Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is a lot. It adds new campaigns, civilizations, revamped enemy AI, and 4K graphics, in case you’ve been waiting to see a flood of medieval warriors clash incomprehensibly with one another in crisp detail. Remastered and slightly reworked, one of the defining real-time strategy games of the turn of the century still holds up 20 years later, even if a few niggling frustrations remain.
Out today on Steam, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition doubles as the game’s fifth expansion, adding three new campaigns and four new civilizations: Bulgarians, Cumans, Lithuanians and Tatars. All of the new campaigns involve battles in Eastern Europe and Northwestern Asia. The introductions and voicework for the existing campaigns have also been updated. But at this point if you are actually interested in history or in the complex, overlapping development of world cultures and military conflicts that could arise from that development, you’d be wise to look elsewhere, because this game isn’t that deep when it comes to that. I’ve never been that interested in Age of Empires II single-player scenarios, even if their wide range of historically inspired objectives and starting conditions can be a nice distraction. They are also where the game shows its age the most.
The real reason to return remains the game’s skirmish mode, whose combination of fast-paced resource extraction and large-scale military sieges still has the power to make me forget about everything else until after the sun has gone down and I should be making dinner… but not until my elephants stomp through my opponents’ Wonder. A new computer AI helps make the experience feel more dynamic and challenging. Computer opponents can multitask, and will actually build out fortifications in a way that makes sense and maximizes their defensive value, rather than the more slapdash expansion that AI opponents used to do, where resource hubs and markets are placed right next to castles and turrets. A new Empire mode lets you start off matches in the Feudal age with a small, pre-built village, blowing past the initial drudgery of sheep herding.
I don’t have a 4K display, but I can still see a difference in the updated version, and the visual overhaul makes the showdown feel more lively. Everything is well-lit, and all of the little details pop without looking disjointed from the rest of the world. There are even some new animations. Look how beautifully this castle falls down:
A handful of other updates make the experience even more slick:
The game now automatically excludes villagers when you’re trying to group up your armies.
Villagers can stack building commands instead of just working on whatever they were most recently assigned.
You can queue up upgrades rather than needing to wait until each technology finished being researched.
There’s finally a zoom function so that you can get a closer look at what’s going on during battles, although in my opinion, it doesn’t zoom in far enough.
There’s finally an option for auto-farming rather than constantly needing to queue up new plots in the mill. Dieu merci!
The new civilizations, all of which have cavalry as their speciality units, also have new specialty buildings, including the Bulgarians’ Kreposts, which are mini-castles that can also spawn specialty cavalry, and the Lithuanians hillforts, town centres that have additional attack range. I still wish some of the existing civilizations had seen minor tweaks and additions to augment their standard strategies.
There are a few other things that remain frustrating when it comes to Age of Empires II’s second time being remastered (Age of Empires II HD was released in 2013). Unit pathing still feels archaic at times, with archers getting caught along snags in rivers as their targets scamper away, or knights getting blocked by a sea of villagers chopping down wood.
Also, while the enemy AI has gotten a lot smarter, individual units have not. Despite being able to queue commands, I wish there were more granular options for controlling my armies, like having them specifically target ranged or siege units, rather than immediately firing at will once the thing I told them to attack has been destroyed.
The UI can also become annoying, serving up frequent pop-up messages and warnings that take too long to disappear. Yes, I know I’m still under attack! Now please let me get back to micro-ing my navy. It’s possible to shrink the UI to free up more screen space, but there aren’t options for customising exactly what appears.
None of these issues ever stopped me from wanting to start another match though, which is both a testament to how solid the game’s fundamentals remain all these years later and also makes me reflect on the shortcomings of more recent real-time strategy games that haven’t managed to nail this game’s mix of simple city building and complex tech tree trade-offs. And now that Microsoft is finally switching to dedicated servers for the Definitive Edition, it’ll be fun to watch what comes out of the small but vibrant Age of Empires II competitive community as it goes into its third decade. Even if I never play another multiplayer match online again, turtling inside a giant city that I spent three hours perfecting as the computer dutifully lays siege to my tenth set of auxiliary defences is still every bit as satisfying as it was the first time.