more civilizations (up to 18 with the included expansions in the HD rerelease), gave players a more detailed and wide-reaching campaign and added more focus to multiplayer.
For each mission or skirmish, the goal is to create a functioning, militarily capable settlement. The key resources – wood, iron, food, stone and gold need to be gathered and stored, used for building and equipping units. Defensive perimeters have to be set and enemy settlements vanquished. Technology can be advanced, and army composition requires a mixture of melee, ranged, horseback and mechanical units.
The AI can be a bit dumb at times – something that the developers saw fit to leave alone for the remaster – often getting stuck in terrain or taking frustratingly abstract routes to destinations, which can often cause units to wonder gormlessly into danger.
One of the best elements that Age of Empires introduced to RTS was the idea of promoting buildings and structures through clearly defined epochs, from the rather shabby wooden and hay buildings that you start with, to the refined and classic architecture of the more advanced eras that resemble Ancient Greek stone construction.
The fighting can be a bit disorganised, especially when small skirmishes turn into massive battles – melee units devolve into a crowded mass of shouting and rambling conflict, making it hard to retain control of the action. Attacking defensive structures that fight back is also a little frustrating, as keeping vulnerable units out of the way is nearly impossible.
Release Date: 30th September 1999
Available on: Windows, PC, PC Download
Play the Game
Destroying enemy villages is a little weird. Firstly, buildings don’t explode or crumble, they just sort of disappear. Attacking a farm is a hilarious exercise in stabbing and slashing at ploughed earth – these are all things that really should have been reworked with the remaster, but Hidden Path saw fit to leave alone.
Unfortunately, that’s a tone that can be applied to the remaster of Age of Empires II HD as a whole – they’ve added support for modern resolutions and that’s about it. None of the in game assets or artwork have been updated, so despite the increased resolution, the game barely looks any different from the original.
The animations are as blocky as stiff as ever, and as a result large-scale combat doesn’t exactly look pretty, which is a shame because with just a little work, things could have been so very different.
Stuck in the Past
This was a great opportunity to add some fine unit control, unit skills or revamp the rather dated and clunky interface – none of which has happened. For that reason, gamers who’ve enjoyed their time with StarCraft II, Act of Aggression or Grey Goo will quickly find themselves missing what are by now standard controls and features.
Perhaps even more infuriating is that some of the bugs that cropped up in the original release are still present. I experienced substantial slowdowns on a high-end machine during large scale combat. The game crashed a couple of times at random intervals. Luckily, Hidden Path Entertainment haven’t shied away from supporting the game, and most of these issues should now be resolved.
All is not Lost
Fortunately, the developers were smart enough to include support for Steam’s Workshop and multiplayer capabilities in the remaster release, and that may just have saved it. It allowed the community and veteran players to really get into the game and fix some issues that the game had. It kept the multiplayer scene vibrant and there’s been enough support to warrant continued support from the developers as well as an expansion, which should be out in the coming months.
Speaking of multiplayer – even though the game still has some bugs to iron out, the community is fantastically warm and welcoming. If you’re looking for an RTS to get you into multiplayer, this might be your best bet, as people are extremely willing to offer help, advice and suggestions.
Sadly, Age of Empires II HD is another example of the latest dubious trend within the games industry – a minimum effort and lacklustre “remaster” of a classic title that takes little notice of the advances made since the original was launched. Avoid it for now, but keep an eye on the modding scene to see if the community can do a better job than the developers.
Play the Game
Age of Empires 2 is developed by Hidden Path Entertainment.