Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition review — Gorgeous new look, more enjoyable than ever

Age of Empires II, one of the most popular RTS games of all time, has been reworked a second time for its 20th anniversary.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition
(Image: © Microsoft)

Windows Central Recommended Award

About 20 years ago, the second installment in the real-time strategy (RTS) Age of Empires series was released for PC. Developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings saw an expansion — Age of Conquerors — about a year later, bringing more campaigns, civilizations, and some quality of life (QoL) fixes.

This collection of games was played incessantly by a huge crowd of RTS fans and eventually saw an HD remake in 2013. Age of Empires II: HD Edition spawned its own collection of expansion packs, including The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms, and Rise of the Rajas, complete with a bunch of new civilizations, campaigns and a graphics reworks that better suited modern hardware and displays.

Now, with Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition (AoEII:DE) — developed by Forgotten Empires, Tantalus Media, and Wicked Witch and published by Xbox Game Studios — fans of the series are getting an impressive graphics overhaul with new animations and 4K support, three new campaigns with four new civilizations, remastered audio, new units and technologies, plenty of QoL changes, and an improved multiplayer experience with leaderboards, ladders, matchmaking, and improved spectator mode. I've been playing AoEII:DE for about a week to check out whether or not it's worth a buy for long-time veterans and newcomers to the series.

What I loved about Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

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Age of Empires II isn't a game that needed any major mechanics reworked, and that's been honored here in the Definitive Edition. I played a lot of the original and HD versions, and I was able to jump into a Definitive Edition skirmish and play without having to make many adjustments. Hotkeys can be set to classic or to a grid-like method — the top row of the keyboard is used for the top line of your commands, middle row for middle line, and on — that's easier for newcomers to pick up. Gameplay is immediately familiar, but the myriad QoL improvements also make it seem new.

Age of Empires II has never looked so good, and the developers have kept the feel of the original game.

I'm still uncovering small tidbits that make macro- and micro-managing easier. Still, there are some significant changes that benefit everyone and ultimately make the game a lot more fun to play in Dark Age through to Imperial Age. Starting out, you can now set farms to automatically reseed as long as wood stocks allow. No more spamming the farm queue button and eventually running out ten minutes later. Units can have multiple waypoints set at once, meaning you can chart out a path for your original scout (or any other unit) and not have to continuously click a new place for it to travel to. Trebuchets will now pack and unpack automatically when you assign them to attack a certain building either in or out or range. And you can now queue up technologies and units at the same time, allowing less downtime for production buildings while you're busy managing other aspects of the game.

Your global queue of tech and units now includes icons in the top-left corner of the screen, just below the reworked toolbar. Along with standard resource counts, the idle villager icon has been moved up top and shows how many idles you have. Below each resource is also a value that indicates how many villagers are collecting at the given time. When you've hit Post-Imperial, and there are hundreds of units to manage, these small changes make a huge difference. The user interface (UI) is also scalable, so you can find something you're satisfied with depending on your monitor size. Resources now have a toggleable "health" bar that shows you how much remains of a certain item, like a boar, tree, or gold tile. No more having to click an individual item to see how much remains.

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These changes make for a more user-friendly experience, but the biggest and best upgrades are the graphics and animations. Age of Empires II has never looked so good, and the developers have kept the feel of the original game. Units and buildings haven't been changed so much that they aren't recognizable, and the artwork and animations are absolutely gorgeous. Ever since I played my first round of the original game, I wanted to see castles and town centers crumble into dust, and that's now a reality. Trebuchets swinging, troops riding into battle, battering rams hammering down production buildings; it's all here, and it all looks stunning. A zoom feature has been implemented, so you can now pull back to get a broader look at the map or punch right in to see your workers toiling. With the HD graphics pack enabled, everything remains clear no matter how close you get to the action. The factory settings do take some tweaking to get looking perfect, and performance is going to be an issue, but I'll get into that later.

To go along with the graphics overhaul, all audio has been remastered and reworked. The original soundtrack has been redone and sounds as epic as ever, and unit and building sound effects are more robust and more varied. With a quality gaming headset on, your ears are in for a treat.

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There's an old joke with Age of Empires II fans that the game taught more history than any class in high school, and that's more valid than ever with three new campaigns. The collection is called "The Last Khans" and encompasses the four new civilizations added to the game, including Bulgarians, Cumans, Lithuanians, and Tatars. The new missions are expertly voice acted, and the older campaigns have also been reworked with new voice acting. Some of the HD expansion campaigns only had text, but voice acting has been added there as well. Altogether, you're getting more than 200 hours of singleplayer gameplay before even breaking into skirmishes and multiplayer action. I played through most of all three branches of the new campaign, and if you enjoyed the older entries, you're sure to enjoy these. Additionally, there are nearly 150 achievements to attain.

Once the optional campaigns are completed, you can jump into singleplayer skirmishes against AI or into multiplayer against other humans. All the classic modes return — Random Map, King of the Hill, Regicide, Deathman, etc. — as well as a new mode called Empire Wars that starts you out in Feudal age with a number of production buildings and assigned villagers. It's a quicker way to get into the action and offers something new for returning players. On top of the usual ways to play, there's a new feature called "The Art of War." It's a five-part section that teaches players how to get a good start on economy, how to boom, how to get to castle age as quickly as possible (a popular strategy), and how to employ or defend against a rush.

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New AI has been implemented, as well as a ton of new commands for allied AI players. For example, you can tell allies to attack with certain troops, you can choose where to fortify with walls, and you can ask them to focus on certain aspects of the game to better complement your playstyle.

