Age of Empires is an old franchise. Very old, in fact the first Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings came out in 1999. Now that’s a damn old game, but it was so beloved and so great of a game, that it was “renewed” for an HD edition just recently, along with its sequel, Age of Mythology, and it begs the question- what is it that makes these games so good?
AoE represents everything an RTS player could want in a Medieval game. Distinct, interesting civilizations with unique units, traits, and weaknesses. Fantastic campaigns that follow historical figures, and even contain real factual information on the leaders like Saladin, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Arc, taking you through their paths as the Arabs, or the Mongols, or the French, as you play out real historical events in the form of the game.
In AoE you can build your own civilization up from scratch, harvesting resources like gold and wood to build up your walls, your castles, your armies, and then pit them against your opponent. There is a large amount of freedom in how you can tackle the different campaign missions, letting you take advantage of the sandbox that the game represents.
What is even more important, though, is that you can play with your friends. Some of the most fun I’ve had gaming is, by using the robust map editor that AoE provides, setting up different scenarios with my friends and then playing them out. You can give one player an immense city, with defensive emplacements and obstacles to advancement, then give three other players armies to attack, creating an immense and interesting battle just on your own, free of what the game developers planned for you to do.
More importantly for a lot of people, it’s balanced. No RTS is truly balanced, so it’s tough for me to make that claim, but it is pretty damn close. Every race; Mongols, Britains, Huns, Chinese, and a whole slew more, provide unique bonuses to your units that other races might not get. One civilization might not get gunpowder, and the powerful advantage that presents, but instead need absolutely no houses in order to build units, or have special cavalry that is twice as strong as their opponents.
Sixteen years after this game was initially released, and the HD version came out, there was a tournament for Age of Empires 2 just last year with a prize pool of $120,000. One hundred and twenty thousand dollars, for a game that was made, initially, sixteen years ago. The competitive scene for this game remains incredibly active, and represents game design at its finest when something can still stand on a competitive stage among modern games like Starcraft, DOTA, and other competitive, much more modern titles.
It is, arguably, the best RTS ever made, and with the HD edition it has been brought back up to, if not good graphics, then graphics that can be shown on modern screens, and admired for what they are. They certainly aren’t the core of the experience, but the aesthetic from 1999 still holds today, regardless of how many pixels are embedded in the textures.
Oh, almost an afterthought. The game is modded to the high heavens. If you want a mod for something in the game, odds are it exists, and even better odds that multiple people are playing it. The AoE community is not just large, it is diverse, and they have so much more to offer than just improved textures. Drive around attack cars and defeat your enemy with elephants, little is more fun than that. This game’ll let you do it, and it’s certainly worth the dip in the genre to try.