Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings debuted on Sept. 30, 1999. If anything, its popularity has only grown in the last 20 years. Dedicated commanders continued to play the original game for more than a decade, devising ingenious workarounds to its aging online infrastructure. An HD rerelease in 2013 added support for modern machines. Enthusiastic developers put out a series of official expansions that took players to Africa, South Asia and beyond. The message was clear: Age of Empires II is one of the best real-time strategy games of all time, and fans wanted to keep playing it.
Enter Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Microsoft announced the game at E3 2019, with fairly lofty ambitions. Not only would the title combine every existing piece of AoEII content and not only would it add a bevy of quality-of-life-improvements, but it would also include a whole new campaign, complete with four new playable races. And it would bring all of this content together for just $20.
AoEII is an old game, and it's starting to show its age in some respects. Pathfinding is still clunky, and civilizations don't always feel as distinct as they could — especially now that players have 35 races form which to choose. But it's also a tight, refined, ambitious game that now runs beautifully on modern machines, complete with a generous amount of new content. It's hard to imagine any real-time strategy fan passing on this, one of the best PC games you can currently buy.
For those who have never played the Age of Empires series, the pitch is pretty straightforward. You take control of a civilization and guide it through a stretch of world history, facing off against other civilizations on the way. Age of Empires II covers, roughly, the 5th century through the 16th century — or, in other words, the fall of Rome through the beginning of the gunpowder era. The game is approximately half base-building and half military conquest. However, the exact mix can vary, depending on your play style. Unlike with many other RTS games, in which conquest is the only way to win, you can also secure victory by economic or architectural means.
The minute-to-minute gameplay looks something like this: You start by choosing a civilization from world history. There are 35 civilizations from which to choose, and each one has different strengths and weaknesses. You can choose the Aztecs, for example, who pump out powerful infantry at a fast pace but can't field any cavalry. Or you could choose the Byzantines, who can construct powerful, durable buildings but have relatively few bonuses on offense. Or you could choose the Vietnamese, whose powerful archers dominate from a distance but who can't access some of the best siege weapons.
If you don't like those choices, don't worry: There are 32 others. As you can imagine, finding your favorite race takes some trial and error. Each race also has unique units, which can range from horsemen who tear buildings apart to infantrymen who can attack from a distance.
You begin with a town center, a handful of villagers and a scout cavalryman in random-map and multiplayer games. You usually start with a semi-established base in campaign missions. Either way, the game flow is the same: Create villagers, gather resources, upgrade your technology, build up an army, and either attack your foe or defend your own base, depending on your play style. Expect lots of farms, lumber camps, gold mines, swordsmen, knights, crossbowmen, battering rams, trebuchets and wonders of the world along the way.
The gameplay is just as riveting now as it was back in 1999, but it's much more straightforward, thanks to a bevy of quality-of-life improvements. You can set villagers to automatically replant farms. You can create "action queues" so that builders can go right back to gathering resources once they're done with construction. You can program complex routes for your scouts. You can queue up technology and units at the same time, rather than having to micromanage them separately. At the top of the screen, you can see every technology you're researching and every unit you're producing, and you can get back to the relevant building at the touch of a button.
There is only one big area of the game that hasn't seen many improvements: the pathfinding. This part of Age of Empires has long been a subject of derision; it's a little better than it was before but still problematic. Left to their own devices, units are terrible at navigating through tight spaces, and they target enemy units and buildings haphazardly. Granted, high-level players will want to micromanage their armies to a great degree anyway, but having to babysit a large army while besieging an enemy base, defending a home base, and continuing to build your economy and replace units as needed can be an incredibly difficult juggling act.
While you could easily play random-map and multiplayer games for dozens of hours and be perfectly happy with Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, it's worth pointing out that the game contains 21 historical campaigns. The developers estimate that these campaigns alone could provide up to 200 hours of content. (I'd estimate it's somewhere between 80 and 100 hours, but the bottom line is that it's a lot.)
In each campaign, you'll take control of a famous military leader, such as Joan of Arc, Attila the Hun, Vlad "Dracula" Tepes, Tariq ibn Ziyad and Tamerlane. Then, you'll lead that leader's forces through an increasingly difficult series of battles, exploring some of their most famous real-world conflicts along the way.