In previous games, high-level AI had to cheat to keep up with human players. That has been removed, and AI now instead operates more similar to how pro-level humans play. I watched enemy AI scout with sheep, push in deer to the Town Center, and raid my economy with small forces as I attacked its front door. Enemy troops took the high ground when attacked, and wouldn't throw units away at the foot of my castles. Able to put up a strong fight against Hardest AI in the HD version of the game, the new Extreme AI utterly steamrolled me. I enjoy multiplayer but certainly spend a lot of time allied with and against AI opponents, so these changes make a huge difference and ultimately prepare players better for multiplayer. HD and original CD AI are also available to play against.

On that note, multiplayer has also seen some changes. The old peer-to-peer servers are gone in favor of dedicated servers spread out across global regions. I played with an ally from the UK and experienced no noticeable lag. That might change with an eight-player game from different regions, but overall there should be far better stability in online games. There are now leaderboards and ladders baked in, and a matchmaking feature makes it easy to find an opponent in the same rating range. There's no limit to how many spectators can jump into a game to watch, and they have new tools to get the best viewing experience possible. AoEII:DE is available on Steam and from the Microsoft Store, but both versions will be able to cross-play.

What I disliked about Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

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I'm thoroughly enjoying my time with AoEII:DE, but there are certainly some noticeable issues. Foremost is the performance on my PC that includes an AMD Ryzen 5 2600 processor (CPU), NVIDIA RTX 2060 graphics card (GPU), and 16GB of DDR4 RAM. I immediately changed graphics settings to my liking — disabled bloom, disabled animated fog, and cranked everything else up — and set resolution to 1440p. This gave the game more of an original feel that veterans will likely prefer.

I first played a number of matches without the Enhanced Graphics pack and saw framerates consistently around 120, dropping below 60 with a lot of action on the screen. Without the pack enabled, the game still looks good, but you can't zoom in nearly as far, and sprites do look pixellated at max allowable zoom. The game looks stunning with the Enhanced Graphics pack enabled, but after placing down some farms and massing some troops, the game dropped down to a consistent 30 frames-per-second (FPS) and regularly dropped below 15 FPS in action-packed sequences or popped up to 60 FPS in quiet moments. My PC certainly isn't the most powerful out there, and I could turn down more settings to boost framerates, but performance could certainly be better. If you don't have a dedicated GPU, you're going to suffer even without the graphics pack enabled, and the HD version of the game will likely make a lot more sense.

Performance aside, I saw some wonky stuff in terms of pathing and logic. For example, I sent a bunch of villagers to build multiple farms with a mill in the middle. After checking back later, I noticed that only the mill and one farm was built and tended, while the other villagers had gone off to hunt nearby game. I noticed some weird pathing as well when sending villagers to work outside of walls. I tasked a group to build a castle outside my base, then deleted a section of the wall to allow them to walk directly to the castle's foundation. I retasked them on the castle with the wall deleted, but instead of noticing they now had an easier trail, they kept heading for the nearest gate. I had to click the ground next to the castle to get the villagers to go through the deleted wall portion, then click the castle foundation again to have them start work.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition looks beautiful, but you'll need a beefy PC to take full advantage.

The patrol command for troops, ideal for sending battalions into battle, seemed, in some cases, to be off. For example, I patrolled a group of pikemen into an enemy base, and instead of taking out the cavalry in front of them, they set fire to a farm while their numbers were hacked down by the knights. This wasn't the case every time, and more often than not, units figured out what they should do to ensure a long life, but I did have a laugh a couple of times as I watched my units pass by the enemy to attack something completely non-threatening.

These issues, if not just me making errors on my end, will hopefully be addressed in the future. Microsoft has stated it will continue to work on AoEII:DE after release, with a focus on balancing and QoL changes. That's especially a good thing in terms of the new civilizations. The Definitive Edition has attempted to balance out some key aspects of the game — including making the Barracks infantry line more feasible with new technology — but there's still a way to go. Some of the new units in the game are quite powerful, and we'll have to see how the competitive community responds and how the developers react.

Finally, no doubt because of the cross-play feature between Microsoft and Steam, mods will be collected at the Age of Empires website instead of the Steam Workshop. That's no doubt a bit of a worry for some long-time players used to the Workshop, but thanks to the built-in mod manager within AoEII:DE, there shouldn't be much issue implementing the additional content. One popular mod — the addition of gridlines on the playing field — is now implemented in the game as a gameplay setting.

Should you buy Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition?

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Considering AoEII:DE costs just $20 and includes all content ever officially made (with more than 200 hours of campaign gameplay alone), old fans of the game and newcomers to the RTS genre have a rather easy decision to make. It's also already included for free for anyone with Xbox Game Pass for PC, opening it up to a ton of people at no extra charge above the subscription fee.

Yes, there are some issues with the game — especially when it comes to performance — so those lacking modern gaming hardware will likely need to test things out to see if it can run at an acceptable framerate. And hopefully, the game will be further optimized in the future for those of us still struggling with what should be adequate hardware.

Even with the issues I mentioned at the top of mind, I can't wait to jump back into Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and continue uncovering the smaller changes that I've yet to see. It's a true update to one of the greatest RTS games ever made, and it's never been more enjoyable to play.

Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt brings to Windows Central more than eight years of experience writing about laptops, PCs, accessories, games, and beyond. If it runs Windows or in some way complements the hardware, there’s a good chance he knows about it, has written about it, or is already busy testing it.