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.

Review: Moons of Madness

I may not be thrilled with Funcom’s handling of The Secret World and its less than stellar reboot, but I love this setting, and I want to keep it alive, so I’m more than happy to support any games using its IP. Let’s be real anyway: A franchise of single-player games is probably what TSW should have been all along.

Mars as depicted in The Secret World spin-off game Moons of MadnessEnter Moons of Madness, the second single-player spin-off of The Secret World. It is significantly bigger and more ambitious than its predecessor, The Park, but not quite as brilliantly executed.

Taking place in the not too distant future, Moons of Madness places you in the shoes of a mid-level Orochi employee on a research base on Mars. Just by saying “Orochi,” I’ve probably given you a pretty good idea of what ends up happening. Suffice it to say things don’t go well.

The strange thing is that Moons of Madness is much more overt in connecting to the story of TSW than The Park was — familiar concepts like the Filth and anima are front and centre — but it still feels less like a TSW game.

What I like about the TSW setting is that it’s not what I would consider to be “traditional” horror. It’s not a barrage of jump scares and gross-outs; it has those things, but it doesn’t use them as a crutch. It’s more subtle.

Moons of Madness is not subtle. There are jump scares waiting around every corner. If you’re a hardcore horror fan, you might enjoy it, but I found it exhausting, and it feels crude compared to what has come before in the TSW setting.

Maddened scrawlings in The Secret World spin-off game Moons of Madness.It does get better near the end. The final couple hours become more surreal and narrative-focused, as you would expect from a good Secret World story. I enjoyed the game a lot more by then.

I didn’t love the very ending, though. It feels like it trivializes the threat of the Dreamers a bit.

When it comes to gameplay, Moons of Madness is competent, if not groundbreaking. When you take away the trappings of horror, this is essentially a puzzle game. A bit like an extended investigation mission from TSW, though not quite so devilishly arcane and difficult. Some puzzles are obvious, like brewing a specific chemical concoction, while others are more environmental puzzles around evading various threats.

I’m not a huge puzzle guy, but I think they mostly did a good job on these. A few are a bit frustrating (usually due to unclear instructions or other quality of life hiccups), but mostly they manage to hit the sweet spot of being just challenging enough to be interesting, at least for me.

They do a good job of keeping it fresh, too. New mechanics are continually introduced throughout the game, so it never starts to feel stale.

A creature of the Filth in The Secret World spin-off game Moons of Madness.On the whole, it’s a solid game, but it doesn’t feel quite as special as previous Secret World games.

Overall rating: 7/10