The campaigns are my favorite part of Age of Empires II, as the scenarios and objectives can vary significantly from scenario to scenario. Winning is rarely as simple as conquering a single enemy base; you may have to forge tenuous alliances, escort vulnerable units to fortified locations, traverse battlefields without provoking enemy attacks or build castles in strategic choke points. You're almost guaranteed to learn something about world history along the way, even if the developers do take a few liberties. (The Mongols didn't really sweep across Western Europe after reaching Vienna, if memory serves.)
The developers have even added four new campaigns for AoEII: DE, with four new civilizations to go along with them. Called The Last Khans, the campaigns introduce the Bulgarians, the Cumans, the Lithuanians and the Tatars. These four civilizations, displaced by the Mongol invasion, all have strong cavalries and some early game economic benefits to start them off on the right foot.
While I wish that the new civilizations had a little more variety (you're going to see a LOT of horses), they're a welcome, balanced addition to the game. Likewise, The Last Khans scenarios don't redefine the well-worn formula for AoE story campaigns, but if you needed another good excuse to make peace between warring tribes, level hard-to-reach castles and otherwise triumph over incredibly entrenched enemies, you'll enjoy these campaigns. They're put together as well as any other missions.
There's even a new Art of War campaign, which teaches you multiplayer techniques, such as booming (economic superiority), rushing (early game military harassment) and castling (one of the fastest ways to access late-game technology).
Unfortunately, it's difficult to evaluate the multiplayer in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition at the moment. I reviewed the game in a rather quiet period between the end of the beta and the game's official release, so I didn't have anyone to play with except for a handful of other journalists. It's not representative of the experience players will have when hundreds of competitors start filling the servers with every variety of skill level and game type.
At the very least, I can say that the multiplayer options are much more robust than they were back in 1999. You'll find ranked multiplayer, casual multiplayer, multiplayer vs. AI, public games, private games, leaderboards and even a brand-new spectator mode, which should prove useful if AoEII:DE takes off in the esports arena.
You can also tweak a ton of options for casual games, from victory conditions, to map size, to teams, to the length of a "treaty" that prevents players from attacking each other early in the game. (While early game rushes are vital to high-level multiplayer mode, I can vouch from personal experience that it's almost always more fun if you take some time to marshal your forces first. We used to have to arrange this by a gentleman's agreement, and the other player was not always guaranteed to be a gentleman.)
Assuming the servers run well, multiplayer looks robust and vibrant, particularly since the game supports cross-play between Steam and the Microsoft Store. But we'll see once the servers go live and acclimate after the inevitable first-day onslaught.
Graphics and sound
One of the biggest draws of AoEII: DE is that you can finally crank the resolution up to 4K and zoom all the way in on gorgeously animated sprites. Of course, you'll need a very, very powerful gaming PC to do so. On an (admittedly pretty old) Intel i5 2.67-GHz processor with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 GPU, the high-res graphics slowed my game to an unplayable crawl. (Without the high-res package active, it ran pretty well, although the game took a long time to start up, with some very laggy particle effects.) On the other hand, the high-res models are just as gorgeous as I'd hoped, so if you can crank the visuals all the way up without sacrificing game speed, you absolutely should.
Then, there's the music, which is even better than ever — and that's saying something, considering that the original game had some of the most compulsively hummable tunes in gaming history. The core soundtrack got an extensive remix, complete with revised instrumentation and some clever harmonies that weren't present the first time around. But the bigger deal is that every civilization now has its own theme music, which plays for about a minute before the regular soundtrack kicks in. The Celts are full of brassy pipes, while the Goths have a much darker string arrangement, and so forth.
My one quibble is that all of the campaign missions have new dialogue recordings. The old narrators were campy and over the top, true, but that was part of their charm. The new, down-to-earth voice work has a more measured and professional quality, but world history is honestly kind of bonkers at times. I was fine with the voice actors reflecting that.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is just the right kind of remaster. It's clean, it's feature-rich, and it adds a ton of new content without taking anything away from the appeal of the original game. And at $20, it's hard to imagine a better bargain in RTS gaming. The game isn't perfect, and if we're being honest, it never was — but this iteration gets it just a little closer.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition should come out in 2020, with Age of Empires IV still on the horizon after that. While you wait, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is the perfect way to pass the time. As the game's original tag line stated, "Rome has fallen, and the world is up for grabs." Shouldn't you be the one to grab it?