Age Of Empires 2 is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest real-time strategy game of all time. And with the release of Age Of Empires 2 Definitive Edition, it’s… well, it’s still that. But now, there’s a lot more of it. It’s brilliant. Still, virtually every design decision its quality rests on was made twenty years ago, and what few changes have been to its inner workings are fairly conservative. Make no mistake: this is much more of a compilation job than it is any kind of reimagining.
But then, crucially, there’s also nothing added that dilutes the success of the original, either. While its early-2000s successors, Age of Mythology and Age Of Empires 3, were both good games, they suffered from their attempts to innovate on a proven formula. Altering the formula of a classic is always a risk - and in Ensemble Studios’ case, it was one that didn’t pay off. Bravo then to former modders Forgotten Empires, who tinkered with the game they loved long enough to inherit it, and yet never went too far. While the king of RTS games still doesn’t have a successor, he’s looking bloody good in his old age.
As someone who stopped playing AoE2 regularly in the mid-2000s, I’m astonished at just how much happened to the game after I thought the party was over. This is due in part to the game’s absolute belter of a scenario editor (returning in this edition, of course), which made the creation of new stuff accessible to just about anyone. Those who really knew what they were doing, and had modding chops besides, could work wonders.
The team that would become Definitive Edition developers Forgotten Empires started work in 2011, coalescing from separate community efforts to crack the problem of adding new civs to the game, and to improve its AI. One thing led to another, things got out of hand, and soon a full-blown, fan-made expansion was in the works. Microsoft, already working on 2013’s HD re-release of AoE2, liked what they saw, and offered to make the team’s work official, as the HD version of the game’s first expansion.
This was The Forgotten, and it was followed up by two more Forgotten Empires expansions - 2015’s African Kingdoms, and 2016’s Rise of the Rajas. The Definitive Edition bundles together everything from these expansions, as well as 2000’s Conquerors, and a brand new expansion, The Last Khans, too. For those like me, who last played in AoE2’s heyday, the game’s put on a lot of weight.
The post-Conquerors roster of 18 civs is now up to 35. The nine campaigns are now 24, for a total of 136 single-player missions - Microsoft reckons that’s 200 hours, but I think they’re being modest. There’s a set of timed ‘Art of War’ challenges. In multiplayer and skirmish play, the array of game modes and map types on offer is, frankly, dizzying. I have no idea what came from what expansion, but it’s more than you could get through in years of obsessive play. There are dozens of new technologies and units. Maps can be four times larger. You can go up to 500 population now, if you want. There are pigs, and geese. Everything is big.
And I guess it’s beautiful, too? I dunno. I’m never particularly interested in visual remasters for old games, and I wasn’t keen on 2013’s HD edition for that reason. Definitive Edition is largely more of the same, but more moderner. It’s in mega hyper 4K Ultra HD, and the unit animations have all been reslickened. But at the end of the day, when all the horses start mashing each other up, AoE2 is always going to look like a load of paint in a blender.
It’s a prettier blender now, mind, and I do appreciate the new, satisfying crumble animations for busted buildings, replacing their old tendency to vanish into sudden rubble. There’s a sort-of zoom function, but it’s comically limited - more like a simulated squint than anything else.
More importantly, they’ve redone all the sound! Virtually every track from the original AoE2 score was a banger, and now they’ve been retooled with slightly more convincing synthesised lutes and the like. That didn’t give me half the nostalgia rush as the remastered sound effects however - when I first clicked on a castle and heard its iconic fanfare of three ascending parps, I genuinely tried to screenshot the noise, before remembering that computers don’t work that way.
But what really makes this a must-buy, as far as I’m concerned - what really sucked me in to the sort of 2am strategy gaming depravity that no amount of nostalgia can account for - is all that single player content. I played through almost all the Last Khans khampaigns, as well as a random sampling of the other post-2013 missions, and I felt like I’d stumbled on one of those infinite cauldrons of delicious stew from an Irish legend or something.
Age Of Empires 2 campaigns are a right laugh. They’re like being taught history by an enthusiastic drunk. There’s enough information in there to get you interested in corners of military history you’d never really considered before (with less than a third of campaigns taking place in Western Europe, it does a better-than-average job of dodging Eurocentrism, too), but they simplify and abstract things to the point where you know you’re not exactly getting a textbook education. (Unless, you know, the Cumans really did sack Hungary with sixteen men-at-arms, two battering rams and a monk, only stopping when the purple team intervened).
As a sixteen year old, I learned an embarrassing proportion of what I knew about Middle Eastern history from the original AoE2, and now it seems my knowledge of Central Asian history following the collapse of Ghengis Khan’s empire is headed the same way. It’s just easier to remember these things, when you’ve knocked down each and every watchtower yourself. And if you do want some accuracy with your tales of slaughter on the steppe, there’s a pretty robust in-game encyclopedia to consult.
The campaigns are fully voice acted, both during the pen-and-ink cutscenes that bookend each mission, and during the missions themselves, with traitorous kings, panicking merchants and dastardly khans all chewing the sheep- and gold-strewn scenery with barely-restrained, gleeful hammery. It’s pantomime history, is what it is.
