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.

SNOWBALL

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.

1999

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
Bruce ShelleyORIGINAL 1999 DESIGNMark Terrano
Ian M. Fischer
Sandy Petersen
Greg Street
ORIGINAL 1999 DEVELOPMENT
Ensemble StudiosORIGINAL 1999 SOUND & MUSIC
Stephen Rippy
DIRECTION AND DESIGN
Alex Liu
Christopher M. Rubyor
Xbox Game Studios
SCORE
★★★

9 comments

  1. AOE II was my first ever computer game and yet I had never thought of the People’s History perspective on the value of the villagers. It truly is a distinguishing feature of the game within the RTS genre.

    Another feature I love about the game is the way economic productions marks the land over the course of the game; ore deposits disappear, old farmland is visible even after the farms are abandoned, and forests dwindle. Locations develop wonderful emergent histories. I keep hoping for an RTS to double down on this. Keep building ruins on the map for half an hour. Have graveyards spring up near bloody battlefields. Let NPC drifters build shantytowns in unfrequented corners of the map.

    The brutality of the competitive balance also bothers me and keeps me from investing too much time. My wins normally just feel like I made fewer mistakes or my fumbling happened to be more efficient. I love the idea of the games so complex that you play by just surfing along the edge of the sub-systems but I wish AOE II was more forgiving/cozier/more playful… Maybe one day we will get something like AOE II crossed with Dwarf Fortress?

    1. You are spot on the way economic production marks the land. Building new towns to exploit resources, seeing lumberjacks carve out forests and the like is a lot of fun. In fact, I picked some of the pictures for the article to try and show that!

      I would have also liked for AoE II to be more forgiving. Your idea of playing inside a more lively world is interesting. Some games have done something similar but the idea holds more promise!

  2. Age of empires has always been a favorite to me, even though I never played it competitively online (I had to make due playing locally against my friends). The idea of having a civilization style game in real time is amazing. Villagers being a large and space consuming part of your game feels great. Contrast that to countless other games in which workers just need a single building a few a resource patches in a corner of the map to feed your war machine.

    Still, coming from age of empires 1, I felt the game left something behind. In AOE1 you needed a government center before you could build more town centers. I liked the idea that you required some kind of infrastructure to support your expansion across the map. Indicating you were moving away from being a citystate to an empire with multiple colonies that required more bureaucracy to manage. You also had other techs that were more like civilization. In civilization technologies from different branches feed into oneanother. You might need to advance civilian tech to unlock more powerful military options. In AOE1 you required the wheel (a tech that improved your villagers) to unlock chariots (a military unit). AOE2 simplified that. Every upgrade just linearly follows a previous upgrade of the same kind, from fletching to bodkin arrow to bracer. Shaft mining doesnt allow you to access previously unminable deposits of gold, but instead just makes you mine gold a bit faster. Block printing just makes your monks a bit stronger, instead of being a revolutionary new way to spread information across your empire. They left their roots in order to be a more orthodox RTS game, and I think that makes the game less interesting.
    The modern multiplayer experience is just a result of information spreading more quickly and people knowing what you should do. If you have a few cookiecutter strategies that always give decent results, the best way to improve is to reduce the amount of mistakes you make. Always make sure your towncenter is busy, dont let your villagers idle, make sure to hit your opponent at 10 minutes with enough bowmen to instantly kill a villager in one volley. That gives you a different game than one in which one guy builds a bunch of cavalry archers because he likes them even if his civilisation isnt good with them, but then can still keep up because his opponent leaves his towncenter idle.
    Still, I think the game has stood the test of time. The game is pretty, has engaging gameplay, and the way a base is built up tells a story. The campaigns are fun and give you a place to fight without having to play in a very narrow competitive playstyle. If youre good you can clear missions quickly, if you need more time you can build up defenses and build up a big army with all the upgrades to win. I wish we had more modern games that try to create something cool (real time civilization) rather than a very narrow competitive RTS thats all about hitting timings and a very narrow idea of fun gameplay.

    1. That’s a great comment Chris, thank you for writing it.

      I think you are right that AoE I leaned a bit harder on the civilziation angle while AoE II more streamlined. I thnk they made the right decisions for the sequel,but one wonders if they could have done more.

      I feel your point about a narrow idea of fun game play is insightful. I sometimes feel games restrict themselves to a narrow band when they could venture outside of it for unique, creative or interesting effects. We could have more units like the monk, the science vessel in Starcraft or the Chronotank in Red Alert, to name a few that caught my eye.

