Age of Empires II: Age of Kings was originally released in 1999, and it is one of the most influential titles in one of real-time strategy’s most celebrated franchises. It holds a special place within gaming history as a solid, meat-and-potatoes RTS generously drizzled with rich historical gravy.
Age of Empires II: HD’s main changes are updates to the graphics engine, allowing the game to be compatible with modern machines. The game has been overhauled to allow players to take advantage of HD displays and multiple monitors. But one of the strongest elements of the re-release is the score, which has been lovingly remixed. The music now evokes a more sophisticated mood than it did previously, and it’s something that adds greatly to the feel of the game.
This edition of Age of Empires II includes The Conquerors expansion, so fans wanting to replay the campaigns will find hours of familiar scenarios. These haven’t aged particularly well; the scripting system compares poorly with other titles, particularly Blizzard’s Warcraft III and StarCraft II. There are many instances of breaking the fourth wall, where victory and activation conditions are very obviously scripted rather than fitting seamlessly into gameplay.
The new textures added to water, fire, and earth add a nice new look to the terrain. It’s subtle, but the overall impression is refined and almost painterly. The terrain itself has been one of the biggest changes, with a mesh system now used to give a more even natural landscape. Also gone are the 256 colour UI elements, and the icons have been updated to a more rustic feel to go with the softer 32-bit colour scheme.
The only significant change made at all to gameplay is the raising of the maximum population cap to 500. This is a lost opportunity to fix the kinds of problems that even diehard fans consider simple annoyances. The ability to select more than 20 units would have been a worthy addition, and is simply a control flaw rather than a balance or creative issue. Running at 1920x1080 allows for a huge number of units on one screen, which still need to be divided into small divisions to command in battle.
The most positive change – and one that will justify the price tag for most players – is multiplayer. Although alternative matchmaking services have done much to keep interest in the online game alive over the years since the demise of Microsoft’s clunky Gaming Zone, Steam integration puts players back onto a universal ladder system. The platform’s social features and existing framework also mean players can come to the game with their own networks firmly in place.
So for better or worse, Steam has come along and is now selling a game it’s quite possible many gamers already own in some form or other. The changes are subtle, but well-intentioned and admirably executed. Multiplayer is excellent. Those who loved Age of Empires II should happily indulge in some nostalgia with this HD facelift. Anyone new to the game will be frustrated by the lack of modern control systems and responsive hot keys.
Be sure to check out Nerd House Gaming
for more reviews!