My Steam account says I’ve logged 80 hours of total gameplay. Compared to long list of other games in my catalog, it currently sits somewhere in the middle, but that number doesn’t reflect the true time I’ve spent with Age of Empires II. While I have been playing the game a lot over the last several months, the hours I’ve cataloged pale in comparison to the time I spent in the early 2000s with the game after its initial release. I can’t even begin to guess total hours played, and I would probably be shocked and a bit ashamed if I were ever to find out.
In March of this year, the classic medieval strategy game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings and its expansion, The Conquerors, was re-released under the title Age of Empires II: HD Edition. Hidden Path Entertainment gave the much-loved classic an overhaul, taking over for the now defunct Ensemble Studios, and re-released the game on Steam, nearly 15 years after the game’s debut.
I was initially skeptical and a bit confused when I heard the game was being updated. I loved the original game, and couldn’t imagine what Hidden Path would do to revitalize the aging RTS. After all, the later games in the series had tried to expand on the success of Age of Empires II, with diminishing returns.
Mechanically, the original Age of Empires II worked like a good Real Time Strategy should: matches versus computers or humans were excellently paced, with most games ranging from 30 minutes to several hours (Sins of a Solar Empire, this is not). All the playable civilizations maintained a careful balance, yet felt unique in play-style. While the single player campaigns seemed ancillary to the varied and robust multiplayer option, it is the game’s multiplayer that kept the game alive the past fifteen years. The single player campaign feels dated now, with AI scripting that leaves a lot to be desired, but criticizing that aspect of the game feels like blemishing a perfectly good multiplayer game. Like Call of Duty, don’t bother if you’re looking to be satisfied with solo play. So how does the Age of Empires II: HD re-release hold up to the original game nearly fifteen years later?
With the release of Age of Empires II: HD, Hidden Path provided an answer to all my concerns: "Why mess with a product that isn’t broken?" Brilliantly, the re-release of Age of Empires II stays true to the original. With the exception of a significant graphics overhaul, most of the changes to the game seem more like late-development tweaks than major changes to the core. So the question that remains: is the aesthetic update worth the cost of buying the game (or in my case, re-buying it)? I suppose answering that question depends on what you thought of the original.
In HD, you can see my entire city without scrolling
From what I can tell by the hours I’ve logged in the game, there are only a few major differences between the original Age of Empires II and the HD re-release, and they all have to do with online play. First, Hidden Path has developed a simple online matchmaking service for players. For me this is the number one reason to buy the game again. I’ve been utilizing the multiplayer features since Hidden Path re-released the game, and I’m impressed at not only its ease of use, but at the developer’s response to community feedback. And this is the second change that the re-release benefits from: rather than just re-introducing a familiar game and banking on the nostalgia for RTS games of the early 2000s to turn a quick profit, Hidden Path has used the popularity of the game and community response to provide regular patches and updates.
New and improved multiplayer lobby
These regular updates range from GUI patches to minor in-game tweaks to balance the changes made to the game. Hidden Path has delivered the original Age of Empires experience, but in a cleaner, sleeker package.
Marginally improved flame animations!
I’ve been a longtime fan of the Age of Empires series—it’s one of the few game series I’ve played regularly over the last decade. But even after later games in the series were released, I returned to the second installment in the series along with many Age of Empires enthusiasts. For years we have been forced to meet in basements and dining rooms for multiplayer LAN games, ever since Microsoft ditched the MSN Gaming Zone. I would invite friends several times a year for all-day Age of Empires tournaments—a ritual maintained to this day. The HD re-release of the Microsoft classic serves as reminder that old games are still great, and have just as much to offer today as they did upon initial release. With Age of Empires: HD, I don’t have to wait for LAN games with my friends. I can play with thousands of fans across the world who love the game as much as I do.