And considering how many of the bastards there are (one hundred and thirty six! For fifteen quid! Madness!), the missions are surprisingly varied. Over the years, Forgotten Empires have properly mastered the possibilities afforded by the game’s scenario editor, and the ingenuity that comes from their fan-work roots really shines through.
While of course there are plenty of missions that boil down to “ride over here, find some villagers, and age-of-empires your way to flattening everyone else on the map”, it’s rare to find one without some twist, gimmick or restriction that forces your playstyle away from the sequence of instinctive actions honed by years of multiplayer and skirmish play.
There are missions where you fight for control of neutral villages, which provide resources to their owner in proportion with the number of buildings left standing in them. Missions where you can only build units by capturing carts and sending them back to an encampment. Missions where you’re facing off against six massive juggernauts of cities, but each has a secret, scripted weakness that will bungle its economy. In the final mission of the Cuman campaign, I even encountered branching narrative, with an initial decision determining which of two wildly different scenarios I’d play on the same map. It’s very cleverly designed stuff.
Still, there are plenty of slight amateur hour moments - I loved the time, for example, when based on the in-game mission hints, I tributed a rival 500 gold to bring them on side as allies, only for… nothing to happen. This sort of thing happened rarely, but often enough that I got in the habit of saving my game before triggering potentially janky scripted events.
It’s also sometimes hard to work out who’s who in a mission, or how the in-game action corresponds to the pre- and post-fight cutscenes (an intro will describe a terrible betrayal, for example, only for the traitor in question to be your mate for the first 45 minutes of the game). This kind of criticism is small beans, but it shows that an RTS scenario editor can only be stretched so far as a vehicle for storytelling.
If you don’t care for all this campaignery, or for the game’s visual element, it’s still arguably a good deal just as a multiplayer game. As well as all the new maps, modes, civs, units and techs to play with, there seems to be a lot more integrated competitive stuff in Definitive: leaderboards and ladders, a matchmaking service, spectator mode, Xbox One crossplay, and a suite of small balance tweaks. I say “seems to”, because I’ve not played any multiplayer yet - I suspect there might have been servers open for reviewers, but I was far too busy conquering Lithuania.
To say a little more in favour of single player, it’s worth noting that the AI improvements that began in the run up to The Forgotten have culminated in a dramatic change for returning players like me. The computer opponents of twenty years past were digital simpletons who couldn’t even hunt boars, couldn’t multitask, and would merrily walk vulnerable units past arrow-spewing castles if that’s what it thought would get them from A to B quickest. The old AI, quite openly, had to cheat to win, and when I played the HD edition in 2013, I was shocked at how, in a game that at least looked more modern, it still couldn’t fight its way out of a bag of crisps.
Definitive Edition’s AI, by contrast, is a wilier beast. It still makes some questionable decisions, but then my APM is way too garbage, and my tastes too sedate, to play on anything but standard mode. From what I’ve read, on the higher levels at least, it acts according to the AoE2 competitive meta (although presumably that’s without the new civs and such from Definitive Edition, so tweaking may be required.)
But look, mate. I’ve saved the best until last. Are you ready for this? Farms will automatically reseed now, if you want them too. That’s it. The single, meanest, most bone-headedly fun-choking feature of the original game is gone at last, and I’ll never hear the dessicated little sigh of a field spaffing itself into beige uselessness ever again. Good riddance, manual reseeding: I despised you.
As I said at the start, Forgotten Empires have been extremely timid in making changes to the nuts and bolts of the game. There’s now mixed unit (and unit/tech) production queueing, command queuing, global queue visibility, and the ability to exclude villagers from drag-selection boxes, saving many a bare-chested oaf from conscription and a miserable death on some Turkish fortification. That’s about it, though.
Personally, I would have liked to have seen more. I see no reason, for example, why unit groups couldn’t have more stances, pre-allocated instructions and the like. I do get tired of my cavalry waddling slowly into a hail of fire, refusing to charge a unit of crossbowmen because they insist on matching pace with an accidentally included pikeman (“hold it lads, hold it! I don’t care how much they’re firing at us - we’ve come all this way with Jimmy Bumeggs, and we’re not going to leave him behind now!”)
Well, actually, I do see a reason why stuff like this can’t happen. Because when it comes to competitive multiplayer RTS games, people actually want a degree of built-in inefficiency - a certain amount of micromanagement kludge - in order to separate the steely-eyed turbo bastards from the flailing amateurs like me.
This is why AoE2’s battles are such roaring click-hells: in order to favour those people with the energy to click more and better than their foes. That element of the game is not for me, but I get it - and I get why it’s had such a light touch from Forgotten Empires. Frankly, I’d forgive them anything, though, since they gave me auto-reseeding farms.
So, Age Of Empires 2 is a much bigger game these days. And it’s been improved meaningfully enough that this is much more than just a bundle deal with increased resolution. But would I still recommend it to someone who never played an Age game back in the day, and has no nostalgia to buoy them? Well, yes. The RTS genre is a strangely empty thing these days, and there’s certainly not many games being made in the AoE2 mould.
Given the scarcity of successors, then, I see no reason why Microsoft shouldn’t just keep making this game bigger and bigger and bigger, lumping all the bits together every few years and slapping it down with nicer animations, until it’s got ten thousand missions and includes “Dudley” as a civilisation because they ran out of ideas. That would be fine by me. Long live the (Age of) King(s).