Age of Empires II HD Review: Still Great Fun After All These Years
Age of Empires II HD
PC via Steam (No Mac/Linux Support)
Hidden Path Entertainment/Microsoft
Age of Empires II, originally released in 1999, is one of the most beloved PC strategy games of the 90’s. The team behind the game- Microsoft’s Ensemble Studios- has been relatively quiet lately, having only released Halo Wars in the eight years since the last core entry in the Age of Empires franchise. Orcs Must Die developer Robot Entertainment was responsible for 2011’s free-to-play Age of Empires Online, a game that was met with mixed criticism; it was praised for its classic gameplay while simultaneously being panned for locked, premium content. The mantle has now been assumed by Hidden Path Entertainment, a team charged with bringing back the fan-favorite Age of Empires II, updated for the 21st century.
The term “HD Remake” has been tossed around a lot over the course of this generation, and has lost its set, specific meaning. Usually, it simply refers to the fact that the game’s resolution has been raised from standard to HD parameters. Oftentimes, this is accompanied by updates to textures and lighting that allow the game to really shine with its higher resolution. Even still, sometimes “HD Remake” refers to a complete makeover of the game; everything from updated resolution to significant gameplay alterations are made to bring the game to the current generation. Age of Empires II HD falls somewhere between the second and third definitions.
The game looks great. The original art is intact, highlighted by the increased resolution which, notably, works well with multi-monitor setups. Updated textures for terrain and updated graphics for the water create a beautiful landscape for the battles to take place. Veterans will remember, while buildings (especially Wonders) were extremely detailed, that many of the individual units were rather barebones. This has not changed at all with the makeover- units are still clearly the least detailed element of the game. To be perfectly honest, it was not apparent to me what exactly had been updated. It has been a good ten years since the last time I played Age of Empires II, and it was a good-looking game at the time. Those that have played the original game recently will notice the updates immediately, but for those like me- do a side-by-side comparison to really appreciate how well the art has aged and how much the improvements help the game stand tall today. Mission accomplished, here.
When it comes to gameplay, Hidden Path themselves wanted to make sure that we can find comfort in the fact that they did not touch the core gameplay at all. Their words; “It’s still the same classic Age of Empires II experience… all of the gameplay remains the same, we have merely updated the game to run on current operating systems, with HD graphics.” Veteran players will be able to jump in, choose their favorite civilization with unaltered technology trees, and rely on decade-old muscle memory to play with the same old hotkeys. Purists wouldn’t have it any other way, though it’s hard not to admit that the gameplay could have greatly benefited from some modern real-time strategy conventions that would not have dramatically altered the original gameplay. AI is still very wonky at times; pathfinding can be a frustrating experience and redirected units will often walk the wrong way to change directions to the correct way.
Age of Empires II HD‘s Steam release brings with it many of the benefits that Steam is known for. First, there is the Steam Workshop. Scouring forums is no longer required to find neat custom maps. The Workshop also works its wonders when it comes to original or custom textures, sounds, and music. The HD editions default soundtrack is from the Conquerors expansion; those who want the Age of Kings soundtrack can find what they need in the Workshop- though we admit that its these sort of options that should be available from the outset in re-releases like this (see: the love that went into Sonic CD on mobile platforms).
Finally, there is the multiplayer component running through Steam’s services. All of the usual amenities are available, including invites, chat, etc. Setting up and playing a match with friends or randos is as easy as any other game, is a complete blast, and the number one reason why you should buy this game. While the original version of the game is still playable online, the convenience and ease-of-use of Steam is undeniable. There have been complaints of lag or slow response times when issuing commands in multiplayer matches, but this has been borderline negligible in our experience. For those affected, Hidden Path has assured players that a patch is on the way, and could be coming as early as this week.
For the most part, Age of Empires II HD is geared mostly towards veteran fans that can overlook some of the game’s faults and enjoy a trip down memory lane. Fortunately for all players, the game has held up extremely well over time; almost anyone can have a fun time playing the game with friends, and newcomers will find some worthwhile experiences within the campaigns from both Age of Kings and the included Conquerors expansion pack. While the game certainly could have been upgraded in more ways than just graphics and Steam integration, Hidden Path should be commended for keeping the classic gameplay intact, gameplay that millions of fans adored. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.