Age of Empires II Definitive Edition ★★★ | Review
Real-time strategy games got simpler over time. The genre, which combined base-building with action, began to focus exclusively on the latter. But during its golden age, it was possible to go in the opposite direction. Age of Empires II dared to add the features of civilization games to the pressure of real time tactics. Rough, unadulterated and, yet, beautifully remixed by its Definitive Edition; it delivers on its promise, though not without flaws.
CIVILIZATION IN REAL TIME
The beauty of Age of Empires II lies in the importance it gives to its villagers. Backbone of any kingdom, it’s the only unit capable of both building and collecting resources. Their number dwarfs that of armies and keeping them alive is your main priority. As long as they are safe, you can keep advancing your civilization. Once they die, your military will eventually wither, unable to receive the reinforcements they need.
Unlike other games, buildings in Age of Empires II are hard to destroy. Unless you have siege or huge numbers, you won’t tear them down with a sword. Hence, houses and markets can be built so as to act as a wall. Building in such a way that they keep enemies out, and your villagers defended, is a unique spatial puzzle. It makes the economic side, relegated to second tier-status in most RTS, as central as fighting.
Most importantly, buildings can be used in offense, too. Rushing with ten villagers forwarding and building a castle in the opponent’s face might seem silly, but it’s an effective strategy. Forward towers, sneaky bases and quickly building a wall to prevent an enemy horde from coming into your base are all key uses of villagers. And when push comes to shove, they can defend themselves, or even tear a building down!
Of course, you would rather gather resources with them. And that’s tricky. Different strategies require different amounts of food, wood, stone and gold and each of these will be found in a different part of the map. If you don’t fight for it, you’ll eventually be boxed and lose control. Gold runs out quickly and lumberjacks constantly need new forests to chop down. Gaining a foothold or disrupting the opponent’s economy is the key to win.
Since this is done in real time, the pressure is immense. Matches are long, but there’s never enough time to do everything. Building while attacking, aiming siege while farming, saving your villagers while killing those of your opponent’s…there’s never a moment of pause. Sometimes you must make a choice between properly organized farms and not looking away for too long when in battle.
But villagers are just the main component. This Civilization-like approach gives way to some interesting variety. Monks can heal and cover units to our side. Research at the university gives us more resistant buildings and access to gunpowder. And while Mangonels deal massive damage to units, that includes our own! There’s room for more varied designs than in a typical RTS.
What I love the most, though, are the different maps. The focus on building makes each terrain a different challenge. Some maps are open, promoting fast cavalry and aggression. Others promote turtling, fighting for the middle or seafaring. The community has even made its own wacky maps, with exploding villagers or where space is incredibly limited and opponents start right next to each other. The real time element connects this virtual reality more directly to the player than turns would.
NOT WORKING TOGETHER
However, this mixture of strategy and action has its own flaws. Thoughtful consideration and quick reflexes do not always blend as well as we could hope. Most notably, managing units in combat can be a bit of a chore. Unless you keep your mouse at them at all times, your troops may happily choose to suicide against the enemy or chase down a scout across the entire map.
Even though I’m markedly above average in the ranked ladder and have put hundreds of matches into the game, I still don’t feel I have gotten the hang of it. I’m not good enough yet to play the “real game” where matches are decided by decisions and proper micromanagement rather than mistakes. Once the unit count leaves the double digits, I feel the game spirals out of control.
Some situations that come up regularly aren’t too fun. Is it fun to lose because you didn’t see the hole in your wall? Do you feel correct in winning because your opponent took half a second longer to look at your siege? Pathing is awkward, with units bumping into each other as they try to strike. Not recognizing the civilization you are up against is punished by death.
Age of Empires II has a strange sense of balance, where the practical and the theoretical don’t always match. In essence, there are two main units: Archers and Cavalry. The first is powerful because they shoot at a distance. The second is good because they can close that distance. The militia line, burdened by their swords, fail at either and hence struggle to see play.
