Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Is a Virtually Perfect Remaster

As a long time fan of the franchise, I of course pre-ordered the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition as soon as the option became available. As launch date grew closer, I became increasingly excited, but I worried I was over-hyping myself. Could a game that old, even polished up with modern graphics, still be exciting in this day and age?

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

The answer is yes.

I remember now why I spent what feels like half my childhood playing this game. It’s hard to even point to any one specific thing that makes it special, but something about the way all the pieces of this game come together — economy, military, exploration — makes it fiendishly addictive.

I’m a bit jaded these days, and I don’t often find myself binging games the way I used to, but I’ve spent the last few days devoting almost every free moment to this game.

There are a few things that have lost their luster now that I see them through an adult’s more critical eye, but only a few. Mainly, I do somewhat resent this game’s dependence on siege weapons. They’re a hassle as an attacker because they’re so slow and clunky and fragile, and they’re a hassle as a defender because they can tear through your defenses so fast if you don’t counter them.

All that does make for interesting micro and counter-play on both sides, but I just wish it wasn’t such a huge part of the game. Castles are so strong that you have pretty much no hope of winning against them without siege engines, so there’s no escaping that gameplay. Every match just turns into baby-sitting your trebuchets while they slowly tear down the enemy base.

It’s not an unenjoyable way to play; there just needs to be more variety.

A mission briefing from the Malian campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Other than that, it’s a blast. The Definitive Edition does a beautiful job of updating the game with needed quality of life changes without harming the spirit of the original in any way.

And of course the graphics are massively improved. Considering the age of the engine, this game is downright gorgeous, and yet they’ve done a truly amazing job of being faithful to the original art. Everything looks the same, just better.

This is the gold standard for how to execute a video game remaster.

What makes this even more of a treat is how much new content there is. The Definitive Edition includes all of the expansions from the previous “HD” edition, plus more new content on top of that. The number of civilizations and campaigns has roughly doubled compared to when I played as a kid. It’s staggering, almost overwhelming.

I’ve completed four new campaigns so far, plus some standalone missions and skirmishes, and it’s all pretty high quality.

I also dipped into some of the older campaigns briefly just for comparison’s sake. Doing the first Joan of Arc mission was a massive nostalgia trip, let me tell you. I was a bit jarred at first because they’ve replaced all of the original voice acting for the campaigns, but except for Jean de Metz, the new actors are all as good or better than the originals, and since this isn’t the most story-driven game anyway I learned to accept it pretty fast.

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Any other changes to the campaigns are minor, and entirely the sort of thing it makes sense to change. For example, Joan the Maid now has a unique character model, rather than looking like a standard female villager.

My one disappointment so far is the new Indian civilization. They’re a bit wonky. They’re mainly a camel and gunpowder civilization, but their unique unit is an elephant archer, which is neither, and they don’t get gunpowder units during their campaign. Okay?

On a related note, I guess my other disappointment with the new civilizations is that despite the proliferation of elephant units, there still isn’t really a civilization that can go for a pure elephant army the way you could in other AoE games. Closest is Khmer with their ballista elephants, but you still at the very least need some regular archers and siege weapons to back up their elephants. It’s baffling that they didn’t give battle elephants to the Indians; then they could have had a proper elephant-focused build.

On the other hand, my favourite of the new options so far is the Inca. They’re possibly a little over-powered, but very fun. With the ability to eschew archers entirely in favour of skirmishers and slingers plus one of the game’s more unique unique units (a pikeman whose spear is long enough that their attack has range), their playstyle feels very different and fresh.

I’ve also enjoyed the Malians and the Bulgarians. It’s downright disgusting how cost effective the Bulgarian unique unit can be. In general, Indians and a few other minor complaints notwithstanding, the new civilizations feel like a good addition to the game.

A Bulgarian city in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Undoubtedly soon I will begin to lose steam. As excellent as it is, this game surely cannot keep me this addicted forever.

But for now, I need to go finish the Bulgarian campaign.

Gaming Round-Up: Bioware and Blizzard

I’ve found myself in another period of jumping between a bunch of games in rapid succession lately. Without intending it, I’ve ended up on a bit of a Bioware kick, though Blizzard has also put in an appearance.

A Season of Skulls event in Anthem.

I’ve chosen to participate in IntPiPoMo again this year, so I’ll be including extra screenshots of every game. Click to enlarge!

