Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Review
This blast from the past gets a revamp
Age of Empires II was the game of my childhood. Every Sunday me and my father would ritually play for hours on end - each time trying one of his new meticulously created scenarios. This game was also one of the main reasons that caused young me to get interested in history (an interest which would translate with me studying it at university). As you can imagine, I do have a considerable emotional attachment to this historical real-time strategy game. Yet I also recall playing the 2013 HD version and I remember thinking that the game had not aged too well. Graphically, it felt obsolete. The convoluted command scheme - e.g the way to chain movement order - and absence of a more insightful tutorial - one which teaches you actual strategies rather than the absolute basics - made the game frustrating to re-learn. With Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, developers Forgotten Empires, Tantalus Media, and Wicked Witch breathe new life in this classic game. Through a mixture of adding and re-working various game elements, including importantly its graphics, this version of AoE II feels up-to-date and more relevant than its 2013 re-release.
In order to achieve this more contemporary feel, the Definitive Edition sheds many of those more immediate aspects that would reveal the game's original launch date. While this includes the saddening loss of iconic introductory cutscene (one of the most creative I ever witnessed to this date), the game conceals its age very effectively through aesthetical changes. They removed, for example, the menu background made with ancient computer-generated graphics that constrained the 2013 version to its 1999 roots. Now all images found in-game consist of hi-def art, styled like oil paintings or charcoal drawings, that depicts medieval scenes or characters. Voice acting and sound effects have also seen a major upgrade, one which reflects a much greater production value. I’m quite sure that whoever voiced the William Wallace tutorial campaign in the original game was no true Scotsman (or at least has not heard many of them speak). This time however the campaign’s V.O. really took me to the green hills of Scotland. Generally, it can be said that the storytelling in DE has been much improved. The narrators’ accents are more marked, the higher quality of the underlying music better conveys the overarching mood, and sound effects are used to aid in narration (i.e. the clashing of swords when tales of battle are being recounted).
What is most impressive remains the graphical upgrade that comes with the DE. To compare it, I wanted to boot up the 1999 hard copy of the original game. Unfortunately, I recently disabled my optical drive and nobody at home has a PC with one. So in the end I used the 2013 edition on Steam as a reference frame. By just starting a game in both versions, one will notice immediately the difference between the two. Long gone is the blurriness that plagued the textures of the HD re-release. The DE - thanks as well to a further 16GB of Enhanced Graphics Pack (downloadable for free on release) - has very sharp looking trees, units, and structures. Such visual enhancements still have their limits however. Despite cranking up the resolution of the various sprites these still feel bound, stylistically and technologically, to the 1999 originals. Only so much can be done through remasters of a past title. Graphically, a brand new RTS created from scratch in 2019 with a more contemporary engine would generally be able to outdo this iteration of AoE.
The animations accompanying the 2019 release have also been significantly enhanced. In particular, the destruction of a building is now followed by its progressive collapse where you see individual bricks and planks being torn down by gravity. Compared to the 2013 version, where the destroyed building was instantly replaced with a bunch of rubble, this is a very well executed addition. It is some very powerful imagery that becomes even haunting when occurring to the various historical wonders belonging to the different playable civilizations. To better experience the improved graphics and animations, the developers have introduced the capacity to zoom in and out the game map. A nice extra, but of little practical value.
The great new look of this remastered AoE II does seem to come at the expense of performance. While playing on Ultra settings my FPS suffered. Except during the tutorial campaign, my frames fell to an average of 19-20 FPS. On High settings my desktop fared much better, averaging 45-55 FPS. Nonetheless, during longer games (where the build-up reached massive scales) or in certain campaign scenarios (where the map is filled to the brim with units and buildings) the game became similarly sluggish.
Among the greatest selling point of the DE is the quantity of content being offered (especially when measured against the asking price). On one side, you have the single and multi-player skirmishes. These enjoy a high degree of variation thanks to the 35 available civilizations (of which four have just been added with the DE), the eight playable game modes (Empire Wars being a new addition) and the capacity to create your own scenarios (even for online games). Through the different combination of these elements, each skirmish will feel generally varied and unique.
On the other side, the 2019 version comes with every single-player campaign that has been released throughout the long life of this game. Whereas I only played vanilla AoE II and a little bit of Conquerors, I now could enjoy campaigns from the brand-new Age of the Khan DLC (included exclusively with the DE) and those from past expansions. While it is unlikely that a player will go through one storyline multiple times, each of the 26 campaigns is made of several missions making each narrative worth several hours of playtime. And let’s not forget the 16 historical battles, single long-form missions which - depending on player skill - can last over an hour. The DE clearly has an enormous amount of themed gameplay to offer.
The campaigns in themselves are worthy of praise. These, centering around a particular historical figure or episode, brought me all around the world teaching me about different periods (some which were quite obscure to me). While the narrative can sometimes be accused of being a bit romanticized or vague, I left each mission wanting to research more about the topic. The efforts put into weaving history throughout the gameplay is also commendable. From giving each civilization its own diverse architectural style to having faction-specific units and technologies, the game does an amazing job in infusing historical flavour to their gameplay. While prior iterations of AoE II retained both elements as admirably, I think it is still worth complimenting how the 2019 remaster maintains these in their full glory (especially in the new Age of Khan expansion).
