Lead the kingdoms of the medieval world into ever bloodier conflicts.
PC Release: April 9, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Strategy games. They’re either the greatest gift gaming has ever garnered, or a quagmire of misery, depending on who’s asked. The 90s seemed to favor gamers of the former stripe, as the industry was inundated with an unprecedented boom of strategy games. Command & Conquer, StarCraft and Age of Empires were but a few of the real-time strategy games released during that time. The real-time strategy boom subsided in the 2000s as the market became swamped with first-person shooters, but now, it seems, gamers are in the mood for something a little more complicated again. The HD re-release of Age of Empires II is evidence of this trend.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was originally released in 1999 by Ensemble, a now-defunct Microsoft subsidiary that would go on to develop such games as Halo Wars and, shocker, Age of Empires III. AoE II, as it’s commonly abbreviated, is a strategy game set during the Middle Ages, and tasks players with choosing and building up one of 13 civilizations. Players can pick from such medieval mainstays as the Britons, the Visigoths, the Vikings, and other iconic powers from the Middle Ages. An expansion pack called Age of Empires II: The Conquerers adds five more civilizations and a wealth of new units and maps.
Players can fight each other in multiplayer mode, or pick from over a dozen single-player campaigns that follow the stories of medieval warriors and kings. Either way, the game is played from an isometric perspective, and players must train units, build towns and create an army. The first person to destroy their opponent wins the match.
Age of Empires II is one of the most beloved video games in the real-time strategy world. Arguably, it competes with StarCraft and Command & Conquer for the title of most popular RTS game of all time. Age of Empires II‘s longevity was demonstrated in the spring of 2013, when an HD edition of the game was released onto Steam with overwhelming fanfare. Three years on, the game has garnered a massive community of new and returning fans, and its Steam Workshop integration means lots of user-created content is available.
Right off the bat, though, the name Age of Empires II HD is a bit of a misnomer. The game has been upgraded to work on modern systems, but that’s about all that’s “HD” about this game. The 90s-era graphics are still front-and-center, and they haven’t aged all that well. A few effects were added to the water to make it look more realistic, but just because one thing about the game is HD doesn’t mean that the entire game is HD.
Though the visuals might be a turn-off for new gamers, they’re the stuff of nostalgia for returning fans. Age of Empires II looks dated, but its environments are still surprisingly engrossing. Most maps have a lot of territorial variety, and the game’s use of strong colors prevents it from looking faded. The building models also have a lot of detail on them, especially for a 90s game. The leaves on that stable in the screenshot are a nice touch.
But, the overwhelming majority of strategy gamers don’t come to Age of Empires II for the graphics. They come for the strategy, and this game packs plenty of that. In a conventional Age of Empires II match, players start off with a building called the town center. This structure serves as each civilization’s center of commerce and governance, and also allows for the production of villagers. Villagers can be sent out into the wilderness to gather food, wood, gold, and stone, and combinations of all four resources are used to construct buildings, research technologies and of course, train soldiers.
Now, things start off pretty small, with a handful of villagers and a pile of sticks that is only a town center in the most generous use of the term. Most games start off in the Dark Ages, the post-Roman period when the ability to read was rarer than gold dust, and pebbles were the main form of currency. Players can pay gold and food to advance through subsequent “Ages” of history, gaining access to better technologies and more powerful units as they go. Each civilization boasts an array of buildings to make everything better; build houses to grow the population, build a blacksmith to research better weapons and armor, and build a barracks to train troops.
Once a civilization has advanced and an army has been built, it’s time to go on the offensive. Players can build armies composed of a mix of units, ranching from swordsmen to spearmen to archers, as well as cavalry, siege engines, and ships for naval warfare. All of these must be used to crush the enemy forces and destroy their town center. Each unit is strong against one other type of unit and weak against another. Cavalry, for example, are great against foot soldiers but tend to fair poorly against artillery. To succeed in Age of Empires II, players have to build an army that can anticipate all of the enemy unit types and still lay siege to the opponent’s town.
The bulk of all of this gameplay happens in multiplayer, where single players or teams of combatants try to outwit and out-stab their opponents. The meat of the game’s content is a single-player series of campaigns, starring such medieval legends as William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Frederick Barbarossa and Genghis Khan himself. Each campaign packs about 8-10 missions of tight combat against vicious computer opponents.
It is the viciousness of Age of Empires II HD‘s artificial intelligence that constitutes a major problem. Age of Empires II is a tough game. Very tough. Like StarCraft and other games of that era, it does not hold hands, and it does not hold back on new players. To be fair, the game does include a tutorial campaign that introduces the basic mechanics of the game, but the artificial intelligence does not acclimate alongside the player. Once the tutorial is over, players are flung into a new campaign and the very first mission comprises defending a city from not one, not two, but three computer opponents, all of whom have already built up their bases and are sending units to attack the city the instant the match starts.
