First, an apology to Hidden Path. Back in 2013 I slated the first remaster of AoE 2, Age Of Empires 2 HD, as being little more than a widescreen upgrade for the game. Granted it did have Steamworks integration for multiplayer, but on launch the game was plagued with bugs and desyncs and so at the time I didn’t see the long-term value of an AoE 2 with a modern multiplayer backend. Hidden Path kept at it, however, fixing those bugs and shoring up the game and providing a base for another studio, Forgotten Empires, to release their own campaigns and civilization packs. A couple of years back I discovered that Age Of Empires 2 now has a thriving esports community with some of the highest viewer counts on Twitch during major tournaments; I have enjoyed watching many of those matches myself, and that’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of Hidden Path and Forgotten Empires1. However, while Age Of Empires 2 has certainly aged more gracefully than several of its contemporaries, there was no getting around the fact that the HD Edition was just that – it upped the resolution while doing nothing to update the underlying look of game, and that’s been a bit of a problem as the modern obsession with 4K displays and 144Hz refresh rates intensifies. Given that Microsoft is going through one of its more consumer-friendly phases at the moment, and given that there’s a proven audience for Age Of Empires out there, it’s not that surprising that they’ve taken a stab at a full remaster with Age Of Empires 2: Definitive Edition.
What is a little surprising, though, is just how outstandingly good this remaster is.
Strategy game remasters are, in general, a bit of a minefield: the more you tinker with the game, the more likely you are to do something that pisses off the people who loved it in the first place and who you are relying on to come and buy your new version. On the other hand if you just increase the screen resolution and chuck in a few modern quality of life features and otherwise leave the base game untouched certain people are going to question why they should bother buying your remaster in the first place when the original version has been working just fine for them for a couple of decades, thanks. The latter approach is usually the safer (and cheaper) option, but not always — I enjoyed Rise Of Nations Extended Edition very much because it was always a good-looking game and the original graphics took very well to higher resolutions, but I couldn’t play more than a couple of hours of Age Of Mythology Extended Edition because the early 2000s-era 3D art looked terrible. As for the former, Blizzard have one excellent example of a full rebuild working well in Starcraft Remastered, where the updated graphics and animations looked exactly like my rose-tinted memories of the game (outside of the mission briefings, anyway), and one well-publicised example of it exploding in their faces with Warcraft 3 Reforged, which I believe still has the lowest Metacritic user score ever. Doing it right is very possible, but god help you if you get it wrong.
Fortunately the Definitive Edition of Age Of Empires 2 has a couple of things going for it from the outset. First is that Forgotten Empires are the ones making it, and they’re a group of developers who cut their teeth on AoE 2 modding before turning professional and making the new campaigns and civilizations for the HD Edition. They really, really love Age Of Empires 2, and if anyone understands what made the original game tick it’s them. Second is that they got to do a dry run for AoE 2 by first making a Definitive Edition for the original Age Of Empires. I’ve played a few hours of this, and it’s rather more ambitious with updating the underlying look and feel of the game than its sequel is; all of the new unit art is technically accomplished but thematically sterile (plus I’m not sure if the developers have ever actually seen a real live horse before based on the cavalry animations) while the redone terrain looked nice in isolation but really screwed with the game’s visual language, with fights devolving into an indistinct mess taking place on a blurry green backdrop. The original 1996 graphics were included as a pregame setting, and while they were devastatingly primitive they were also clear and distinct; at no point did I struggle to pick out my own units while they were standing on top of one of my farms.
