"Rome has fallen, and the world is up for grabs." Walking into a game store fourteen years ago and seeing this tagline on "Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings" was irresistible for any world history buff. Almost a decade-and-a-half later, gamers still laud the second entry in the "Age of Empires" series as one of the best strategy games ever.
Unfortunately, the game has not aged so well, its archaic graphics engine leaving it almost unplayable on modern PCs. Microsoft Studios and Hidden Path Entertainment have finally brought the game into the modern age with "Age of Empires II: HD Edition." This game combines content from both "The Age of Kings" and "The Conquerors" expansion pack and brings high-definition resolution and a thriving online community to the classic title.
For better or worse, that's about all it brings. [See also: Age of Empires II: HD Edition Image Gallery ]
The core of the "Age of Empires II" experience is unchanged. What remains is still one of the most balanced and cohesive real-time strategy experiences on the market. In most matches, you'll take control of a small settlement in the Dark Ages, usually consisting of a few villagers, a scout and a town center.
As you gather resources, you'll be able to produce military units, research advanced technology and even construct architectural wonders to last through the centuries. Win conditions vary, but you may have to raze a foe's castle, defend a strategic waypoint, build a network of trade routes, forge diplomatic alliances or even build a civilization that can last 1000 years.
One of the most important decisions you'll make is selecting a race: The game offers 18 strong choices. Players who favor cavalry might prefer the overwhelming force of Frankish paladins or the hit-and-run tactics of Mongol cavalry archers. Strategists who prefer to play defensively may choose Byzantium for its tough buildings, or the Turks, whose gunpowder units can dominate in a match's late stages. The rough-living Huns have no need of houses, while Korean watchtowers can decimate invaders. [See also: 10 Great Games You're Missing ]
Two of the best ways to experience the game are through its campaigns and its online multiplayer mode.Campaigns follow the adventures of historical giants like Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Frederick Barbarossa, and Montezuma, and may just teach you a thing or two about world history. Multiplayer pits you against human opponents, who often use their civilizations in creative and unpredictable ways. More peaceable tacticians can also team up with other players against computer-controlled foes.
While "Age of Empires II: HD Edition" does an admirable job of making the game accessible for a new generation of machines (and gamers), it is somewhat disappointing that the game features nothing new in the way of gameplay enhancements or production values. The loading screens, opening movie and even the in-game encyclopedia look grainy and dated. The breathtaking soundtrack for the original "Age of Kings" is nowhere to be found, opting instead for (similarly excellent) music from "The Conquerors."
"Age of Empires II: HD Edition" presents a conundrum: Is it excellent for its flawless execution of a beloved title, or unimpressive for adding so little after so long? Ultimately, a great game is still a great game, but it's not hard to imagine what might have been.
Title: Age of Empires II: HD Edition
Developer: Ensemble Studios, Hidden Path Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
System(s): Windows 7, Windows 8
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