With nostalgia running rampant in the gaming community, developer Hidden Path Entertainment has taken a classic RTS title – Age of Empires II – and has given it an HD resolution makeover. When I was fourteen, I spent an entire Winter’s Break playing the nearly released Age of Empires II: Age of Kings nonstop, from sunrise to sunset.
Sure, I’ve played Warcraft I & II, Total Annihilation and StarCraft, all of which were released prior, but my addiction to the real-time strategy games didn’t begin until I first saw my armies marching in formation against a well-defended British fortress surrounded by water as hurled stones were soaring through the air. While a classic title (fourteen years ago), AoE II HD is missing key features found in recent titles, such as setting up automatic patrols, waypoints and even not being able to queue upgrades, forcing you to keep a close eye on everything.
Instead of adding a multitude of updated features and upgrades, Age of Empires II HD feels rather sparce and bare bones. Widescreen support has been added (sans the bugs) and small touches have improved some of the environmental visuals as well as the water, but for the most part the game looks exactly the same as it did back in 1999.
Fully supporting Steam Workshop, custom mods can be installed, affecting every aspect of the game from the presentation to custom scenarios – check out the elaborate Game of Thrones scenario. Much like the visuals, the audio has been left untouched except for the music, which only includes tracks from The Conquerors expansion. Once again Steam Workshop comes to the rescue, allowing you to listen to the entire Age of Kings and Conquerors soundtrack.
In control of one of the 18 of the greatest civilizations in history (5 from the Conquerors expansion), Age of Empires II HD relies heavily on resource management, my typical strategy involves pumping out workers to cut down lumber, mine gold & stone, as well as gather food (hunting, farming or fishing). Simultaneously, new houses need to be built to accommodate your growing population, and the map must be manually scouted, since the game lacks a patrol system. Even the start of games can become hectic, as you are constantly multitasking and shifting your view around the map.
The campaigns are a great way to learn the basic game mechanics, set across some of the darkest moments throughout the Middle Ages. The campaigns are roughly accurate, following important figures in history such as Joan of Arc, Saldin, Attila the Hun and William Wallace. Each scenario takes anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to finish with each campaign contains a handful of different scenarios.
Mesmerizing my younger self back in the day, advancing your civilization from the Dark Ages to the Imperial Age not only improves the visual style of all the buildings and units, but also vastly improves the availability of advanced technology. Usually the civilization that advances through the ages the fastest will win the match, so it is important to make sure you are keeping pace with your opponents the entire time.
Using Steam for multiplayer matchmaking, up to eight players can duke it out across randomly generated maps or those based from real-world locales. Different options can be set to make each match feel unique, but the biggest update allows the population limit to be increased from 200 to 500 – even more if you download a mod to increase the population. The multiplayer is still fun and provides hours upon hours of excitement, that is if you don’t raise the difficulty too high when facing AI opponents. I wouldn’t flat out call the AI cheaters, but the speed in which they crank out units feels highly improbable. The weirdest issue occurred when trying to setup a friends only game, only to have a random player join the game instead. Hidden Path Entertainment has been quick to patch the game, fixing numerous stability and lag issues that plagued the day of release.
Combat can be broken down into a game of rock-paper-scissors (yes I know it’s a widely overused metaphor). While spearmen are able to take out skirmishers and light cavalry with ease, they are no match for a formation of swordsmen or archers. There is more depth to the game as you progress through the ages, as each civilization features their own unique units and bonuses.
Still the same classic strategy game since the original release, Age of Empires II is still an enjoyable, albeit old-school experience. Just be prepared to do more micromanaging than you have ever done before.Note: Age of Empires II HD was reviewed on PC. A digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.