Review: Age of Empires II (HD Edition)

Alphabetically, and by playtime, Age of Empires II: HD Edition comes up first in my Steam library. Though its metacritic score of 68/100 places it on the cautiously “mixed” side of the review spectrum, I still find it a classic which absolutely lives up to its legacy.

The original came out at the end of the 90’s, tempered between my raucous outdoors play with “traditional” toys, and long rainy afternoons spent enthralled by the new-fangled technology. During the days of Encarta, the discovery that history could be learned by doing (rather than merely reading) was a revelation. That, I think, is one of the key features that made AoE such a nostalgic franchise.

At its heart, Age of Empires II is a real-time strategy game; the bells and whistles expanding from its predecessor (or even current DLC) merely enhance what is already a solid experience, emulated to this day in the mobile gaming formats.

The maps and winning scenarios differ, either by player choice or pre-set campaign parameters. In general, the goal is to use villager denizens to gather resources and upkeep buildings, research incremental technologies (with many dependent on the “Age” – such as Feudal), and train an army to lay siege to enemy territories or defend against their attempts to seize your own.

It is not always a game of numbers. Clever use of terrain, expenditure of resources, and units’ advantages when matched with oncoming hordes can all turn the tide of battle. Why cross a bridge with slow and vulnerable onagers, when a war galley can swiftly decimate poorly placed watchtowers, especially if the enemy docks have already been taken care of to prevent counterattack? A squadron of pikemen waiting at the bottleneck of a cliff can make quick work of unprotected cavalry. Throw armoured elephants into the mix and you’ve got yourself a Hannibalistic party…

I never was much for multiplayer competition, so I cannot elaborate on that particular aspect. Nor was I ever truly adept at min/max ratios, or the more technical side of UIs. What I loved about the game aged 7, and what is still drawing me to it some 20 years later, is the unbridled joy of watching scimitar-swinging mamelukes successfully lay waste to a band targeting my trade caravans. It was and is the triumph of sneaking past English troops to plant a French flag in their square. The long, empty stretches of ice-rimmed sea pushing dragon-prowed longboats to look for promised lands…

My nostalgia, perhaps, tints what is a frankly dated game with new sense of wonder. Each play-through is different and each time a new strategy comes to mind, a different aspect to prioritise, a safer stronghold to establish. The challenge brings all of the elation and defeat, and has me still cursing transport ships’ capacity after a modest 162 hours under my belt.

Screenshot credit to Eatmybogbrush here.

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