REVIEW – When “Age of Empires” was released in 1997, Ensemble Studios set an ambitious goal to blend the historically-inspired gameplay of Civilization with the fast-paced action of Command & Conquer and Warcraft. The game’s slower pace and unique co-op mode set it apart from other games trying to mimic Command & Conquer’s success and made a lasting impression. The sequel “Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings” was released three years later, building upon the original game’s success.
To celebrate the series’ legacy and make it accessible to a new generation, a remastered version of the original game was released in 2018 by former modders. The modern graphics, which retained the classic charm, were well received, leading to the release of “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.” Now, the strategy classic makes its debut on consoles, bringing a piece of gaming history to a whole new audience. It’s also free on Xbox Game Pass.
Making old new again
The “Age of Empires II” series has already undergone one revision, with the “Age of Empires II: HD Edition” bringing improved graphics, but not quite living up to fan expectations. The “Definitive Edition” rectifies the missed opportunities of the HD Edition, with a complete overhaul of the game’s graphics and gameplay. User-friendliness has been greatly improved and the artificial intelligence of the opponents has been re-programmed from scratch. The new AI plays more fairly and poses a much greater challenge than the old AI, which often relied on unfair advantages.
The console version of “Age of Empires II” includes all expansions from previous versions, except for the “Lords of the West” expansion, which must be purchased separately. This version is in better condition than the PC release on the day of release, thanks to later release and extensive patches fixing technical issues and performance problems. The port to console is seamless and we encountered no performance or gameplay issues during our time with the game. However, the online mode and matchmaking were not available at the time of release.
From farming village to empire
In terms of gameplay, “Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition” sets itself apart in the strategy game genre, which is not well represented on consoles. The game puts a strong emphasis on military battles, with a diverse selection of units that evolve and expand based on the era, and race-specific units that add depth to gameplay. Building an economy is also crucial, as it funds military expansion and the cost of new technologies and units. Your workers will gather resources such as wood, stone, food, and gold, and deposit them in the appropriate warehouses. You can individually command workers, but later on, you can simplify micromanagement through automation.
You can focus on constructing new buildings and leading your people through different eras, as well as securing your territory with walls, defensive towers, and castles to protect from enemy attacks. Exploration of the map is also important to find resources and valuable relics that can lead to victory. Once you have gained the upper hand, you need to conquer your opponent by expanding cleverly and constructing siege machines.
The base game features 27 campaigns that take you through historical scenarios. For instance, the tutorial lets you lead the Scottish resistance against the English as William Wallace, or you can experience being the cruel general Vlad Dracul and understand where the Dracula legend originated. Despite the basic gameplay not changing much from campaign to campaign, the game remains exciting with its clever challenges and diverse options.
The multiplayer battles are the core of the game and matchmaking aims to provide you with the perfect opponent. While we did not test the matchmaking, we were impressed by the challenge missions, which are specifically designed to teach you tactics for competitive multiplayer. This is an effective way to introduce new players to the concepts of e-sports without overwhelming them with technical jargon and lengthy videos.
The control with a controller, which is a common issue with classic PC games ported to consoles, took some time to get used to. The key features, such as unit groups and quick access options, are mostly executed through button combinations. The user interface is clear, and after a few games, the controls become surprisingly intuitive, even though the gamepad may not match the precision of a mouse and keyboard in highly competitive games.
The retro aesthetic shines bright
At first glance, not much appears to have changed in terms of graphics from the “HD Edition”, but upon closer inspection, you’ll see that each and every game element has been redone. The graphics maintain their 2D nature, but buildings and units are now depicted with high-resolution pixel art that is lovingly animated, capturing the nostalgia of the original game while also updating it. Particular attention was given to big siege battles in some campaign missions, where the destruction of buildings was well-animated, greatly enhancing the game’s overall feel.
Thanks to 4K and HDR support, the latest generation of consoles still offers an improvement to the game’s look, even if the graphics may not impress those who have no nostalgic ties to the original.
It’s the „Age of Kings” all over again again
It’s clear that “Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition” remains an exceptional strategy game, offering an immense amount of play time for fans of the genre. It’s exciting to see a piece of video game history make its way to consoles, albeit with some compromises in terms of control. As a result, die-hard purists may prefer to stick to playing on PC rather than on a console. But with the game now available on Gamepass, a new audience has the opportunity to experience a classic in video game history at its finest.
+ Wide range of campaigns
+ Successfully updated the graphics while keeping the original design
+ Various online game options, both competitive and cooperative
– Limited variety of gameplay
– Controlling the controller can be challenging
– Some minor graphical errors
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Developer: Forgotten Empires
Style: Real-time strategy
Release: January 31, 2023.