“Never go back”
Above are the words which reflect the strongly held beliefs of a certain member of TheXboxHub team. When it comes to making games in the current age, you’ll seldom find wiser words. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s absolutely worth going back.
I also had to pinch myself because after finding that BBC Three was back on the telly at the same time as Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition returned to the forefront of gaming, I was convinced I’d mastered the art of time travel.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that I’m a huge fan of the original game. It was one of the few that I could play on the family PC as a kid, requiring a whopping 8MB of RAM to run properly. I vividly remember unwrapping it on Christmas morning, and getting lost in a world full of wonder, excitement and danger.
But, can a game which is well over twenty years old hold up in the current day? The short answer is yes, because Age of Empires II is one of, if not the best strategy game of all time. When you’re building on foundations such as these, it’s very hard to go wrong.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the original (although I’m not quite sure how that’s possible), Age of Empires II is a real time strategy game which follows some of history’s most influential figures and civilisations. Just watching the William Wallace intro backed by the narration washed over me with a wave of warming nostalgia.
Typically, you start off in the dark ages with a small tribe and need to manage your economy in order to grow. Of course, you’ll constantly come under fire from enemy forces so building and maintaining an army is essential. There are all sorts of scenarios thrown at you, as well as different game modes you can play such as Regicide, Wonder Race and so many more.
The game has been re-released several times over the years (even for the PlayStation 2), but in 2019 the definitive edition hit the PC to mark the game’s 20th anniversary. However, this wasn’t simply a remake, but a new start for the game with fresh campaigns and updates regularly being implemented.
There is a lot of content here too. There are loads of missions to get your teeth into (everything since the original in fact) offering hundreds of hours of gameplay in total. “The Last Khans” is a brand spanking new expansion which adds three more campaigns and four never before available civilisations to play as.
Alongside new content, there are rolling tweaks to the game’s UI as well as the scenario editor, which allows you to create your own stories if you have the skills and patience to do so.
As with any strategy game the real test when porting it over to a console is getting the controls right. How on earth do you translate all those menus and clicks over to a controller, without a mouse and keyboard? Well, it’s simply a case of reinventing the wheel.
This was likely the biggest challenge with bringing Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition to the Xbox. However, through clever use of the D-Pad and several selection wheels, it all comes together really well. Key inputs, such as finding an idle villager, are assigned to the D-Pad. You can also hold a different direction down to highlight all of your military units, for example.
You can take further control by splitting your population into groups, holding LB, and then assigning them to the D-Pad too. This helps you manage several events at a time, and split units effectively depending on the enemy you are facing. Or, you can hold down A to open a selection field and run it over every unit you want to select. However you play, the setup allows you to take good control of your armies.
One recommendation I would make regarding the default controls is to turn the reticule snap command off. This automatically moves the cursor over the nearest unit, but I found it to be too inaccurate to be useful when trying to pick between the crowd.
In terms of unit commands and building functions, simply holding RT down will open up a wheel with all of your available options. You can then select what you want to do with the thumbstick and press A to execute the action. The controls are full of intuitive little flourishes such as the ability to string together commands by holding LT. This means it’s easy to have a scout explore a set path (they can even be set to auto mode), or ensure your villager builds enough houses for your population without you having to constantly check in on them. Between the fluid control layout and plethora of game settings, you really do have a lot of power over how you play Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. We’ve come a long way since having to rebuild farms when they expire.
Occasionally one of my units would get stuck in some scenery, or if the queue at one of the military buildings became crowded a couple of folks would become trapped within. It was a rare occurrence, but evidence that the odd glitch remains.
My only real major gripe is one which I remember encountering in the original game. In certain situations, the AI will stumble and your units will do something a little stupid. Whether that’s simply standing still and taking some arrows to the head, or grouping together as a siege weapon reigns down death, your strategy can collapse if you don’t keep your eyes on what’s going on. You can change the “stance” or behaviour of your units to a degree, but this won’t solve all of your problems. Instead, you’ll often need to manually intervene and take corrective action whilst shouting “What are you doing?!” in sheer panic.
Dodgy AI also works in your favour however. Sometimes enemies will simply stand idly by as you gather precious resources, or will run at your walls despite nearby towers picking them off with ease. Everything in the game feels like it has leaped forward considerably, with the exception of the AI which hasn’t quite made the same strides.
I’ve always loved the uniquely stylised civilizations and Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition delivers these in eye popping 4k. It looks very similar to the original with a glow up and some new animations, but this isn’t a bad thing as the design has always been brilliant. And there is something incredibly satisfying about watching the crumbling debris of a building you’ve just razed to the ground. The original soundtrack has also been remastered, containing those classic tunes with some new twists thrown in for good measure.
Despite all this, the most exciting thing about Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is the hassle free multiplayer. I remember the days of logging in to MSN Gaming Zone praying that luck was on my side and I’d be able to get into an online game. When that was no more, a friend of mine managed to find a workaround so we could play online together. How far we have come since then.
Smooth matchmaking was first made a reality a few years ago on the PC, but now it is finally available on console. Not only this, but a new co-op mode has recently been added too which allows you to tackle certain campaign missions with your mates.
Playing Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition with friends is as easy as any other game on your Xbox. The options available to you aren’t watered down either, or you can opt for the default settings if you just want to jump in. There are even real world maps available to play, or special locations for a different challenge.
As you probably expect, playing with other humans is a lot of fun. Chatting tactics, revisiting old chat inputs (11 anyone?) and rushing in to save each other is more exhilarating than ever. My preferred tactic, erecting walls of doom and then sitting deep to tech up, feels less risky if I have a few villagers camped in my ally’s base as a backup.
There is so much more I could ramble on about when it comes to Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. The classic has had new life breathed into it, and is well supported by Xbox Game Studios for the console market, enjoying a thriving community once again. It holds a special place in my heart and it is an absolute joy to play on Xbox, which is the biggest triumph here. The whole experience bodes well for Age of Empires IV, which is also due to land this year on home consoles.
It’s not necessarily what’s been done to the game which makes it so good, but how it highlights the genius of the original. Sure, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has been well polished and given loads of new content, but more importantly this has helped what made the original so special shine even brighter.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition brings a true classic back for a new generation. Whether you are a die hard strategy fan or first time invader, there is no better place to start.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is on the Xbox Store and Game Pass