Version tested: PC
I'm at once reminded of old Hollywood stars being rolled out one more time. Not the ageing elite, the silver foxes whose wrinkles have become the service stripes of the industry, nor the bouffant divas who can still hit the high Cs. No, I'm talking about the really old ones, squinting, confused as they're thrust into the limelight yet again. Those who can't speak on the talk shows; those who don't sing, but simply stagger.
It's not easy to predict which games will age well, though many wear their years with a certain dignity. Some classics find new life and new audiences as mobile or tablet games, while the past few years have seen an embracing of all that is retro, all the way back to the oldest of the old school, something that has been seized upon by a burgeoning indie scene. Sometimes we like what's old. Or at least, what seems to be old.
Age of Empires 2 was released in 1999, so it has 14 of those years to carry on its shoulders. It was considered a classic at the time, during the era of the Spice Girls and Star Wars: Episode 1, and it sold by the million. Now it has been reincarnated with this HD release on Steam. The most important thing that you need to know about Age of Empires 2 HD is that it runs at a much higher resolution than the original game did. In fact, this is almost the only thing that there is to know about Age of Empires 2 HD.
It's as if Hidden Path, the developers behind this re-release, reached through a time tunnel and dragged the original game out, quickly brushing the thing off before presenting it for all to see. And I'll be honest with you, I've no idea why they've done this, although I might guess that it's to capitalise on that growing tsunami of nostalgia that has swept through gaming. Whatever their reason, the end result is the same. Age of Empires 2 HD is more of a museum piece than any kind of reincarnation or reinvention.
If you never knew the original, here's a brief history lesson. It's classic real-time strategy, a war managed through pointing and clicking, where one mouse movement can send legions of troops to their death. Away from the battlefield, non-military units shuttle natural resources to hamlets and castles, helping blacksmiths to equip more soldiers for combat. There are lots of factions to play as, almost everything can be upgraded or expanded, taking units and buildings through several historical ages, and all this is viewed from an isometric perspective.
Now, to continue that lesson, here are a few other things that RTS games from the era would demonstrate: rudimentary animation; simplistic AI; poor pathfinding; limited multiplayer. The idea behind this re-release is that many aspects of the game have been attended to, but the only appreciable difference is in the presentation. The viewing area is bigger, the water is shinier and the fights are a little bit noisier. Otherwise, this might as well be exactly the same game we knew in the last millennium. Time has really moved on for strategy titles like this and the game's once remarkable features are looking more like historical artefacts. It just doesn't play very well, and its flaws are more blatant than ever before.
Playing it at a much higher resolution is like watching it from a distance - from a point where it's harder to recognise how ugly it can be
Selecting any mass of troops and sending them into battle results in a conga line of soldiers marching their way to the war, occasionally doubling back on themselves for no apparent reason - and when they make it to the front line, the buildings they destroy don't so much collapse as disappear. To destroy a field, soldiers will stride into the middle of it and hack away at the ground with their swords, which is slightly embarrassing to watch. Every melee turns into an indistinguishable mess of units whose most distinctive feature is usually a covered battering ram trundling up to the nearest tower and poking away at the base of it like a small, self-propelled and sexually frustrated shed.
Age of Empires 2 is still played today, particularly online, and it's easy to see why. Millions of copies were sold and it's a game of many possibilities, with the option to randomly generate maps and host all sorts of team games. However, this re-release is plagued with problems and games frequently drop due to syncing issues, regardless of how low each player's ping is. It's also impossible to play a game without experiencing hair-tearing lag that has units responding to your orders just. Half. A. Second. After. You. Issue them, which makes for frustrating, staccato skirmishes.
It's a shame, because the community currently playing is remarkably calm and friendly. After trying to play 20 games in 40 minutes, many of them with the same players joining the same servers over and over, I still found my companions to be helpful and level-headed. It was at least some compensation for the time I'd spent constantly clicking through lobby after lobby.
Age of Empires 2: HD Edition isn't a terrible game, but it is a game that has withered with the passage of the years. Playing it at a much higher resolution is like watching it from a distance - from a point where it's harder to recognise how ugly it can be - but this still makes little difference in the end. Its single-player is now a little bit boring. Its multiplayer is very broken. There's some consolation to be had in the support for the Steam Workshop, which already has a host of new building designs from players who don't appreciate the way farms look now.
I'd be warning you away if Age of Empires 2 HD was simply an old game that was on offer once again - but since it's pitching itself as a significant re-release that commands £15 of your cash, I'm positively waving a red flag and screaming. I have a megaphone. I've tied myself to Steam like a protester who demands removal by a world-weary police officer. There is absolutely no reason to trade money like that for a game like this, for a mouldy time-capsule that will likely mar your memories of the original. This time, history needs to be left to rest.
5 / 10