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Age of Empires II HD Review

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Age of Empires II is back and better than ever. Developer Hidden Path Entertainment took the real-time strategy game we love, remastered it in HD and launched it as a Steam exclusive title on April 9, 2013; aptly naming the game Age of Empires II HD. Whether you’ve heard of this 1999 classic before this or just found out about it, we’re ready to tell you what we think about Age of Empires II HD.

Age of Empires II HD was reviewed using retail copies independently purchased by us. All screenshots from actual gameplay on Windows PC platform.

Wololo is back

After you launch the game, you are greeted by the familiar sight of a little alley in a medieval town and classic Age of Empires music (that you may or may not have heard friends whistling in the past decade) in the ‘main menu’ of Age of Empires II HD, and the updated banner tells you that you’re in for a smashing time filled with an informal history lesson and clashes of epic armies.

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Age of Empires II is a real-time strategy game that was originally launched in the year 1999, developed by the now-defunct Ensemble Studios. The game garnered a large, almost cult-like following with its 5 action-packed, history-filled singleplayer campaigns and addictive, highly functional multiplayer mode which could support up to 8 players via LAN or online.

An expansion pack launched in 2000, titled The Conquerors Expansion which brought a fresh set of singleplayer campaigns, 5 new civilizations and a bunch of new technologies that spanned across existing ones. The Conquerors turned Age of Empires II from a great to an even better game.

Age of Empires II aged well, kind of like what happened with earlier Counter-Strike titles; the game got old but most players just kept on playing and maintaining a strong community. In mid-2006, disaster struck – Microsoft dissolved MSN Gaming Zone, closing down the official servers of many games, including Age of Empires II, for good. Gamers continued playing the game through other means and private servers but the playerbase shrunk significantly.

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In recent times, Age of Empires II was secretly being revived by Hidden Path Entertainment (the same developers who made Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive) and in March 2013, they announced their plans to bring the game back in HD. A month later and we have Age of Empires II HD with its support for modern Windows machines, new official multiplayer on Steam along with Steam Workshop and other features.

If it ain’t broken, why fix it

Age of Empires II HD is a real-time strategy game, which means you’re in charge of a small community that you’re supposed to build into a great empire. The Town Center is where it all begins; from this building, you can create Villagers, the resource gatherers and builders of the game, who can go on to build structures for depositing resources (like Lumber and Mining Camps), creating military units (like Barracks and Stables), defense (watch towers and walls), upgrades (University and Blacksmith) and of course, what would Age of Empires II HD be without its iconic Castles and Wonders.

I’ll touch a little more on the basics of the game for folks new to Age of Empires (or real-time strategy games in general), otherwise you can hop over to the next paragraph below). There are 4 main resources in Age of Empires II HD: Wood, food, gold and stone. They are spent on buildings, creating units and upgrades; all of which, in turn, serve to advance your empire and defeat enemies. Not every civilization gets access to everything, and there are 18 civilizations… choosing one before the start of a match itself involves decision making as every civilization has its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the Britons are a very archer-centric civilization with benefits for ranged units such as Longbowmen, Arbalests and Skirmishers but aren’t able to max out cavalry and siege weapons as far as the Franks or Mongols are respectively able to.

Age of Empires II HD isn’t called a real-time strategy without a reason: you’ll be making plenty of choices and management of resources/units in the game in order to defend against and go on the offensive against opponents in the best way possible to ensure victory.

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Age of Empires II HD features content from both the original game and the Conquerors expansion; 9 main singleplayer campaigns, with 6 missions per campaign, some 2 dozen civilizations and a huge selection of multiplayer maps.

For gamers new to real-time strategy games, there’s the William Wallace learning campaign which is an entertaining way to learn your way around the basics of the game. You can also dive right into the 8 other singleplayer campaigns, following the footsteps of Joan of Arc, Saladin, Genghis Khan, Barbarossa, Attila the Hun, Montezuma, El Cid and Battles of Conquerors (the latter is a diverse series of individual maps that span the era of the Vikings to Nobunaga of feudal Japan).

All the singleplayer missions have different and sometimes several objectives which include getting characters to a specific location on a map, defeating enemies or destroying specific buildings of theirs and protecting your allies. The first mission of campaigns is usually the easiest: for instance, getting Joan and her protectors to the Chateau de la Dauphine castle in the Joan of Arc campaign, or getting the members of different Mongolian tribes to join you in the Genghis Khan campaign.

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Things get progressively tougher as you’re pitted against more and tougher enemies later in the campaign; such as having to defeat the two armies of Cortez and the evil Tlaxcala in the last episode of Montezuma, building a wonder and defending it for a couple of hundred years (several minutes of actual game time) against 6 hostile folks in the final map of Saladin and having to defend against the relentless attacks of Hungary and eventually defeat them in the last map of the Genghis Khan campaign.

In terms of singleplayer alone, the original Age of Kings and The Conquerors expansion campaigns combined will give you over 60 hours of gameplay on Moderate difficulty. Throw in the average of 1 to 2 hours per multiplayer match and you’ll find yourself racking up several dozen more hours playing Age of Empires II HD in no time.

Raiding party!

