An excellent updated re-release of the classic historical real-time-strategy game.
This re-release of the beloved 1999 classic is the epitome of what I look for from Steam.
Age of Empires II is the title which codified much of what top-down strategy became as it stepped into the early Twenty-First Century. Improving on the already masterful seminal instalment in the series with the introduction of a slew of anti-frustration feature gameplay mechanics, re-designed user interface, and an extensive repository of background historical information to show that the developers really did their homework; “AoE2” worked hard to earn its critically-lauded place among not just PC-playing armchair commanders, but in the annals of mainstream gaming history.
Age of Empires (both as a series, and in this game specifically) are overhead-camera real-time-strategy games. AoE2 does this with two-dimensional sprites fully simulated as three-dimensional individual units, buildings, or environmental setdressing in each of the game’s unique procedurally-generated maps. This release brings with it a simple graphical enhancement to preserve the appeal of the game’s visual style. The isometric 2D remains sharp and clear, while some in-game effects (such as water and fire) have received new spritesheets to replace some now-dated animations.
The in-game options menu brings with it the expected array of resolution and graphical settings. But do not fear needing to sacrifice your visual immersion for the sake of performance – the ease with which this game could be run on nearly any PC makes these settings just another way to tailor your gaming experience to your personal visual preferences. In short, essentially everyone with a PC made in the last two decades could play this game with a stable sixty frames-per-second.
Age of Empires II easily retains all the single-player joy that earned it cult status among gamers at the time: The historical campaigns are a good as ever, and bring dozens of hours of playability right from the start, with a tutorial and an increasingly-hard set of objectives to hone the player’s skills. Also featuring one of all gaming’s best level editors, an extensive set of tools that will allow anyone at all to start easily making their own custom maps and intricate scenarios just as well as the ‘official’ content.
Masses of singleplayer content aside, the online multiplayer is just as good to play with as ever. The server browser and matchmaking systems have been redesigned for convenience’s sake, and it won’t take long for anyone new to AoE2 multiplayer to get a feel for the controls. I have found matchmaking to work very well in its aim of pairing players of similar skill level together for games, and as such, even joining random servers on a whim will usually result in a good experience for all involved. Additionally, this game’s simplistic graphical nature means that with little data to continuously transfer back-and-forth, lag and de-sync issues during online play are minimal. The multiplayer experience may have one of the highest skill ceilings you will ever see in online gaming but the barrier for entry is low and easily accessed.
This Steam port brings with it more than just the standard convenience of integration with the rest of your library and built-in online functionality for playing with others on the same platform. Also included are an extensive collection of Steam Achievements, which, in my opinion, are also always beneficial for those who want to eke out every last bit of challenge in any particular game and satiate their completionist instincts. While some members of the resurgent AoE2 community have decried these admittedly rather requirement-intensive objectives I personally made a point to 100% this game if only for my personal gratification, and I can say that I do enjoy the Achievements as they are now. Additionally, Age of Empires II HD Edition does bring with it a set of nicely made Steam Trading Cards, and the subsequent additional Emoticons, Wallpapers, and Badges, for those who appreciate that small extra accoutrement.
Finally worth noting before the end of my review is the (at time of writing) three additional downloadable expansion packs, none of which were present in the 1999 original, but have, quite remarkably, been made over a decade later, and are certainly each up to the Age of Empires series’ high benchmark of quality. These three expansions are well-worth the time of any veteran AoE2 player seeking out the experience of the new historical campaigns, new maps, and the range of completely new civilisations to play as.
While this game won’t be for everyone, I will encourage anyone with either an itch for historical narrative gameplay, or a desire to check out the great PC titles of yesteryear to pick Age of Empires II HD Edition on Steam and give it a go.