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July 2022

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Tantalus (EU), Forgotten Empires (US)
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2019

About Jared Hall

Jared started playing computer games in the '80s on a Commodore 64, moving over to PC gaming in the era of Wolf3D and Doom. Favorites include Dark Souls, Mass Effect and Civilization.


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PC Review - 'Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition'

by Jared Hall on March 5, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the popular strategy game with stunning 4K Ultra HD graphics, a new and fully remastered soundtrack, and brand-new content.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is a remastering of the original Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, which was developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft in 1999. Since 2019 was the 20th anniversary of the game, the definitive edition is credited as being developed by three studios, Forgotten Empires, Tantalus Media, and Wicked Witch for Xbox Game Studios.

This seems to be an era of remasters. I feel like Beam Dog's remaster of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition kicked off a movement in the early 2010s, and that was followed by a string of remakes of greats like Dark Souls, Duke Nukem 3D and Starcraft. An HD version of Age of Empires II was also released in the early 2010s, but I can't comment on that one because I've never tried it.

I did, however, play the original Age of Empires II a good amount, and I had a blast with DE. The original likely won't even launch on modern systems, so DE has some value straight out of the gate, but from there, it gets even better. The DE includes all of the campaigns from the original and its expansions, as well as three extra "Last Khans" campaigns with four new civilizations. There's also a score of historical battles, which are single-map missions attempting to re-create — you guessed it — historical battles like the Battle of Hastings. Of course, you can start up random skirmishes against the AI with a plethora of options to customize the experience.

A handful of challenge missions teach you some of the essentials in multiplayer RTS, including getting a powerful economy, fast teching, rushing your opponent, and defending against rushes. It's probably a good place to start for anyone looking to move into the online arena, and that's where the real challenge and replayability lies. You have the option to create custom lobbies for other players to join in the old-school way, or you can queue up in the match maker for 1v1, free-for-alls, or team games. They even saw fit to include a rating system and ladder (I'm looking at you, WC3: Reforged). My favorite addition for the online component is the ability to drop in and spectate any multiplayer game. Perhaps in the age of online streaming, this feature isn't necessary, but as a guy who spent a lot of time downloading replays in these older games, it seemed long overdue. Watching a few online skirmishes is a great way to get a feel for what to expect in your matches.

The options screen is loaded with choices for in-game graphics as well as customizing the way your game plays and controls. There seem to be way more options than I remember from the original game, including one of my favorites: always show health bars. There is the obligatory array of graphic detail options that may be required for this game, as you need to pass a benchmark test before it will let you into multiplayer. It's an interesting method of keeping people with ancient rigs from lagging out your multiplayer games.

Now that we've got the (rather long) list of features out of the way, what about the actual game? I'm amazed at how well AoE2 has aged. Some of the older RTS games can be extremely challenging based on the UI alone. In the original RTS, Dune 2, you could only select one unit at a time. Even if you remaster that game, that's a pretty significant hurdle to overcome without overhauling some core mechanics. Warcraft 1 had a cap of four units, Warcraft 2 was nine, and StarCraft, which was released shortly before Age of Empires, had a cap of 12. In a game where you could potentially have 400 Zerglings, it's onerous to only be able to select 12 at a time. Even Warcraft 3, released years later, was capped at 12. In AoE2: DE, I was able to select 70+ units at a time, which was plenty for any practical scenario and significantly reduced the frustration in playing the game. The unit pathing is still basically on par with those older games, but it compensates nicely by making the individual units very small, thereby reducing the amount they bump into and block each other.

The general skirmish format dumps you onto a map, which can be random or feature randomly placed resources in the dark ages. You start with your town hall and a handful of peasants, and you must build up your economy and your military through the four ages: Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age and Imperial Age. The economy features four primary resources, making it more complicated than some of its competitors — two in theWarcraft/Starcraft universes and one currency in the Command and Conquer line. Food is the backbone of your economy and needs to be maximized in the early game. Lumber comes into play once you run out of natural food sources and need to start producing farms. Once you hit the feudal age, it's time to ramp up the gold income for the higher tech units and upgrades, as well as needing a good stockpile to upgrade to the final two ages. Stone is primarily used for defensive structures, but it's also required for your castle, the ultimate in defense and also the production center of a unique unit for your civilization.

It's an economic balancing act in the early game, and it takes significantly longer for an AoE2 game to develop than other RTS titles, since Age of Empires 2 is a much slower-paced RTS. The early game isn't entirely inwardly focused, though. One of the more common strategies seems to be producing a handful of quick scout cavalry to harass your opponent's peasants. While your town hall can garrison your peasants and turn them into wicked archers, most of the game's resources are located too far away to be defended. This can leave your wood cutters and gold miners extremely vulnerable to such a rush tactic. There are some options to prevent this kind of play: maps with initial walls around your city or forced alliances for a few minutes.

The campaign missions generally don't force you through all of the early stages of the economy. You will often begin with pre-built towns, and they keep the missions fresh with a variety of objectives and events that attempt to re-create historical events. Each mission begins and ends with a series of story boards and narration to provide context and teach some history. I didn't know Fredrick Barbarossa drowned! You will also often have allies joining you on the campaign missions, and more than once, they betray you. A difficulty option is adjustable for each mission; the standard difficulty is generally forgiving, allowing you to comfortably tech up to your best unit, make a whole bunch of them, and attack all over the map to win in a lot of missions.

Some missions feature a lot of fortifications. Fitting with the game's slower pace, walls and other fortifications are extremely durable. If there's a significant number of opposing ranged units behind a wall and you try to move in with a bunch of infantry, it will usually go very wrong. Once that happens, the siege engines (e.g., trebuchet) come out, and the game turns into an even slower game of chess. Playing as the Teutons in the Holy Roman campaign, I spent a lot of time tactically moving my trebuchet while trying to defend them from being flanked and wrecked by cavalry. The fact that the Teutons' unique unit, the Teutonic Knight (deceivingly not mounted, despite the knight moniker), is a slow-moving heavy infantry unit didn't help tremendously against the quick assaults of the opposing cavalry.

To top off all of the action, strategy and tactics, AoE2 looks fantastic. The fact that it's actually a 2D game is entirely irrelevant, as the maps, structures and units all look pristine. It almost makes you wonder if 3D polygon graphics are required in the RTS genre. Sure, you can't rotate the camera in a game comprised of bitmaps, but does that matter? Have you ever seen a StarCraft 2 player rotate the camera while playing?

The sound and music are adequate but nothing to write home about. It included some interesting options about which song to play, which is something I would've liked to see in the Civilization series. You could get it to play themed music to match your civilization, have it start with your civilization's music, or go random. I appreciated this attention to detail; it can be annoying when you're always playing the same race and hearing the same music over and over. The game boasts that it has remastered the entire soundtrack, so if you were fond of the original music, the nostalgia alone may make it enjoyable. 

At the end of the day, I'm not sure what else you could expect from a remaster of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. It was a great game in 1999, and it's aged better than most in its class. If you're looking for some solid RTS gameplay, single-player or multiplayer, look no further than Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.

Score: 8.5/10

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