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.
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.
- Whether that was worth paying for it again is another matter, of course ↩
- They of mediocre Counterstrike remake Global Offensive and the actually quite good Defence Grid. ↩
- 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. ↩