Thoughts: Age of Empires 2 HD.

CASTLE

Age of Empires 2 is the latest game to get the “HD” rerelease treatment, which is a recent and not-entirely-unwelcome trend for older PC games and one which I suspect pleases both the companies that make them and the people who buy them. The developer/publisher gets to sell what had previously been a dead product all over again, and the purchaser gets… well, in theory they get to have an updated version of that old game they loved that actually functions on modern operating systems. If this is what the HD update actually delivers then everyone goes away happy. However, I suspect that Age of Empires 2 HD will be the title that makes a lot of people realise that simply attaching the letters “HD” to a game doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re getting is going to be an improvement over that physical copy that’s been gathering dust inside its jewel case for the last decade and a bit.

The thing with Age of Empires 2 – indeed, the thing with a lot of these HD remakes – is that the original version does still work. Yes, the resolution is hilariously primitive and the 256 colour limit means you get some of those vivid purple and green hues so familiar to people in the habit of digging out their old games, but you can still install it, load it and play it with a minimum of fuss. Perhaps it’d be different if it was one of those titles that’s notoriously finicky on Windows 7, such as the original two Thief games. Perhaps then simply offering a working version with higher display resolutions would be enough. In the case of a game that already works, though, you need to offer something extra in comparison to the older version in order to justify charging money for it all over again. The Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate did it with a couple of new companions and quest areas1. The 20th Anniversary release of Another World has apparently redrawn all the backdrops in such high definition that they take up a staggering 3 gigabytes of disk space (the original game came on two 1.5 megabyte floppy disks, if I recall correctly).  What exactly is Age of Empires 2 HD adding to the experience that will justify the frankly eye-watering pricetag of £15?

To its credit it’s trying to be a little more subtle than the shiny visual improvements of other HD remakes. There’s some new water effects and they’ve redone the farm graphics for some reason, but by and large this HD version of Age of Empires 2 looks very much like the original release of Age of Empires 2 would if you installed one of the high resolution mods available for it. There’s no new single-player content added; you get Age of Kings plus the Conquerors expansion, and that’s it. No, the unique selling point of the HD edition is that it strips out the long-deprecated Microsoft Game Zone multiplayer system and replaces it with full Steamworks functionality. If implemented correctly Steamworks is possibly the single most solid, hassle-free multiplayer interface in PC gaming today, so this should be a welcome improvement that makes playing AoE 2 multiplayer without a virtual LAN setup possible again. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, the reality of that implementation falls some considerable way short of my expectations.

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In fairness to the developer responsible for the HD update – Hidden Path2 – I do appreciate that totally retooling a fundamental under-the-hood system like multiplayer is not an easy thing to do. It’s going to have teething problems. I don’t begrudge them making the effort at all and I’d much rather they take a crack at this instead of the (relatively) simple task of updating all the graphics and then calling it a day. Maybe they’ll get it working properly in short order, and all my complaints and worries will turn out to be completely unfounded. Right now, though, if you were thinking of buying AoE 2 HD for multiplayer purposes I’d have to recommend you stay away because it quite simply does not work. There are widespread reports of FPS slowdown, connection issues, laggy input problems and out-of-sync errors, and that’s when you can actually get a game started in the first place. My own tale of woe is fairly concise:  our first attempt to start a four player game had to be aborted because one participant had a ping of 500 and the game runs at the speed of the slowest player (remember, this is a fourteen year-old game designed for 56k dial-up running in the age of fibre-optic broadband). After he dropped out the second game ran fine — right up until the point where the hosting player’s game crashed, anyway, provoking sympathetic crashes in the people connected to him and throwing away a fairly interesting forty minutes of play. This was pretty discouraging, and we haven’t tried to play multiplayer again since there’s other stuff we can do that doesn’t run the risk of the software doing a brainfart and wasting a session’s worth of effort.