You can invest in counterunits, such as skirmishers and pikemen. But they are plainly worse. They are weak, frail and cost valuable food. Unlike archers and knights, which can raid and destroy buildings, counter units have no use other than, well, being a counter. Similarly, Monks are extremely powerful units. But their drawback is having to manually click on every single enemy you want to target. For top level players, the unit is fantastic. For the rest of us, they are kind of awkward.
I’ve now played almost a thousand matches of Age of Empires II. And the vast majority of them, no matter how evenly matched in paper, end up in a steamroll. A successful attack, or a small advantage in resources provides the fertile ground to push further. If you are already winning, it becomes easier and easier to keep doing so, to the point that any early setback may as well count as a loss.
There are only so many times one can lose to a knight rush, or win by a wave of archers, before it gets stale. Hundreds of games in, the largest deciding factor seems to be who goes up age faster. Not even professional players seem to escape this. More often than not, they’ll concede once they are a couple villagers behind. Comebacks remain rare and valiant stands rarely pay off.
Still, sometimes it works. When neither side can claim a huge advantage, or when there’s a little more back and forth and raiding, Age of Empires II shines. But these matches don’t happen enough. It’s not consistently great. Theoretically, there are tradeoffs. For example, you won’t be able to create villagers while going up to the next age. But the capacity to build additional town centers or to crush pikes with heavy cavalry almost renders them moot.
Perhaps the best example are trebuchets. At first, castles just can’t be killed. Most troops die to the incoming fire and rams, while good on paper, are too weak on their own. To really beat them, you need a trebuchet. They fire from a long distance and deal the large amounts of damage required to tear down fortifications. So anytime you find yourself in a standoff, the game becomes a race to get them.
In the end, games are won and lost. But Age of Empires is not so much fun when you are losing. It’s not too fun when you kill your opponent’s fishing ships and gain an insurmountable advantage. Certainly not fun when a hole in the wall renders your whole defense pointless. A small, but consistent advantage over your opponent doesn’t lead to a tight game, but an indomitable snowball that renders them powerless.
Of course, that’s kind of the appeal, isn’t it? Age of Empires II is both an hour-long battle of wits and a white knuckle action title. It’s not overdesigned, sometimes it’s raw and unfair like only an old game can be. Too many modern games are so careful with their balance, that they come across as artificial. Released in 1999 Age of Empires II predates these sensibilities. It’s completely natural, fairness be damned.
Given enough skill, the game’s flaws are minimized. You get better at avoiding fights, timings get tighter and you will no longer be several minutes behind to the next age. You’ll make light cavalry to counter monks, micromanage siege to deal with crossbowmen and build tiny walls to keep your villagers safe. But you will need to go for hundreds, if not thousands, of matches to get there.
Here is where the Definitive Edition helps. Ranked matchmaking pairs you with similarly-skilled opponents, reducing one-sided matchups. Units and the single player campaigns have been rebalanced. You no longer need to constantly queue up farms and you can toggle up a grid to help with walls. The game is still being supported, with additional tweaks and DLC. It plays better than ever.
After all, it does run on the original code. The original assets have been polished up and converted to a higher resolution. The art style has been kept to such a degree that I always forget it ever looked different. And what a style that is! Its romantic approach to pixel art is timeless. It acts as a reminder that the evolution to 3D graphics was not always the best nor most desirable outcome.
It may not always be perfect, but Age of Empires II is good at what it does. It’s creative, unadulterated and fun. If you can tolerate its swings of fate and odd balance choices, then it will be a fantastic choice. If not, it will remain cruel and frustrating despite its brilliance.
|AGE OF EMPIRES II: DEFINITIVE EDITION (2019)
|ORIGINAL 1999 DIRECTION
|ORIGINAL 1999 DESIGN
Ian M. Fischer
|ORIGINAL 1999 DEVELOPMENT
|ORIGINAL 1999 SOUND & MUSIC
|DIRECTION AND DESIGN
Christopher M. Rubyor
Xbox Game Studios