Steamed – Age of Empires 2 HD Edition

Age of Empires 2: HD Edition

Welcome to Steamed, a feature in which I play through all of my Steam games in alphabetical order.  The series will hopefully offer an insight into the huge breadth and possibilities of the medium for those that are not into games and be a useful review resource for those deciding what next to pick up from Steam.  This time it is the updated version of the classic historical strategy game Age of Empires II: HD Edition.

The past few years have shown interesting shift in perspective on games within the industry.  For years and years, the question of “are games art?” has been asked by many people (spoiler, yes,) but it is only in the last few years that the industry has decided that they are at least important enough to be preserved.  Just as with many other mediums, there is now a realisation that looking back to the past help improve the games of the present.  This has resulted in a few different approaches, with stores like Good Old Games which releasing updated versions of games to play on modern systems, the Kickstarter gaming boom, in which seemingly every developer known in the 90s tried to make updated versions of their classics, or the numerous indie developers that have grown up inspired by the games of the childhood and looking to emulate them.

Age of Empires II: HD Edition is very much a re-release of a classic game.  There is nothing particularly visible here that caters to modern sensibilities, besides some improvements under the hood to make multiplayer simpler and the inclusion of higher resolutions for modern displays.  The art, the sound, the music, the AI and the UI all seem to be the same as they would have been when originally released back in 1999 (I confess, I never played the original, so can’t say if that is accurate, but they certainly appear to be).  For those that want to relive those glorious memories of playing the game back in their youth, this is no doubt good to hear.  For those of us that do not have those memories… well, perhaps the experience ends up being quite different.

Ready to man the fortification

Age of Empires II,for those unfamiliar, is a real-time strategy (RTS) game that sees you building a small simple town, gathering resources, constructing a military to defend it with, building fortifications and, eventually, having an army that you can move out destroy your enemies.  Throughout, you will be battling your opponent for control over the map, trying to secure resource points to help you out build them.  For the 90s PC gamer, this was their bread and butter, including myself.  The Age of games, Command & Conquer,and Starcraft were the big names of the genre (the last of those pretty much becoming the national sport of South Korea!), but there were hundreds of these things around, all following very similar playstyles, but offering a unique setting or tone.  The genre began to fall out of favour though during the 2000s.  Developers began to experiment with new ways to play the genre, reducing down elements like base building, greater focus on individual “hero” units or heightening the importance of tactical positioning of your units.  These shifts would become the big-name games of the modern-day strategy genre, such as Company of Heroes, the Total War series or the DoTA/League of Legends, whilst the traditional RTS would all but disappear, only making a reappearance once in a while with a Starcraft 2 expansion.

With the previously mentioned interest in classic games though, there has been something of a revival of these old games.  This is particularly true of the games inspired by the Age of series, with the release of not just this game, but also Age of Mythology and the similar Rise of Nations getting their own HD re-releases.  The original Age of Empires II was the earliest of these to be released and, sadly, this re-release still shows these origins.  Let’s begin with one of the first things you are greeted with after the main menu, the voice acting.  In particular, for the William Wallace tutorial campaign.  The Scottish accent is painful to listen through, as it delivers to you a brief synopsis of the battles between William Wallace and Edward I.  I’ve only played a bit of the Joan of Arc campaign that follows this, but that too features some cringe inducing voice work.  Marginally elevating this is the nice, albeit simple, art that accompanies these very short history lessons.

Fortunately for you, you just have to read this and not listen to it

Once in the game, you are looking at a rather old looking game.  Unlike the voice work though, this is (mostly) rather pleasing to stare at.  Of course, it is not particularly detailed and animation is rather basic, but it works well.  The downside to the lack of graphical improvement is that only limited amount has been done to accommodate for those on larger screens with the UI.  Everything is just a bit too small and fiddly.  Personally, I didn’t have too much difficulty finding what I needed and text was clear, but moving over to the correct button on the interface and the initial figuring out of whatever all these bits were would have been much more straightforward if the buttons were just slightly bigger.  This particular true of the buttons around the mini-map, the ones on the top right of the screen and the ever-important resources on the top right.

The game itself makes it rather clear as to why these games are now considered of a different era. Control of the units, for example, can be a nuisance.  All units in your selection will move at the pace of the slowest.  So, if you have your speedy scout cavalry mixed in with your pikemen, your horse mounted man will decide to trot along at the pace of your armour-clad troops struggling with their cumbersome weapon.  This is a useful feature at times, when you don’t want an army to become too staggered and when you need them to engage at the same time, but a nightmare when you just want them to quickly move into a new position or to hurry over to your north walls to defend an attack by a small group of troops.  I have no doubt that many a veteran of these games would just say you should be taking control of your individual unit types more, but the same effect could have been achieved simply with a toggle in the rather extensive, but mostly irrelevant, advanced movement options.  A game making you fight with the interface to achieve something is not adding complexity, it just adds frustration.

The missions on offer in the single player range from a mixture of destroy the enemy base to use a small group of units and reach a certain point in the map.  The later can be rather tedious due to the slow movement speed of many of the units (and made worse when it wants you to use the troop transport ships that can only carry a small handful of your units), and serve as a reminder as to why these games lived by their skirmish/multiplayer modes rather than the usually average campaign levels.  Even with those more standard “build a base” levels, you are normally limited in what units and buildings you can build until later in the campaigns.  This can be particularly annoying during some of the levels in which you are required to destroy buildings, such as castles, within heavily fortified areas, where the top tier siege units would be of great use to you.  Instead, you have to rely on the rather pitiful early tech siege units that take ages to destroy walls, gates and buildings, whilst also falling easily to arrow fire.  To make matters worse, the game has a rather low 75 population limit in place, restricting how many units you can get out.  In multiplayer, I can see how this limit would work, forcing you and your opponent into using smaller forces and having to think more tactically about how you deploy them, but in a single player campaign this limit combined with not having access to all of the toy box of units just slows everything down.  Missions that will no doubt end in your victory just take longer to get, rather than feeling any harder fought.

The main draw of these older RTS games was rarely the campaign modes though.  Multiplayer and the skirmish games against AI opponents was the main draw.  With the rise of multiplayer gaming, it is no surprise that the HD version puts an even greater emphasis on this, bringing a big update the systems going on in the background to make it all work.  From a player perspective though, the game will no doubt play much the same as it always used to do and it remains enjoyable.  Unfortunately though, there are better games that achieve the same thing.  Rise of Nations with its far greater scope of human history or Age of Mythology with its interesting god power mechanics and mythologically units adding far greater diversity to the sides, both games released only a few years after AOEII and both with recent similar releases expand on many of the ideas to great effect.

This re-release could well have been a better game with improved UI, a few balance changes, adjustments to sides to make them more interesting.  It makes the game difficult to recommend. And yet, I can’t help but applaud the developers of this release, Skybox Labs and Hidden Path, for doing an important service to gaming.  They have made these games available once again to a wide audience, who likely had not played them.  They have worked to preserve the original game as it was, but ensured that it is still playable to this day on systems that would have been impossible to conceive of way back when AOEII was first developed and ensured that the achievements of this industries past are not forgotten.  In this age of publishers pushing for games to be a service rather than a self-contained piece, where sequels after sequels bury the classics, preservation of the industries past is surely a far greater goal than making those past games more palatable to today’s audience.

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