Forgotten Empires seem to be aware that the AoE 1 approach didn’t quite work out, which is why their treatment of Age Of Empires 2 is much more faithful (or conservative, depending on your point of view): while everything is being rebuilt from the ground up as before, it’s being done in such a way that it matches the look and feel of the original almost exactly. If you put a villager from AoE 2 DE and a villager from the original 1999 release of AoE 2 next to each other and told them to walk from left to right across the screen… well, you would be able to tell the difference because the Definitive Edition one has three times the animation frames and a much higher level of detail, but in all other respects they’d be identical – unit outline, animations and colour palettes are all exactly the same. It’s a similar story with the buildings, which have acquired extremely detailed destruction animations in place of instantly collapsing in a pile of dust, but which are otherwise unchanged, and the terrain, which looks smoother than the original while remaining just as readable. Where AoE 1 strayed too far from the original look, AoE 2 has been upscaled in such a way that it looks functionally identical while filling in all of the little details that you had to use your imagination for twenty years ago without provoking an Uncanny Valley response. Compensating for two decades of nostalgia is a fiendishly difficult thing to do, but Age Of Empires 2 Definitive Edition manages it flawlessly; the game looks absolutely gorgeous, and it might just be the best-looking 2D strategy game on the market today.
Feature-wise there don’t appear to be too many in-game alterations, which is probably wise considering the esports background AoE 2 now has; there’s a mousewheel zoom available that I barely touched, and otherwise it’s the same game it always was. Outside of the RTS gameplay, though, there’s an absurdly chunky amount of new features and content. The core of Age Of Empires 2, and the focus of this new edition, is firmly on the adversarial multiplayer modes, whether against AI or human opposition. The Definitive Edition includes every single map type and civilization that was available in the base game, the HD Edition, and all of the expansion packs for both. It also includes all of their respective skirmish AIs — original CD AI, HD Edition AI, and a new AI for the Definitive Edition — and I am pleased to say that the newest one is actually a bloody difficult opponent for a casual player. It has different behaviour for each map type, raids aggressively and with purpose and is insanely good at building up its economy – definitely better than I was when I started playing it again after a seven year break. It has some odd tics on certain maps, like it’ll just walk villagers into the gold veins in the centre of the map on Gold Rush without sending any protection along with them, making it trivially easy to bleed it dry with a couple of towers, but it says a lot that after a dozen hours of practice I can only just beat the Moderate version of the Definitive Edition skirmish AI and am still some way off being able to give the Hard one a run for its money.
Part of that practice period has involved a rapid reassessment of how Age Of Empires should be played. Up until now it had struck me as quite a slow game, with the focus being more on using your villagers to build up your economy and slowly teching up — sure, you’d be sending out raiding parties and could even attempt an early rush if you wanted, but the military side of the game always seemed somewhat secondary. And that’s true, up to a certain point; I’ve seen pro matches of Age Of Empires 2 where the players are just setting rally points inside the enemy base and churning out unit after unit into a bloody meatgrinder because their economies are so strong that the resources used to build a military unit are negligible by comparison. The main reason I thought this, though, was because the original version of the Age Of Empires 2 skirmish AI wasn’t very good (by modern standards) and doesn’t pressure the player at all. The reason I thought Age Of Empires 2 was a slower economy and tech-heavy game was because those are the things I like to focus on in a strategy game, and the AI was passive enough that it let me do so. The Definitive Edition AI has introduced me to the other side of the game, though, where you need to get a military up and running early or else you’ll find yourself swamped in spearmen and battering rams at around the twenty minute mark. It’s not particularly sophisticated in its attacks and can be baited if you’re smart with tower and wall placement, but it’s good enough that in order to deal with it properly you need to get extremely good at the opening 10-15 minutes of the game.
What “good” means, in this instance, is efficiency. Your town center needs to be constantly producing villagers with zero downtime. Given that you start the game two villagers away from hitting your population cap that means you need to immediately delegate one villager to building a couple of houses so that you don’t get delayed by hitting the cap (referred to in AoE 2 parlance as being “housed”), and the rest need to go on collecting food from your starting sheep. Those starting sheep need to be brought next to your town centre before being killed so that you have zero travel time carrying the food back and forth, and you need to find additional sheep quickly so that you can keep this boosted food gathering rate going for as long as possible. Once you have seven or eight villagers on food you can supplement the sheep by luring in a boar, which is a process that needs to be micromanaged properly if you don’t want to either lose a villager to the boar or else kill it too far away from your town centre to be useful. After the sheep are gone you’ll need to transition to gathering berries or hunting any deer that might be nearby; this will require construction of Mills, so you’ll have to have sent a few villagers off to gather wood long before you reach this point. The idea is that by squeezing out all of these efficiencies in your starting food production you can delay the switch to Farms until you’ve got the wood income to properly support it and, ideally, until you’ve teched up to the Feudal Age and can research Horse Collar, which drastically increases food yield per Farm.
