At the risk of starting this review with a pun, I’d have to say that it’s been ages since I last played an Age of Empires game. I recall playing the original as well as the sequel using my cousin’s PC back in the ’90s. Although I skipped the third game along with various remasters and expansions, I still remember the series fondly. That brings us to Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition made by Microsoft’s Forgotten Empires team and published by Xbox Games Studio. It’s a nostalgia trip that’s 20 years in the making for fans of the franchise. Sadly, it didn’t age like fine wine. I’ll explain more in our official review.
Update: We were recently informed that the bugs encountered during the review process were due to an older build. These issues such as disabled UHD graphics and zoom lock are expected to be fixed in time for the release of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition on November 14.
One of the most touted upgrades in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition comes in the form of visual fidelity and the means to use 4K ultra-high-definition (UHD) graphics. We were told that this option will be available as a download on launch day for those who purchase the retail version. This is also present in the game’s review build which I played. As you can see below, I have this setting enabled from the main menu:
There’s just one major problem: the option goes back to being unticked and grayed-out once I start a match. It didn’t matter if I was playing the campaign scenarios or a mere skirmish. We’ve tried to get in touch with the developers to see if this was just a UI bug or if I’m genuinely not experiencing the graphical upgrade that Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has to offer.
Also, the in-game benchmark tool has to be addressed. It’s a fine feature to have, but it’ll also show you how the framerate can be all over the place. I played most of my games using the ultra preset. I had an average of 60-70 FPS, which is perfectly acceptable. But, that’s solely because of using smaller, specialized armies. The benchmark tool, which depicts battles between larger forces or multiplayer matches, will show you massive framerate drops.
My PC which has quite a decent setup — i7-7700k, GTX 1070 Ti, and 16 GB of RAM — only clocked in around 35 FPS. The benchmark’s results, which required 1,000 points to make it viable for you to play multiplayer matches, only had a score of 1,020 (barely a passing score). I’ve gotten better framerate results from Destiny 2, Steel Division 2, and Total War: Three Kingdoms. Those are, obviously, more modern games, and so the optimization for Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition can be quite concerning especially if you’re looking to play with lots of friends.
There’s also another bug that reared its ugly head and that’s related to zooming in and out. This was one of the earliest screenshots I took while going through Tamerlane’s campaign:
I did two more missions before I took a break. I came back to continue playing Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and, suddenly, the maximum zoom level became locked. So, I went ahead and replayed Tamerlane’s first campaign mission to see the comparison. This is now the max scale when attempting to zoom in:
For reference, the only related setting would be the default scale (which is, naturally, changed each time you zoom in and out anyway). I don’t even recall changing that so I’m not sure how this bug occurred. I then reset the options to their default settings and that temporarily fixed the issue for one mission. Then, I restarted the game and the bug returned. That was odd indeed. I couldn’t even appreciate the refined visuals of the game since the zoom function proved to be troublesome.
This is just one of the trifling concerns I have with Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Even the (wonky) capability to zoom in and out is already considered a major addition to the game, though it’s already present in a vast majority of strategy titles nowadays. You still can’t rotate the map, so good luck if you somehow can’t find a unit that’s hidden behind a building. And, barring that, you still don’t have unit tooltips or an army management panel which would’ve led to a user-friendly and intuitive interface. Heck, I still haven’t figured out how to remove the player/AI panel from the game’s UI since it’s highly unnecessary. A means of toggling various parts of the UI (as opposed to scaling all of them to size) would’ve been more acceptable. Outlines and list panels are helpful, sure, but I would’ve preferred a better means of navigation and unit cycling as opposed to remembering every hotkey.
An idea I had in mind was the aforementioned player/AI panel at the lower right-hand side of the screen. Right now, it just lists down your military or civilian units which isn’t very intuitive. Instead, something akin to the functions in Civilization or Age of Wonders, or Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, might be more helpful: a panel that would instead allow you to cycle through or immediately select each unit of that type (or even unit groupings) as opposed to double-clicking, remembering hotkeys, or trying to find them on the map.
Unit pathing, likewise, still needs a bit of work. Far too often, your units would get bogged down and would be unable to move past terrain or constructs blocking their path. Take a look at the screenshot below where I’m attempting to muster my cavalry. Notice a couple of units that remained stuck even though there’s an open field nearby? They can’t seem to move around the infantry and building next to them. You’ll see these kinds of mishaps happen frequently especially once you start ransacking towns and villages. Units would start roaming around obstacles to reach a target, or they’d trickle in making them easy pickings for towers and keeps. It becomes taxing after a while.