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’ve been meaning to do it forever, but I finally did a third playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda. As I’ve said before, the new game plus in this game is truly second to none. After two playthroughs, I had all the skill points and gear I could possibly need. I didn’t need to waste any time mining, gathering, or even looting bodies. It makes for a much tighter, more story-driven experience.

I skipped even more side content this time — especially on Kadara — making for a nice breezy playthrough.

This time I did something I haven’t done in Mass Effect before: I played as a soldier, using mainly combat abilities. It’s definitely not as fun as biotics, but it’s not without its charm. Overdrive plus a rapid-firing assault rifle gets pretty hilarious.

I also romanced Jaal this time. It took a while to get to the good stuff, but I can see why his romance is so well-regarded. Dude’s so passionate he makes even me feel a bit weak in the knees.

Sara Ryder and Jaal in Mass Effect: Andromeda

SWTOR: Onslaught

I had pretty low expectations for this expansion, but even so it’s a disappointment.

First of all, calling it an “expansion” is pushing credibility to a breaking point. It has barely any more content than their recent content patches. I think the whole thing took me maybe five hours.

That might be forgivable if they hit the ball out of the park on the quality of the content, but they didn’t, at all. The entire story is crushingly dull. It feels like they rehashed some rejected side quests from the base game. It’s a very small, ultimately irrelevant story. It’s downright insulting to go from being a galactic super power to doing fetch quests for some nameless back alley gangster.

The faction conflict worked in the original class stories because it was just a backdrop for more personal stories. My agent had personal reasons for fighting back against Hunter and his ilk. There’s none of that in Onslaught; you have no reason to care about anyone or anything in this story. It’s just shooting faceless NPCs of the enemy faction.

At the very end, there are some teases of a new direction for the story, and it sounds very interesting, but it begs the question of why we didn’t just skip to the good stuff. Why waste time with the tedious chores that make up Onslaught?

The planet Onderon in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The one thing I can praise about Onslaught is that it doesn’t feel like a total reboot of the story after the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne arc. I was worried it would be. But the Odessen Alliance is still a player in the story, and there’s lots of cameos by familiar cast members. Even Koth put in an appearance.

I would have liked more content with Lana — weren’t we supposed to be getting married? — but at least she’s not gone entirely. That gives me some hope for the future.

But man, even for the low price of a month of subscription, I feel ripped off by Onslaught. What a waste of time.

Anthem

I’ve also ducked back into Anthem for a brief visit. I was drawn by the new Mass Effect-themed Javelin skins. I’d yet to find a look for my interceptor that I really liked, and Quarians are my favourite ME aliens, so buying the Quarian skin was a bit of a no-brainer.

I love it. Even if I hadn’t been a Mass Effect fan, I might still have gotten the skin because it just looks so damn good and is so different from anything we have in the game right now.

Anthem has done a really good job at adding interesting cosmetics, and the fashion endgame is getting pretty serious. And I, for one, welcome our new fashionista overlords.

The Quarian Interceptor skin in Anthem.

I also checked out the new freeplay events added for the “Season of Skulls.” They’re pretty fun. The one with the torches in the darkness especially stands out as being very atmospheric and rather different from any of Anthem’s previous content.

Anthem unquestionably has a problem with anemic content right now, but I must say the quality of what content does get added never disappoints.

StarCraft II

I’m at the point now where I think I’m willing to drop my boycott against Blizzard, though I definitely plan to be more skeptical of what they do in future. Brack’s apology at BlizzCon doesn’t count for much, but the tolerance they showed to protesters at the convention does speak to a willingness to walk the walk on free speech. It’s the bare minimum necessary to maintain the illusion of decency, but the bare minimum is by definition good enough.

I still the company’s changed, and I’m trying to lose my blind fanboyism for them, but I’m willing to give them another chance at this point.

For now all that’s manifested as is finally buying Stetmann in SC2’s co-op, though even then I paid using some of my remaining WoW Token balance.

Playing as Egon Stetmann in StarCraft II co-op.

He’s an interesting commander, but I don’t think he’ll ever be my favourite. I like the concept of the Stetallite mechanic, wherein he blankets the map with satellites that project various buff fields, but the way it’s implemented feels like a bit of a chore. You spend every free moment dropping more Stetallites, and it gets exhausting after a while.

Zerglings with Immortal shields get pretty hilarious, though. I’ve had surprising success just massing swarms of Lings and swamping the map with them. Back them up with Hydralisks for anti-air; their missile attack is godly.