      1. I meant I meant it broader than just more complex units. Warcraft 3 introduced hero units and most units had secondary abilities. Red alert 3 gave every unit a special ability. Still those games are mostly about a campaign and a competitive RTS where you have to crush your opponent. Most modern RTS that are still in development also seem to focus a lot on that 1v1 experience. Like SC2 in which 90% of the online lobby screen was the ladder, or the recently announced stormgate which promises to be a hardcore competitive RTS with tournaments.

        But if you ask RTS players what they want, you get something very different. For example, an RTS having a campaign is #1 when it comes to features. It is a more requested feature than a competitive ladder. So rather than focussing on that very narrow competitive core of gamers, you could look at things like more campaigns, a kind of wave defense/challenge map setting, or maybe some kind of economic challenge. They Are Billions had a tower defense as a secondary mode, but that ended up being the most popular mode in recent times. StarCraft2 managed to live as long as it did because of cooperative mode. In AOE2 the improved skirmish AI is received very well by players that want to play 1v1 but dont like the pressure of online play. Offworld trading company is a really neat economic RTS-like. I think there is a lot to explore there and I wish they would experiment more with that.

        1. You should give Northgard a look, chris.
          I have only bumbled through it a couple times so I could easily be wrong but it seems like it is doing a lot of weird things with the genre that do not all boil down to who can destroy the other players’ stuff faster. For one thing, the map is divided into many regions that need to be controlled before they can be populated. There are also NPC factions and global events that seem to encourage non-militaristic strategies?

        2. I know what you mean, and that’s true. I’m not sure if you have ever played Seven Kingdoms, but it always comes to my mind as a game that pushed boundaries.

          What you mention about RTS games happens with fightning games as well. The demand for single player is much larger than the competitive aspect. Like in that regard, I do think AoE II is better as a competitive game (Even if it’s against the AI) than in scenarios, even if there are some unique ones.

  3. On the credits at the end – this game is surprisingly hard to credit!

    If you read primary sources, like the Ars Technica oral history below, you can see that due to how Ensemble emphasized collective decisionmaking, collaboration and equality between members, AoE2 didn’t have a clear “director to sub-designers” structure like most 3A projects.
    https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2018/01/the-age-of-age-of-empires-as-told-by-the-devs-who-built-it/3/

    Bruce Shelley: As stated by the above & confirmed by his own Designer Notes podcast, he didn’t actually live in the same city as Ensemble, and acted essentially as a consultant / PR mascot to the company who commuted to it once a week, after shipping AoE1. (Celebrity devs as PR mascots, that happens from time to time in the 3A industry, huh?)

    Ian Fischer & Mark Terrano: They were assigned the lead design role on AoE2, but due to being new at game design, initially produced a non-workable design document that is more like design fan fiction. This is confirmed by all the early AoE2 previews & a leaked copy of the document.

    Sandy Petersen: According to his own videos, he did history research, faction design, balancing & overall campaign design.

    Greg Street: He was a junior designer who started work on the AoE1 expansion. From the more piecemeal info I have, he seems to have at least made important contributions to balancing and level design.

    And from this article, indirectly supported by other primary sources, the real person closest to the lead designer on the final, shipped versions of AoE1/2, if not who initially envisioned them, is Brian Sullivan.

    On AoE2DE itself:
    The persons you listed are all on the Microsoft supervision side. Its design is done by a community modder-originated team called Forgotten Empires.

    FE has always been somewhat clandestine on exactly who does what on their team, and after having worked on AoE2 for over a decade since their modder origins, the in-game credit info has been complicated by the fact that it doesn’t reflect which member worked during which period.

    Nonetheless, it’s prudent to say you can find their designers in their section of the game credit.

    1. Oh wow, what a great post, thank you!

      Sadly, giving proper credit to the people making video games is difficult. In-game credits tend to be inaccurate and there’s litte consistency in job descriptions (Most notably,the creative vision sometimes resides at the director, sometimes at the lead designer or even producer). I’ve often felt my credit boxes weren’t fully accurate, I remember I got the wrong people for Theme Hospital for a while.

      I’ll revise the information you’ve linked to and see what changes I can make to properly credit the people who worked on it. If you have any suggestions for the Forgotten Empires credits, please also let me know.

      Proper credit is a topic I feel strongly about. Particularly when it comes to people such as Sandy Petersen or Buce Shelley which pop up in several different projects I might cover. Thank you!

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