Nostalgia. It used to be a diagnosable medical condition, curable by a good leeching. Now it seems that when we get nostalgic we cure it with a dose of an increasingly meaningless acronym, HD. But messing with art is a tricky business; we all know that Han shot first.
Gaming nostalgia appears to be more bitter-sweet than other forms. Interactivity seems to induce in us a much more complex set of emotions. The Star Wars comparison is valid, because it is one of the only movie franchises to have a fan-base dedicated enough to cross the boundary from "How do I feel?" to "What shall I do?" In other words, to perform the kind of obsessive tinkering that has always been associated with the gaming community.
Age of Empires II: Age of Kings was originally released in 1999, and it is one of the most influential titles in one of real-time strategy’s most celebrated franchises. It holds a special place within gaming history as a solid, meat-and-potatoes RTS generously drizzled with rich historical gravy.
The timing and reasons for an HD re-release say much about the current state of the industry. After the demise of series creator Ensemble Studios in 2009, competition from fan editions prompted Microsoft to seize the reins. December 2012 saw the release of Forgotten Empires, a fan mod for Age of Empires II that added new civilisations, units, and even campaigns. Forgotten Empires also used workarounds to produce a high resolution option, a favorite with today’s widescreen gamers.
Enter Hidden Path, the fledgling developer somewhat mysteriously entrusted with the redesign of the most commercially successful mod of all time, Counter-Strike. After the achievements of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the studio established a reputation as a responsible landlord of valuable gaming properties, quietly fixing the shower and re-doing the kitchen as necessary.
Age of Empires II: HD’s main changes are updates to the graphics engine, allowing the game to be compatible with modern machines. The game has been overhauled to allow players to take advantage of HD displays and multiple monitors.
But one of the strongest elements of the re-release is the score, which has been lovingly remixed. The music now evokes a more sophisticated mood than it did previously, and it’s something that adds greatly to the feel of the game.
This edition of Age of Empires II includes The Conquerors expansion, so fans wanting to replay the campaigns will find hours of familiar scenarios. These haven’t aged particularly well; the scripting system compares poorly with other titles, particularly Blizzard’s Warcraft III and StarCraft II. There are many instances of breaking the fourth wall, where victory and activation conditions are very obviously scripted rather than fitting seamlessly into gameplay.
The new textures added to water, fire, and earth add a nice new look to the terrain. It’s subtle, but the overall impression is refined and almost painterly. The terrain itself has been one of the biggest changes, with a mesh system now used to give a more even natural landscape.
Also gone are the 256 colour UI elements, and the icons have been updated to a more rustic feel to go with the softer 32-bit colour scheme.
The changes are welcome, but with higher resolutions the cracks in the engine really begin to show. Just as when playing other classics such as Empires contemporary Red Alert 2, the units seem very small on modern resolutions. The player feels more and more like a distant deity dispensing commands to puny humans, and with no zoom feature, we’re much further from the action.
Hidden Path has stated that many of the original 3D models used to animate the sprites in Age of Empires II have been lost to history, or rather to Ensemble’s collapse. But even if there was a way to remodel from scratch, it is doubtful that the will was there. Hidden Path’s mandate seems to extend no further than graphical changes, and integration of Steam’s multiplayer and social elements, as well as Steam Workshop.
It makes sense, but it looks very cynical when put in plainest terms: make a bit more money from fans, and then give them the tools needed to design fresh content themselves.
The only significant change made at all to gameplay is the raising of the maximum population cap to 500. This is a lost opportunity to fix the kinds of problems that even diehard fans consider simple annoyances. The ability to select more than 20 units would have been a worthy addition, and is simply a control flaw rather than a balance or creative issue. Running at 1920x1080 allows for a huge number of units on one screen, which still need to be divided into small divisions to command in battle.
The most positive change – and one that will justify the US$18 price tag for most players – is multiplayer. Although alternative matchmaking services have done much to keep interest in the online game alive over the years since the demise of Microsoft’s clunky Gaming Zone, Steam integration puts players back onto a universal ladder system. The platform’s social features and existing framework also mean players can come to the game with their own networks firmly in place.
It would be unfair to compare a re-release with current titles. Real-time strategy gaming has come a long way in 12 years. After Age of Empires II, the franchise moved in different directions, to greater or lesser success. There was the under-rated Age of Mythology, before series creator Ensemble Studios returned to the formula with Age of Empires III. More recently its efforts to create a more cartoony, kid-friendly massively-multiplayer iteration have fallen flat with many fans who feel the genre didn’t suit the franchise.
So for better or worse, Steam has come along and is now selling a game it’s quite possible many gamers already own in some form or other. The changes are subtle, but well-intentioned and admirably executed. Multiplayer is excellent.
Those who loved Age of Empires II should happily indulge in some nostalgia with this HD facelift. Anyone new to the game will be frustrated by the lack of modern control systems and responsive hot keys.