Now, perhaps it’s just me, but when a game is being sold on the basis that it offers functioning multiplayer for the first time in a decade, and then that multiplayer turns out to be badly broken, it doesn’t exactly endear that game to me. I want to give Hidden Path the benefit of the doubt here (this was technically a prerelease version I was playing, although I doubt they can fix all of these issues in the four days separating prerelease and full release) and I do hope that I’ll be able to try the multiplayer again soon, but if I were a cynical man I’d say that this was a product made with minimal funding during the developer’s off-time and pushed out the door without adequate QA in order to make money. Case in point: the game is started through an obnoxious and unnecessary splash launcher that’s painful enough for me to see every time I load the game, but which apparently doesn’t work at all on Windows XP, an operating system still running on 10% of the computers canvassed during the most recent Steam hardware survey. If you have Windows XP and buy Age of Empires 2 HD the chances are you flat-out won’t be able to play it – at least, not until that bug is fixed. Meanwhile that fourteen year-old copy sitting in its jewel case will run on Windows XP just fine with only a few minor issues. You tell me which one you’d rather play3.

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  1. Whether that was worth paying for it again is another matter, of course
  2. They of mediocre Counterstrike remake Global Offensive and the actually quite good  Defence Grid.
  3. Ending on this little flourish seems appropriate, but I’m honour bound to point out that the singleplayer will work just fine on the 60-70% of systems running Windows 7, so if for some reason you fancy paying £15 to play the campaigns in glorious high definition then this is the game for you.
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18 thoughts on “Thoughts: Age of Empires 2 HD.

  1. Darren says:

    HD re-releases seem to be more of a console thing, as I see it. The PS3 in particular has a ton of really good HD collections that often make the point that good graphics and perfect performance can be better than great graphics and acceptable performance (see: God of War Collection). They often have improved loading times as well, which sometimes means that they are by far the best versions of the titles available.

    PC games have the benefits of mods, but on top of that some developers had the foresight to make the game work with pretty much any resolution you’d like to begin with, such as Startopia–which hasn’t aged a day since its release–or Rise of Nations (which, admittedly, has to have a simple ini edit to run on other resolutions).

    Speaking of, Rise of Nations Gold was also on that Steam database leak from a while back. Screw Age of Empires, more people need to play Rise of Nations!

    • Sam says:

      Rise of Nations was awesome. It had so many features that AoE should have had – automated villager production if you didn’t give them specific orders, multiple cities, etc.

      • Darren says:

        It’s one of those games that should have redefined a genre, but didn’t. I’d love a sequel. I wouldn’t even mind a sequel to Rise of Legends, which was a really clever title in its own right.

        • It seems that Big Huge Games abandoned the idea of smart RTS for not-so-smart action-RPG and recently ceased to exist at all. Sad.

          • Darren says:

            I’m inclined to believe that a lot of that had to do with corporate mismanagement. Kingdoms of Amalur will never be a fondly-remembered game, but it was smartly put together. Those were some clever people.

        • Hentzau says:

          I would buy Rise of Nations in a heartbeat if it ever flashed up on Steam. It was basically Empire Earth done right, and in terms of mechanical tinkering it was very ahead of its time (it took Civ another seven years to nick the idea of military units automatically becoming transports to move across water, for example).

  2. 216 steam achievements, slightly better graphics, 5 (five) frames per second. I’m not sure why this exists and costs so much. Multiplayer – yes, that’s a problem, but I haven’t heard of any significant upgrades to anything that can make this game better in MP – like changing UI to be more XXI century. Instead we have installed widescreen mod with Steam instead hamachi.

    I hope in future we will get “HD versions” of two specific types: $2 old games that have change resolution option and bugfixes (implemented by two interns) or $15 remakes of old games wih added content and revamped UI/graphics that require some work besides what modders let you get for free.

    • Gap Gen says:

      A remodelled Alpha Centauri that is identical but for a slicker interface I would buy so hard.

    • Hentzau says:

      The achievements are possibly the worst achievements I have ever seen in the history of achievements. Not only are their goals ridiculously grindy and unimaginative (“Win 100 games as the Mongols!”) but the descriptions are insanely verbose, with a small paragraph of text for each one. If anything was farmed out to the company interns it was this, since it shows total and utter disregard of anything approaching sanity or common sense.