This is a process that will sound rather familiar if you’ve played an online Starcraft match before, as Age Of Empires 2 has the same focus on hyper-efficient build orders and optimised building placement in the early stages of the game. There is a difference between the two games, though, which is that Starcraft’s economy is comparatively less complex with only two resources to keep track of; Age Of Empires 2 has four (food, wood, gold, stone) along with a much wider breadth of strategy for acquiring them. You need to expend a lot of mental effort getting your food pipeline up and running, yes, but at the same time you’ve also got to be paying attention to wood and planning your eventual transition to gathering gold and stone, as well as the standard RTS stuff of scouting, walling, and making sure you don’t get housed. Balancing all of these things at once is very, very difficult; even pro players mess it up and miss things from time to time, and for somebody who is just starting (or who is picking the game back up after several years) it’s a bit of a jolt to discover that just beating the Moderate AI requires you to be quick on your feet and display at least some basic mastery of the starting build orders, as well as a wider gameplan – knowledge of which techs are important, when you should be teching up, when your chosen civilization is likely to be at its most powerful, and which units will counter whatever the AI is building.
This makes the Definitive Edition AI that rarest of things in a strategy game: it’s an adequate replacement for a human player. Not a good human player, mind, but it’s good enough that it won’t make you lazy the way a lot of strategy game AIs do, and the way the previous AoE 2 AI did. It’s the perfect gateway drug for AoE 2’s current multiplayer scene, which is appropriate since the Definitive Edition would really, really like you to participate in its multiplayer scene. There’s an excellent set of multiplayer-focused tutorials called the Art Of War that go some considerable way beyond the typical “here’s how to scroll the camera, here’s how to move your units, now take on this thousand-game multiplayer veteran” tutorials that RTSes often fob you off with; they’re very aware that people have been playing AoE 2 for twenty years and that the game has evolved all sorts of idiosyncrasies over that time, and so they’re focused more on AoE 2-specific concepts like “how to boom your economy”, “how to do fast Castle Age” and “how to defend yourself against a rush by frantically micromanaging villagers to repair walls and garrison towers”. Each one begins with a short introduction video that shows you the thing you’re supposed to be learning and then leaves you to execute on it yourself, and I found this to be a much more effective teaching method than the usual step-by-step hand-holding that strategy game tutorials resort to.
The tutorials and the skirmish AI between them gave me a much better appreciation of the sort of game Age Of Empires 2 really is, and while I still got brutalised in the couple of multiplayer matches I attempted I was at least able to understand why, instead of having a thousand enemies charging out of the fog of war at the ten minute mark with absolutely zero conception of where they’d come from. Just balancing the economy properly is a far more intense experience than I was expecting, with minor lapses in concentration snowballing into having ten thousand wood and seventeen food — but that ruthless focus on optimisation actually taps into some of the same mental circuitry that makes me enjoy games like Factorio, so I can’t deny that it’s addictive. The Definitive Edition features all of the mod cons you’d expect from a 2019 multiplayer RTS, with the ability to ban a limited number of map types that you don’t like and a ranked matchmaking system that’ll set you up with a 1v1 match in a matter of seconds because this is one of the most popular games on Steam right now2. Given that there’s 35 civilizations currently available to play that means there’s also a significant amount of variation from game to game, both in terms of strategy and in terms of how the thing looks; one thing AoE 2 does that I really like to see in strategy games is having four or five culturally distinct sets of building artwork, as well as a single unique unit and building per civ. It unfortunately doesn’t change the look of the regular units at all from civ to civ, which is a bit of a shame, but since it’s heavily multiplayer-focused I at least understand why that is since screwing with unit silhouettes would be a cardinal sin.
