Fightsticks are a great way to play Spyro, apparently.
In recent years, video game remasters have gone from an odd novelty treatment bestowed upon only the most acclaimed titles to mundane orders of the day. Usually, when a game not much older than 2 years is remastered, it’s simply for the benefit of giving it the increased performance and slightly improved looks that it can now enjoy on modern hardware. Meanwhile, games that are much older and were released a generation or more ago tend to have a larger set of goals with their remasters: to bring in nostalgic fans who played the game when it was released to relive the experience on modern machines, to make life easier for lifelong loyalists struggling to keep ancient tech cooperating with their play habits, and to make it accessible to newcomers who know the game only by reputation. None of these are an apparent target for Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.
The Age of Empires series is perhaps one of the most ideal subjects for remastering. Beginning in 1997 with an eponymous game, the series quickly became a vital piece of the RTS genre with its main conceit of smashing historical societies against each other as if they were action figures. It built itself with an opposing balance sensibility to the other RTS giant, Starcraft, with its factions playing very similar to each other and differing mostly in subtle but important differences in tech tree as well as having subtle bonuses for certain activities. This aspect is more similar to Civilization than its RTS analogues, and in general the AoE series does take more after the 4X title than its closer relatives, with its incredibly expansive tech trees, focus on diplomacy and economy, and a deliberately slower pace. After all, Bruce Shelley, co-designer of Civilization, was the director for Age of Empires. After a 1997 debut, the sequel moved from antique societies to medieval kingdoms, mostly those from Eurasia, though a following expansion did cast a light on American societies. From then on, the series would see more releases focusing on things like the 1800s colonialist boom and much more.
Nomenclature can get confusing here, since Definitive Edition is, in fact, not the first Age of Empires II remaster to hit digital storefronts in recent memory. The first belongs to Age of Empires II: HD Edition, now renamed Age of Empires II (2013) on Steam. From here on out, we will simply refer to this first digital release as “HD” and this year’s release as “DE”. It is this first digital release that not only makes naming convention confusing, but also basically robs DE of any reason to exist.
You see, at some point in the mid-2000s when Rock had completely disappeared from Radio and a young Walker roamed the streets dreaming to look as cool as L from Death Note, running AoE 2 became incredibly complicated without a lot of elbow grease and a visit to your local Satanic temple. Any attempt at a fresh install, whether from an officially owned copy or a pirated one purporting to have “compatibility fixes”, would prove extremely troublesome and would give out a gallery of obscure glitches impossible to google on the decentralised web of 2008. My favourite one of these was an odd glitch that made all grass blood red and all water a sickly pink as if someone had turned all water on earth into cotton candy. These issues had their community workarounds, but they were unreliable and intimidating to tech-illiterate users such as myself.
Eventually, HD was released in 2013 on Steam. Whilst I didn’t find out about it until a fair few years later, it solved the bevy of compatibility issues that had rendered the original 1999 release unplayable for many and revitalised a big portion of the AoE II Community. Alongside it a new expansion for the game was released: “The Forgotten”. Though originally a fan project, eventually it was officially sanctioned by Microsoft and became the first expansion released for the game since 2001’s The Conquerors, and the second one released overall. The inclusion of 5 new civilisations and 7 campaigns was a very substantial addition to the original game that had remained unchanged for a decade. As such, HD was not only a nostalgia trip but new meat, out of the gate, ready to provide new matchups and possibilities to players ready to jump back into the arena of competitive play. There were also a few nifty features like more intuitive hotkeys and more resolution compatibilities —and the competitive scene rejected it outright.
Enter Voobly. Voobly is a social gaming platform, created circa 2007 as best as I can tell. Among its many other services, Voobly offered an easy mod for the original 1999 release to keep on chugging as stalwart as it ever had, as well as a mod to make online matches much easier. It is through Voobly that the truly hardcore AoE II competitive scene survived and thrived during the years when compatibility became a real issue for anyone but the most committed of players. It is something of an unspoken matter in the AoE II community that the late 2000s where a dark age for the game as a whole. It wasn’t until a few years after that Voobly became the foundation for a competitive renaissance. The competitive stars of today like Viper and Tatoh were shaped after this period, playing on the Voobly platform and designing the strategies modern players use, whereas the period before Voobly remains more obscure even to fans heavily engaged on the current competitive scene.
Voobly kept on trucking even after the release of HD. If you’d gone out of your way to purchase the HD edition on Steam, as well as the forgotten expansion, the platform offered a handy mod to keep on playing within its own community and ranking system instead of Steam’s. New civs, new features, but the same old Voobly and the same old players. This created a schism that continues to this day: the HD players and the Voobly players. Perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than in the bizarre equations both communities would devise to try and divine how the internal rankings of Voobly matched up to those on Steam.
