In 1999, Ensemble Studios along with publishers Microsoft released the smash hit real-time strategy game Age of Empires II. A game which allowed you to play as 1 of 13 unique, medieval civilisations including the Mongols, the Mayans, the Japanese, the Persians, the Britons, the Saracens and many others. It's expansion pack The Conquerors added 5 other factions, new units and much more. Playing on single maps offered hours of gameplay where you would manage your settlements, take care of your people, build a mighty army and crush your enemies in battle. There were also campaign missions based off actual events experienced by people such as Genghis Khan, El Cid, Saladin, William Wallace and many more. The game also featured multiplayer to wage war with friends and mod support for some really creative user content. The game received multiple awards, topped the sale charts in 7 countries and to this day it's regarded as one of the greatest and most influential RTS games ever made.
Alas, Ensemble Studios sadly became defunct in 2009 after the release of Age of Empires III and Halo Wars. Thus the torch passed to developers Hidden Path Entertainment who gave this classic game a new life with Age of Empires II: HD Edition. This game may have had a modern makeover, but does the gameplay which captivated players long ago still hold up today?
Like in the original, you play as 1 of 18 different factions and your goal is to manage a successful settlement while at the same time build an army to initiate war with your rivals. There are 4 kinds of resources: food, wood, stone and gold and you'll need to collect a large abundance of these in order to begin building your domain. In time as you gather more resources and income, the population of the settlement will grow and you must invest in upgrading your colony to accommodate the growing population. The interface used for these actions is very intuitive and informative, clearly showing you what's happening with your settlement and what to do with it.
Various technologies can be researched depending on which age you've entered and the number of resources you have allowing you access to more advanced economic buildings such as Markets, Granaries, Irrigation and Docks which provide more efficient means of gathering resources and income. You can research different religious technologies using your Temple, giving you access to discoveries such as Martyrdom and Polytheism which add special abilities to villagers and religious figures. This challenges your management skills to their fullest and let's you decide for yourself what it takes to be a great leader. There's endless management challenges to overcome but the rewards gained are well worth the risk. Gathering enough resources and researching more advanced technologies will allow you to effectively care for the population and build a prosperous and happy settlement.
You're also required to build your military strength as your rivals will do what it takes to bring your domain down. Once you create your army you'll be able to march into enemy lands and bring them to their knees. You can train up to 5 kinds of military units including infantry, archers, cavalry, siege equipment and naval units and like economic structures, you're able to research various military technologies to improve your forces. The Millita can be upgraded to become a Two-Handed Swordsman and then a Champion. Archers can become the deadly Arbalest. Even siege weaponry and naval units can be upgraded to bring destructive force onto the enemy. Each faction also have their own unique units to strike fear into their enemies. For example the Japanese can produce the Samurai, the Mayans can use the Plumed Archer, Mongols can us Mangudai cavalry and the Saracens can use the Mameluke. Once you have gathered enough men then it's just a case of sending your soldiers over to enemy territory and utterly decimating them. Battles are still fun and engaging as they were before and fighting on both land and sea simultaneously will lead to some seriously intense battles.
There are also campaign missions based on real historical events lead by military leaders such as El Cid, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Saladin and many others. They are very exciting to play through and it's interesting to learn about these people during gameplay. Of course the events are dramatised to suit the game but it's still interesting nonetheless. Town management and army building are also featured here, although during campaign missions you need to meet certain requirements to complete, which makes your think a little more carefully about resources and soldiers than you would in a standard game.
Single player games can take hours, even days to complete and situations always change, encouraging you to adopt new strategies to ensure victory. Story campaigns can be very challenging and always worth replaying on higher difficulties. The game also includes a map editor allowing you to create your own custom maps and campaigns and you can share your custom content with others on the Steam Workshop while trying other people's work as well. Overall there is a ton of content in this game that will keep you forever waging war with your rivals.
It's nice to know that Age of Empires II is still a lot of fun after 14 years. It's engaging, it's very easy to play and the game has plenty of replay value. However it's been 14 years since this game was released and a simple HD redo may not be enough for it to stand alongside it's much younger and more polished RTS peers.
The AI can be rather predictable which was a problem in the original game. It relies too heavily on brute force and doesn't really use any clever tactics which makes planning counterattacks a much easier task. Pathfinding is annoying as your units may split up and take different directions to a location if they're travelling together in a large group. Multiplayer is comprehensive and offers up to 7 different game types with multiple options and playing against humans is always more challenging than playing against the AI, but it performs rather badly in it's current state. Matchmaking is clunky and it's difficult to get into a match lobby without being dropped randomly. In some games it can lag around 6 seconds behind the user's input and it may not be possible to finish a match without you dropping out suddenly.
The music still evokes the mood for battle, although there are no sweeping musical scores like the ones you hear in RTS games today. Units from different factions speak in their native languages which adds more authenticity to the game experience. The sounds of battle resonate anarchy and violence rather well, but it lacks variation and intensity even with multiple units engaging each other. The in-game speeches still sound stupid with the voice actors delivering awkward forced accents.
Age of Empires II has been upgraded with enhanced visuals and widescreen support, but sadly the game is still showing it's age. The new textures and effects do make the game look nicely detailed, but compared to what RTS games look like today, Age of Empires II doesn't hold well against it's younger peers like Total War: Shogun 2 or Starcraft 2. It's unfair to compare this to newer RTS games but the fact is it just doesn't look as appealing as what's on offer today.
It's actually a shame that Hidden Path Entertainment didn't take this chance to address the flaws with the original game because this new version still needs a lot of work and the only real significant changes are in the visuals. Even so, it's nice to see that this classic game has had somewhat of a facelift and despite all it's flaws, Age of Empires II HD Edition is still good fun to play.
This review was based on a review copy of Age of Empires II: HD Edition for the PC provided by Microsoft.