As far as the skirmish and multiplayer side of things goes I really couldn’t be more effusive with my praise for the Definitive Edition; it’s about as perfect an update as you could hope for, a game which really cares about onboarding new players and which gives the burgeoning Age Of Empires 2 multiplayer scene a truly modern client that’ll hopefully take it from strength to strength. I’m going to be a bit more reserved when talking about the singleplayer campaigns, though, since the best thing I can really say about them is “they’re there”. For once that’s not quite the damning-with-faint-praise it usually would be, though, since they’re all there; every single campaign that has ever been released for Age Of Empires 2, either in the base game or in the new or old expansion packs, is present in the Definitive Edition. If you happen to be a fan of the way Age Of Empires 2 does singleplayer campaigns then you definitely won’t be short on content, and their inclusion makes the Definitive Edition one of the most astoundingly generous remasters I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately I have to qualify that by saying that I don’t think the Age Of Empires 2 campaign style has aged particularly well. Each mission takes upwards of an hour and always ends up feeling like a bit of a grind, especially since you’re usually pitted against two or more AI opponents in superior starting positions. This was fine for a contemporary game like Command & Conquer where the AI didn’t really understand how to attack a base and so it was a slow, almost tower defence-like experience where you’d sit behind your walls and towers and smash attack after attack until you’d built up enough of an army to flatten the enemy base in one go; there was something remarkably zen about it3. By contrast the Age Of Empires 2 AI does understand how to attack a base, and so its campaign missions are far less sedate; it’s hard enough just to keep the AI from overrunning you, let alone getting enough breathing space to take the fight to them. There’s a fun series of videos where Viper — who is arguably the best Age Of Empires 2 player in the world — tries out the singleplayer campaigns, and by the time he gets to the last mission of the starting French campaign he’s getting so severely pressured by the AI that he actually loses his first attempt at it. I myself have attempted this mission three times and have lost every single time. Later games that had missions with this kind of power asymmetry spun it in interesting ways (like the zombie mission in Starcraft 2), but I find Age Of Empires 2’s take on it exceedingly dull and it’s just not a fun problem for me to solve. I’ve tried a couple of the newer expansion campaigns to see if they mix things up at all, but as far as I can see it’s much the same story there too.
Still, this is a long way from saying the AoE 2 campaigns are bad. They’re just not a thing that I particularly enjoy; I can definitely see someone who likes being constantly assailed by hordes of enemies enjoying them immensely, although given that they still take a long time to finish I also don’t see how you couldn’t be a little bit intimidated by the fact that there are something like twenty campaigns in the game now. It’s not particularly fair to complain that a game has too much content either, though, especially when it’s being sold for a downright reasonable £15 on Steam. Even if you ignore the campaigns completely that’s still an excellent price for a pitch-perfect update of one of the best RTS games around, whose skirmish mode alone will keep you occupied for dozens of hours — I doubt it’ll ever leave my hard drive because it’s so fun to boot up for an hour or so every now and again — and whose multiplayer population has been booming for a while now. And on a technical basis alone the Age of Empires 2 Definitive Edition is now my gold standard for RTS remasters, since it proves that you can rebuild a game from the ground up to a modern standard while retaining everything that made it special in the first place.
- I will be honest and say that I’m having difficulty figuring out who exactly is responsible for what. Hidden Path did the base HD Edition and Forgotten Empires were involved in the new expansion campaigns, but there’s also a third studio credited on all of the releases, Skybox Labs, who are part of Microsoft Game Studios and who appear to do support work for a lot of Microsoft games. If I had to guess I’d say Skybox took over responsibility for maintaining the HD Edition from Hidden Path at some point while Forgotten Empires developed the new content. ↩
- Because this is a Microsoft gig it’s also got a big button for streaming to Mixer right in the main menu, but it’s easy enough to ignore. ↩
- It is for this reason that I’m very much looking forward to the release of C&C Remastered on Friday, because god knows I could use some of that right about now. ↩