New and old content
If you can move past these problems, then there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. There are some notable improvements that you’ll spot as you continue playing. For instance, you can click-drag to select only military units so you no longer accidentally bring builders along. Farms are automatically reseeded after harvesting while building and research queues have been helpful. Also, the AI no longer needs to cheat in order to gain an advantage in higher difficulties and its tactics closely resemble ones used by high-level competitive players.
The game also comes packed with loads of content. From the classic release, you’ve got the following:
- Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (1999)
- The Conquerors expansion (2000)
You’ll also get the expansions from the HD Edition which released in 2013:
- The Forgotten (2013)
- The African Kingdoms (2015)
- Rise of the Rajas (2016)
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition includes all the campaigns from previous releases, with a few new tweaks. The game also has “The Art of War” mode. This is a set of challenge scenarios where you’re graded depending on how fast you complete the objectives.
The Last Khans expansion
Lastly, you’ll also get The Last Khans expansion which allows you to play as the aforementioned Tamerlane, as well as Kotyan Khan and Ivaylo. The Last Khans expansion follows the exploits of the three notable commanders, with an emphasis on their struggles against or as part of the Turko-Mongol nomadic hordes. There’s a distinct focus on the usage of cavalry units such as horse archers and lancers, as well as skirmishers.
I genuinely appreciate the addition of these leaders’ campaigns. Although Tamerlane is already well-known among history buffs, I must say that I’ve just learned about Kotyan Khan and Ivaylo. Reading about them and seeing them in action led me to appreciate history even more. The downside was that I found many of the missions quite repetitious — I’m still micromanaging my civilian units to gather resources and construct buildings, I’m still going back to recheck the same queued units, I’m still clicking over and over hoping units don’t get stuck, and I’m still swarming and blobbing my way to steamroll my opponent. Multiplayer was also unavailable at this time, and so I had to contend with the AI for the most part.
The new civilizations
The Cumans and Bulgarians, along with the Tatars and Lithuanians, bolster the current roster of civilizations to a whopping 35. Of course, each civilization that you pick for skirmish or multiplayer will have their unique perks and bonuses.
Here’s the tech tree panel for the Cumans:
And here’s the panel for the Tatars:
You’ll notice an obvious similarity among the military units and techs due to the culture group. This is one factor which added to how repetitious it can be. Given that the four new civilizations and the three new campaign leaders focus on cavalry units, you’ll realize how often you’re fielding horsemen over and over. By the time I started playing as Kotyan Khan, I was ready to pack my bags and begin the life of a nomad. I couldn’t bear to hear the neighing of a horse any longer. Sure, I could just field an army full of infantry, but that wouldn’t be playing to a civilization’s strengths if that was the case.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition – The final verdict
Although I can appreciate all the content included in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, I still feel that it comes far too late. The strategy genre remains vibrant with many die-hard supporters. We’ve seen what other strategy games brought to the table from Civilization VI, Company of Heroes, and Age of Wonders: Planetfall to Total War: Warhammer II and Steel Division 2. You’ve also got turn-based tactical titles like Fantasy General II and XCOM 2, and grand strategy offerings such as Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings. Considering how much the strategy genre has changed in the last two decades, there are moments of reinvention and reinvigoration, and there are times when franchises stuck to a winning formula with a few improvements.
In the case of Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, its mechanics harken back to the bygone days of clickfests, micromanagement, and swarming. That was a time I remember fondly when I was younger, but not so much as I’ve gotten older. For the most part, I was looking forward to QOL and UI improvements, but these were also lacking. The animations and visuals, even with UHD support, are woefully outclassed when compared to other titles that are more visually striking. I’ve encountered issues with the UHD options and even with zooming in, which means the touted visual improvements and additional details were hardly noticeable. Likewise, the UI still looks unnecessarily cluttered, pathfinding needs a few tweaks, and certain QOL improvements for navigation and cycling would’ve been helpful. Performance when playing massive battles might also need optimization given the results from the in-game benchmark tool.
Much like the HD Edition which released six years ago, this is a nostalgia trip with a shinier palette, one that hasn’t aged well. It can be something that only long-time fans would appreciate for a time and, even then, they’d still find slightly outdated. Here’s to hoping that Age of Empires IV manages to become the game for the new generation.
Also, a word of warning to those who might spot this game bundled with the HD Edition. Since Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition already includes the base game, all expansions, as well as the visual upgrades, then there’s no point in getting the HD Edition, not unless you want to play the older campaigns as they were without the additional tweaks.