The singleplayer aspect of Age of Empires II HD may be fun but in the end, it’s multiplayer that will contribute to a large chunk of your gameplay hours. The prospect of racing your friends from the Dark Age to Imperial Age while building vast kingdoms and huge armies is highly addictive; proven by the original game which was still played for years after its debut.
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Thanks to Steam, official multiplayer is back and that’s fantastic news after the absence of official servers since Microsoft shut theirs down 7 years ago. You can have up to 8 players, choosing from18 different civilizations (from the Aztecs to the Teutons and from Japanese to Spanish) and 21 maps (with literally thousands of different layouts so you’ll probably never play on the exact same map layout twice). Age of Empires II HD has several game modes such as Deathmatch, Regicide (protect the king), Wonder Race and of course, your standard game (argh, just defeat anyone who is your enemy).

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One notable change is the upper limit of the population limit has now been increased from 200 to 500, allowing for battles of epic proportions (with 8 players, that means up to 4,000 units flooding the map, though it will take an awfully long time to collect sufficient resources to max out your population). If you’re a fan of smaller battles and more strategy, population limit is selectable in several steps between the 75 to 500 range.

A new matchmaking component is now built right into Age of Empires II HD and allows you to search for the type of games you’d like to join (currently limited to 1v1, 2v2 and free-for-all). You can also choose to connect directly to private matches or host them yourself. Eventual game lag is still present in Age of Empires II HD where, occasionally, units tend to slow to a crawl or stutter in long matches where there are a lot of units (in typical matches, it won’t happen but it can crop up in matches which are many hours long and have hundreds of units continuously on the move). This is a shortcoming we would attribute to the ancient game engine (and it can happen no matter how powerful your PC or how fast your internet is) but shouldn’t appear for majority of multiplayer matches.

Graphics like it’s 1999

Hidden Path Entertainment set out to perform a few graphical tweaks to Age of Empires II HD, notably improved fire on buildings, water textures and the change of texture for farms, cliffs and some icons. But otherwise, Age of Empires II HD sports identical graphics to the original 1999 game. The advantage of 15 year old graphics (besides nostalgia) is that Age of Empires II HD isn’t demanding on hardware at all and will run on just about every modern Windows laptop and desktop.

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The good news is that Age of Empires II HD does address the compatibility and texture/color issues that gamers faced when trying to install the original game on newer machines and operating systems. Age of Empires II HD works right out of the box… err, Steam on Windows 7 and Windows 8 (and oh, Vista too) systems without requiring any tweaks or jumping through hoops. There are reports that some users with Windows XP may have trouble with the game, so caveat emptor for users of the 10 year old Microsoft operating system.

If you’re looking for adjustment of graphics options, there aren’t any in Age of Empires II HD. Unlike the original, this HD remake opens to automatically fit the native resolution of your monitor. This means owners of higher resolution monitors will have a distinct advantage in viewing area: you’re able to see more on a 1920×1080 monitor than if you played the game at 1366×768 pixels for instance. Although not immediately obvious, you can shrink Age of Empires II HD down to run in a windowed mode by click-and-dragging your mouse down from the upper edge of the screen.

With Age of Empires II HD, both audio and video now work as they should on modern systems without tweaks needed. However, I was left a little disappointed as the developers did not add any additional features such as the ability to zoom or jump between different in-game tunes.

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Workshop to the rescue

One of the huge new features is the Age of Empires II HD Steam Workshop. The one-stop workshop gives you access to custom user-made campaigns, multiplayer maps and content (983 things as of now). And everything is available free and downloads instantly with a single click.

Don’t like how the water looks? Swap it out with a more realistic texture mod. Is the computer AI too easy for you (Age of Empires II has some decent but not too bright AI)? Download an AI pack that will really test your skills. Our favorite in-game taunts (ranging from a simple ‘food please’ to nostalgia-invoking ‘wololo’) make a return in Age of Empires II HD, but thanks to the Steam Workshop, you can add on even more sounds and music to the game.

The map editor in Age of Empires II HD allows you to create maps and campaigns of your own, and you can submit your creations to the Steam Workshop. The map editor remains unchanged from the original game and there’s a slight learning curve to using it (although it becomes just as addictive to make maps once you’ve mastered the basics).

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Verdict

Age of Empires II HD is a nice surprise and welcome HD remake of a great classic game. Everything we know and love about the game is back, and it now runs properly on newer systems and at native monitor resolution.

Gameplay remains the same with long singleplayer campaigns (with each mission accompanied by a brief informative historical prelude and epilogue), 18 civilizations to choose from and addictive multiplayer. Thanks to Steam, Age of Empires II HD now has official multiplayer once again along with newly added matchmaking and support for the Steam Workshop.

Age of Empires II HD is plenty of fun and you’ll rack up 60 hours of gameplay just from singleplayer itself, and many more from multiplayer. The main selling points for the game are definitely its official multiplayer and Steam Workshop support but the main question lies in whether $20 is a worthy price to pay for a game that’s essentially 15 years old with just a few minor tweaks. I would highly recommend Age of Empires II HD, but if you can wait for a Steam sale that would potentially drop the price down to $10 or $5, you should.

Game score:

9/10

What’s hot:

  • 9 diverse singleplayer campaigns, each with their own storyline and historical narrative
  • Plenty of gameplay hours; at least 60 from singleplayer, average 1 to 2 hours per multiplayer match
  • Fun and addictive multiplayer, plenty of maps, game modes and options to choose from
  • Steam Workshop brings easy access to custom maps, mods, sounds and more
  • Not demanding on hardware at all; runs on almost every modern Windows PC and laptop

What’s not:

  • $20 is pricey for a 15 year old game (wait for Steam sales!)
  • Occasional instances of lag in very long, very crowded matches

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One Comment

  1. Harry Tidball April 26, 2013 Reply

    Looks good, will purchase when it goes on sale!