For those who never played AoE II, the game is a micro-intensive RTS with elements of city building. Though you can design very aesthetically pleasing settlements, the efficient use of limited map space takes absolute precedence. Very often you’ll find yourself compromising the symmetrical “city planning” of your base to build as many houses as you can (so to increase your total unit cap). Given that all building and recruitment requires resource expenditure, efficient harvesting remains the guiding directive of gameplay. Only by establishing an effective economy - one in which your resource gathering ‘villagers’ do not succumb en-masse during the first skirmishes with the enemy - can the player have a fighting chance.
Though there are different ways to achieve victory, depending on the scenario and mode, destroying the enemy’s buildings and units is fundamental. To do so, you’ll have to raise an army from a wide array of soldiers and war machines. These troops are all recruited individually, meaning that in long-lasting games your armies can be made up of more than 100 unique individuals/machines. Unfortunately - still with the 2019 release - only a max of 60 units can be selected at one time making it very hard to move armies bigger than that. Though armies of this size might be thought as being lackluster, the relative size of maps and players’ populations - plus the fact that there can be up to 8 players in a single skirmish - make the battles look massive and quite epic.
At its core, the gameplay has not changed radically in the 20 years that have gone by. What has been added with the DE is a series of ‘quality of life’ improvements that make the micro a bit more manageable, such as a smarter UI. At the top of the screen you’ll notice that each of the counters for the harvestable resources is now accompanied by a small number that indicates the quantity of civilians gathering each category. Similarly, the ‘idle villager’ button has been moved from the bottom right to the top of the screen (a position more often in the eye-line of the player) and will light up when there are civilians standing around. As with the resource counters, the button is paired with a counter telling you the exact number of inactive civvies. In the HD version, you had no such visual queue and had to ritually click the button to check for idlers until there were no left. This is a great change considering that civilians are the backbone of your economy and leaving them inactive for too long could really cripple your chances.
There is a long list of further positive changes. The introduction of a more conventional way to queue movement and build orders as well as the ability to have villagers automatically reseed farms (rather than having to wait for player input) are all welcome improvements. Yet these all feel geared toward the returning loyal player base of prior versions of the game, perhaps already aware of the changes coming with the DE. New players (or players who, like me, haven’t played in a long while) would have trouble recognizing or exploiting such new mechanics. This is in part due to the outdated “Learn to Play” campaign (a.k.a. The William Wallace campaign). This, available also in the 1999 version of the game, teaches you trivial basics without really mentioning the newly amended mechanics. Only through further outside research, reading up on the game’s factsheet and by playing the Art of War campaign did I become aware of the DE’s changes.
The introduction of the Art of War campaign is perhaps one of the best additions to the DE. These are five time-based challenges framed as if being lessons in strategy given by Sun Tzu himself. Each mission is preceded by a tutorial video which explains very concisely certain useful multiplayer strategies and a few of new DE mechanics. The player is then placed in a scenario in which he has to try to replicate this newfound knowledge. These missions were very illuminating and did improve my performance during online play.
Despite this preparation though, the multiplayer skirmishes I played consisted in perhaps some of the most challenging gameplay I faced. These are essentially cut throat ‘arms races’ centered around constructing higher tier military and research buildings as fast as possible. Throughout a match you’ll have to constantly defend your base from harassing opponents (and launch your own incursions against them) while also fine-tuning your economy by ensuring that new and existing villagers are always working. Online skirmishes typically resulted in very intensive and exhaustive 20-60 minute sessions. The game does still have considerable entry barriers - the ‘Art of War’ barely scratches the depth of multiplayer gameplay - and an even steeper learning curve. So, user beware, learning this game - especially for competitive play - will not be a piece of cake.
A few final words regarding AI. Though it is true that the CPU has seen a noticeable tune-up - playing more like a human being than a dumb bot - the AI commanding your units' behaviour is occasionally problematic. From pathing to targeting, your units sometimes act really stupidly. Take your trebuchets for example. If you want to move them a few paces away together with a small contingent of guards, the group will first try to form a marching column with the packed trebuchet at the back. This will often result with the trebuchet initially moving in the opposite direction (so to form ranks), ultimately wasting precious time to travel an extremely short distance. Similarly, when trying to attack a building upon a hill, I found that only part of my army managed to navigate the nearby road to get to the desired target. The rest started attacking the nearest enemy building. This can be troublesome if you need your entire army to prioritize a defensive building which is blasting your soldiers to smithereens. At least, this behaviour can be overwritten by clicking again on the intended target.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition really strengthens the two-decade old legacy of this quintessential RTS. The new graphics give it a more modern guise. Certain outdated secondary elements, product of its original 1999 release, have been left behind in favour of more contemporary mechanics (conveyed through the DE’s ‘quality of life’ improvements). The addition of the Age of Khans expansion as well keeps novel the enormous amount of previously offered content. Despite some troublesome performance issues or unit behaviours, this remake generally makes AoE II feel like a new game barely showing its old age.