It’s artificial intelligence this ruthless that calls into question Age of Empires II‘s tutorial. Teaching players how to find sheep and build walls is one thing, but the tutorial does nothing to truly prepare players for the onslaughts to be expected in single-player and multiplayer modes. It’s not fair to expect the game to hold hands, and veteran strategy gamers will appreciate this, but Age of Empires II‘s uncompromising difficulty serves as a deterrent to newcomers. It’s no coincidence that “cheats” is the most popular web search term associated with Age of Empires II.
Additionally, the single-player narratives in Age of Empires II are quite dry. Ensemble Studios is to be commended for closely following the historical events of the campaigns in its game, but each story reads less like a medieval epic and more like a dry history textbook. Each mission is preceded and capped off with cutscenes depicting the struggles of our heroes, and though they’re interesting, they’re not that exciting. There is no character development or interaction on or off of the battlefield, so gamers who pick this game up purely for the narrative are destined for disappointment.
With all of this in mind, it becomes clear that Age of Empires II is really only for inveterate strategy players, gamers who have fought and bled and won on dozens of digital battlefields before even arriving to this destination. Admittedly, Age of Empires II has some outstanding strategy gameplay, with resource gathering, unit production and research all neatly lined up for use. The AI of the game’s units is sophisticated for its age, and players can order their units to attack, defend, patrol between two points, and perform other functions. Of course, economies win games, so don’t ever slow villager productivity just because it looks like the enemy is on the run. Every unit, from the lowliest foot soldier to the mightiest elephant rider, will have a part to play in the battles ahead.
The gameplay feature of Age of Empires II that is less than outstanding is the diversity of its civilizations. Age of Empires II HD contains sixteen civilizations from all over the world. Each one gets a unique unit and a unique technology, but that’s where the disparities stop. The only difference between playing as the English and the French is that the former gets a longbow archer, and the latter gets an ax thrower. Other than that, they have the same roster of rank-and-file units and their buildings all look the same. Six civilizations from the same region of the world will all have the same-looking buildings and castles. So, logistically, Age of Empires II really only has 4-5 civilizations, with each sub-civ differed only by its unique unit. Some civilizations, like the Koreans, get two unique units… for some reason. This gives them a natural advantage over other civilizations and makes for some serious unbalancing.
Despite these problems, the enthusiasm of Age of Empires II‘s community is staggering. It’s culminated in the production of two pieces of DLC; two pieces of DLC for a game that’s almost twenty years old. The first DLC, titled The Forgotten, was made by a team of modders who felt that the original game had, well, forgotten, some prominent civilizations. The Forgotten features campaigns starring some lesser-known historical figures, but these missions are even dryer than those of the original game. There is no voice acting, leaving the game eerily silent, and the pre-mission and post-mission briefings are literal novels. The Forgotten does add some neat civilizations not in the original game, like the Italians, but is otherwise quite forgettable.
The second DLC, Age of Empires II: The African Kingdoms, was released in November of 2015 and is much more orthodox to the Age of Empires formula. This DLC introduces one new European and three new African civilizations, and campaigns that are fully voice-acted and generally a lot more interesting to follow. Not sure why the Portuguese were included as a civilization in a DLC about Africa, but that’s about all that’s to be found wrong or weird about this DLC. The African Kingdoms is so similar to the original game, it might as well have been there all along.
Age of Empires II HD is a well-made strategy game. It wouldn’t have made such a bombastic comeback otherwise. But the game doesn’t do nearly enough to introduce new players to its community. Even on easy mode, it’s a game that is nearly exclusively the domain of people who have played many, many strategy games before, and that’s a shame. Because despite the dryness of its single-player campaigns and the aged look of its units and environments, Age of Empires II HD is a decent game. It just does nothing to extend an olive branch to new players, and how can its community expect to grow under that condition?
The recommendation of Age of Empires II is therefore conditional upon any previous experience with strategy games. Gamers who are unfamiliar with the genre will want to start on something easier, and that’s okay, because real-time strategy games are the most difficult video games out there. Despite the duplicitous easiness of its tutorial, Age of Empires II is really only accessible to gamers with lots of RTS games under their belts. Its high difficulty may tempt the adventurous, but be cautious. Frustration is as ravaging and relentless an enemy as the Vikings, or the Huns, or some ungodly chimera of the two.
You can buy Age of Empires II HD here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.