Voobly remains the home to the professional scene of the game, where pros are free to use mods such as the grid-view to facilitate building placement or the “tinywood” mod to make trees less obtrusive to visibility. HD, meanwhile, remains the gathering hub of more casual players, who simply want to play a match in a loved oldie once in a while without having to constantly tinker with compatibility options, such as having to keep track of which specific Voobly balance patch they’re running just to know whether certain units can cut down through their forests or not. Think of Voobly like the digital equivalent of carrying a CRT telly to play Third Strike, or the constant search for more ridiculous places to hold a tournament in that the Melty Blood community engages in.
And this is where the complete breakdown of the usual remaster audiences happens: Youths wanting to try an old hit already have easy access to the HD release, the casual audience is free to indulge as well with new civs and features added not only on release date but also in 2015 and 2017, and the pros continue to hold tightly to Voobly and its allegedly superior features over the HD release. With this panorama, AoE II: Definitive Edition doubled down on a bunch of minute features addressing inward facing complaints of the community instead of wider reaching problems.
Of course, DE as a whole looks much nicer since it sports completely new assets. But it doesn’t exceed the original’s limitations by adding anything as radical as the ability to rotate the camera. DE sports all new voice acting, featuring actual Frenchmen and Scots dubbing the voice of their compatriots instead of the cartoon characters in the original release, but it only serves to underline how simplistic the in-game conceptions of historical events are. There is also the re-recording of every music track in the game, but MIDI is just as reliable today as it was in 1999, so all it has to offer is novelty and perhaps a few more engaging mixes, not a paradigm shift from the ambiance provided by the old tracks. One comes to find that all these changes, and others like them, are purely presentational. They are indubitably nice to have now that they’re here, but it’s hard to believe anyone ever explicitly asked for them.
Instead, what DE aims to provide is very specific quality of life features meant to appeal to the pros and neater organisational features for the casuals, whilst looking prettier and being more accessible than ever to the uninvolved youth. It mostly just gives off the impression of a glorified patch that everyone can agree is better but no one can sincerely say they needed.
So the uninitiated get a slightly better looking game that’ll make their gaming PC fans rev up when it has to render 2000 military units clashing into each other, and the HD adopters get another one of the expansions that have been keeping their interest up, while the pros get servers that ought to make online play much smoother than it was before.
That’s about it for significant changes in the “Definitive Edition.” Ones with an eye for detail can point to everything from all-new tutorials meant to prime newcomers for competitive play, to a revamped hotkey system meant to match one to one with the information on screen as opposed to the old, more arbitrary, system. But it’d be ridiculous to posit that any of these factors ever kept AoE II from reaching a wider audience. Surely anyone who wanted to pick it up over the last 20 years has had a chance to.
And all of this leaves me to ask: Who the hell is Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition for? Is it exclusively for the pros? I’m not ignorant to the virtues of a server based system as opposed to a p2p one —as long as the option to revert back to p2p is available once company support ends for the title. But is this really everything of significance that it has to add? Is one to believe that, at some point during the last 20 years, there were people who loved the gameplay system and the feeling of competitive head-to-heads but couldn’t bring themselves to stick to the game because the entirely optional single player campaigns featured ridiculous voices? It makes the “definitive” edition of this game about as consequential as if Ultra Street Fighter IV had taken the time to redesign the menus, and make the character screen more readable. Because as we all know, that was the metric by which the classic fighter will be defined for years to come. And just for the record: yes, I would pay the extra 10 dollars I paid for DE for a version of Ultra Street Fighter IV with Indestructible reinstated as the rightful theme to the SFIV experience.
It’s fruitless to be a mouthpiece to negative sentiments without a point. Which is why I want to stress, unequivocally, that I will be switching from AoE 2: HD to DE as of the writing of this article. In fact, as a purely symbolic gesture I will be uninstalling the former when the article goes up. Although I have to question the wisdom in a 2-year promo campaign and an all-new storefront page for what is essentially a texture pack with an expansion and around 30 small quality of life features. Maybe that’s the price to pay for servers in the modern age. Perhaps the stability of the online is worth a doubling of the price point. All I can say is that, as a veteran of roughly 20 years of the game, DE is business as usual. Just as it was back in the day of shitty LAN parties with dangerous stripped cables running throughout our hallways back in 2002, just as it was 2 years ago playing online matches, and just as it was a month ago. A stone classic remains a stone classic after minor cosmetic touch ups and functionality improvements, go figure.