      And it exists because there are people like me who will pay £15 (or £13.50) for the ability to play Age of Kings multiplayer over Steam. Unfortunately that kind of necessitates the multiplayer working. Which it doesn’t.

      It would be nice to get proper HD versions like you describe, but at that point you’re putting so much work into the game that it defeats the point of the exercise for the publisher: a low-cost exploitation of an old intellectual property. I don’t think it’ll ever happen.

      • On the top of your page I see a picture from Monkey Island: Special Edition. They remade the game with new graphics, rerecorded music, full voiced actors and Steam currently says they ask $8 for two games. Maybe they wanted more for launch, but you get classic game fully remade with modern graphics, UI, sound, hint system… That’s the deal.

        AoE2 on the other hand isn’t even properly updated, and RTS is not the genre that ages well. Horrible music from the MIDI synthesator times, microscopic units, stupid ideas (several seconds of some wierd welcoming sound before starting the game) – still the same, but you get HD (do I undersand correctly you have to change resolution in some .ini file?) and no more need of using LAN emulators like Hamachi or what do they use this days.

        • Gap Gen says:

          Monkey Island is, at least, single player, so no networking gumf to re-plumb, although like you say it’s still a significant overhaul of the experience.

          • Hentzau says:

            That was an admirable remake, and well worth the £10-12 it was retailing for at the time, and it’s a shame it didn’t set the standard for future remakes. However, even though it was a lot of work to implement voice acting and repaint all those backdrops and characters at the end of the day the Monkey Island games are single player point ‘n click adventure games with relatively simple mechanical design, and so it’s easier to do a visual overhaul of that than it is AoE 2, a game with a hundred different units and dozens of building graphics.

            That being said, now that you’ve mentioned the Monkey Island SEs and all the extras that were thrown into it above and beyond the updated visuals — the hint system, the music, the voice acting (even though I personally disliked this), and the button that switched seamlessly from classic to modern version and back again — I’m starting to view AoE 2 HD even more unfavourably. Messing with graphics and music is absolutely out of the question since they’d have to remake the entire thing from scratch, but they definitely could have at least added in a few control enhancements and UI updates.

          • Gap Gen says:

            I suppose a further problem is that if the code base is horrible, making any changes at all will be nightmarish. I suspect (though I don’t know) that modern games have better coding practices than older games, especially as many of them will have been written in good old C.

          • Games today are still mostly written in C/C++. Some use XNA (mostly the ones on XBLA) and I’ve got a very nice memory of it – XNA really is a good game framework – but it’s relatively insignificant amount of games. You also have Java games on Android and rare PC games like Minecraft, but just try to count number of games that require you to install .NET or JRE. Nope, the games are still mostly written with C++ objects, pointers and memory leaks. Not so easy to maintain.

          • Gap Gen says:

            Huh, interesting. My experience of C++ is that it’s overly complicated and in need of a replacement that gets rid of the easily breakable bits and is faster to write (which I suppose is what Java/C# are an attempt at, although a virtual machine isn’t necessary if you only use smart pointers). Granted, baremetal programming is useful for speed, but there’s no need to have a bajillion partly-incompatible ways to reference a piece of data.

          • Darren says:

            @Hentzau: The voice acting–to me–didn’t completely work because it exposed some of the weakness of the writing (particularly in the first game). I entered the series with Curse of Monkey Island, so the lack of voices made it tough for me to push through the older entries as is, but adding the voices makes the difference between the writing really obviously.

  3. Speed is the main reason. Now Java and C# are quick enough fo games, but you still loose points for using garbage collectors and syntax sugar. You need Java when you have to make cross-platform reliable program quickly. Games, on the other hand, can be programmed for longer periodes (you have design, music and models to do while developers do they thing), rarely concentrate on several platforms and strife to be fast, not reliable. Although it’s mostly about graphics and sound engines, nowadays AI and many other things scripted separately with Python or something similar – see Civilization 4-5 or Europa Universalis 3. So we’re moving on.

  4. Sandplasma says:

    @GAP GEN
    Its called Java.

    I like that the new HD remake has Steam Workshop support.

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