Retrospective Review: Age of Empires II

Age of Empires is one of the most acclaimed and beloved real-time strategy series in all of gaming. Since its inception back in 1997 with the first Age of Empires game, fans have come to love playing against one another, building powerful armies and decimating rival empires; racing against their opponents through each Age and opening up more powerful units to showcase their power. While there have been nine official titles in the series to date, and others have been influenced by or borrowed the same engine, no title in the series really stood out to me quite like Age of Empires II has. While I was fortunate enough to play through Age of Empires IV and share my own take of my experience, I recently had the pleasure of playing through the Age of Empires II: HD Edition on Steam while I had some free time. Playing through this title reminded me of why I fell in love with the game all of those years ago when I was small.

If you’re not familiar with Age of Empires II, or the Age of Empires series in general, the gameplay itself is fairly simple. You have different options of play in Age of Empires II, such as following a campaign, setting up a random game, or a multiplayer game with another player. You start off with a few villagers that can be commanded to collect different types of resources such as food, stone, gold, or wood. They can also be commanded to build things, such as castles, monasteries, armories, and many others. This becomes pivotal in helping you build the biggest and strongest army you can muster in order to win continuous enemies and eliminate opposing kingdoms. 

Just as there are so many ways of playing the game, so are the number of cultures you can play as. The original Age of Empires II game boasted 13 different civilizations, with additional ones added for each expansion, up to an astonishing 42. These differences are shown from the style of the buildings to the language that your units speak when you control them. Bonuses are also given for each civilization, which encourages the players to choose based on which strengths they would like to utilize.

My favorite parts of Age of Empires II, and really of each entry of the series, are the campaigns. You get to play through a set of historical events or scenarios, usually following a specific historical figure or legend, such as Attila the Hun, El Cid, or Joan of Arc, and play through their stories. These campaigns are unique in that they present the story through in-game dialogue and cinematic cutscenes in between campaign chapters, which set up the events of the campaign. Additionally, you get to control the historical legends themselves. 

I’m grateful that as a child I was fortunate enough to experiment and play through these campaigns, even if I never got really far in them, because they were my first exposure to these historical figures and their stories. I found that this was very helpful for me as a young child as I don’t think I would have really been exposed to most of these historical events through regular means. I got to learn more about the cultures and events that were involved, such as the conflict between the Spaniards and Moors in El Cid’s campaign, and Attila leading his Hun army and gaining power in order to conquer the Roman Empire.

That being said, there are some slight anachronisms that are present, such as units that would not have existed at the time of the campaign or perhaps due to geographic region. There may also be some inaccuracies present in the story that did not occur in actuality, such as characters meeting each other when they never did, or the creation of an entirely original character for the sake of the story. Nevertheless, if you’re like me and are not a great stickler of history but are looking to enjoy the game and its experience simply as is, these changes or differences will be easy to ignore. If anything, they add to the overall experience and make the stories of the campaigns more exciting.

Age of Empires II recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and despite this great span of time, it’s amazing that many players, including myself, still enjoy playing the game as it is. The graphics and music are simple compared to its more polished and modern competitors, but I quite appreciate the pixels and computer chimes that the late ‘90s had to offer games. It’s telling that the high-definition rerelease of the game in 2013 leaves it relatively untouched. If you are looking to try this timeless game for the first time but its old coat of paint isn’t quite your cup of tea, you may be more inclined to check out the more recent Definitive Edition, which was released just last year to commemorate the original version’s 20th anniversary release. My hope is that whether you’re a history buff, a real-time strategy enthusiast, or a bit of both like myself, that you’ll venture out and take a look at the standing power Age of Empires II has to offer. There are other titles, as already mentioned, but Age of Empires II holds a special place in my heart, as I suspect it does for many other players. 

Andrea Racoti

When she isn't travelling to far-off fantasy lands in a book or a video game, Andrea Racoti can be found in Central Texas writing out her latest projects and ideas, and teaching as a dyslexia interventionist. She loves games with rich storytelling, compelling characters, and makes people think. A breathtaking soundtrack and beautiful landscapes are icing on the cake for her.

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