I’ve menitoned Age of Empires II obliquely many times throughout this blog but never actually written about it directly. Which is actually a massive oversight, because it has the dubious honour of being the first PC game I ever bought, so it’s a foundational influence in how I started to dream of making my own worlds — it did, after all, also include my very first level editor.
So twenty-odd years later, with lockdown madness causing a spiral ever deeper into nostalgia, isn’t it high time we took a proper look at a true classic?
Age of Empires II
I’ve never played the original Age of Empires; I went straight to the sequel. When our family first got a computer in about 1999 or so, I expressed a desire for games with reasonable scale rather than stylised proportions — you know, where a single soldier stood the right size to walk right into one of those beautifully pre-rendered buildings. (Utterly unlike Warcraft III, and that’s one of its features that I love to hate.) Age of Empires II was suggested to me, and a school classmate lent me his copy so I could try it out. I was satisfied with the results and, being me, uninstalled it and gave it back before I bought my own copy and… reinstalled it.
I think my most profound joy in Age of Empires II is actually in building a base. The clockwork of food gathering starting with sheep and bushes and escalating to farms. Climbing the ages until you can get stone walls and gates. Plopping your first castle down and letting it rain death on those enemy scout cavalry that have been scooting through your base with wild abandon since the start of the match.
Because the buildings in AoE2 are sensibly scaled, your base gets to be big, but meaningfully so. Bases don’t feel like weird little camps as they do in more fast-paced esportsy RTSes — they feel like towns, cities. They grow organically, as early resource pockets are exhausted and outlying mining camps have to be fortified. Even the way advancing through the four Ages drip-feeds you more buildings reinforces this — at the beginning, when it’s just palisades and barracks, it’s easy not to leave space for big universities and siege workshops that won’t come for another half-hour or even longer.
This size concern also makes defence before castles a more interesting problem. An attack on one side of town with all your defenders on another might be a genuine concern because they have to walk all the way across — so if you can’t get yourself wedged behind a nice terrain bottleneck, you can easily get into trouble.
Which can be bad, because the size and scale and the time it takes to build your home naturally increases your emotional investment in its success. Defeat at that scale isn’t just an irritation and an exhortation to try again, it’s a real downer.
Size is also a problem in some of the campaign scenarios. It’s one thing to build a city up organically — you know where everything is because you placed each building, one by one, over a decent length of time. Some campaign missions, however, deliver you a sprawling town, pre-assembled and ready to go… but that’s somebody else’s town and you can’t find anything. And to rub salt in the wound, they often have sub-optimal farm placement!
Actually the campaigns are really not that good. I don’t remember playing them much beyond the first time, and in this foray I’ve quickly realised why. Okay, fine, I’ve started with vanilla Age of Empires II straight off the CD (and will install The Conquerors and the 1.0c patch once I’m done), for the most authentic experience available, so maybe they got some tune-ups later on… but this is what shipped so we’ll keep at it.
The main problem with the campaign missions is that they have the hard population limit of only 75, and this saps the game of all the grandeur I tend to associate with it from multi-hour skirmishes. It’s very difficult to build up a decent-sized army to begin an assault when you’ve already dedicated 20 or more of that cap to the villagers needed merely to finance your existence. Consider that in a proper skirmish each player can have 200 units each, making for bigger, bolder battles with all the joy those entail.
The other thing is that the campaigns are mostly structured such that you have to build a base from nothing while your enemies begin firmly entrenched — meaning they can harass you with constant sorties while you can still barely afford to train new villagers. Again, in a skirmish your enemies have to build bases from scratch too, so though the bots are often able to advance faster than you, there’s still a natural buffer period at the beginning that makes things feel less unfair.
To rub salt in the wound, in most missions the higher tech levels are locked off too — so even once you have a decent-sized army, it’s invariably outclassed, and suddenly the two-hour match is a boring slog rather than the glorious hundred-year clash between rising and fading nations you can get from a well-turned skirmish match.
But ultimately, no small part of my enduring adoration is because Age of Empires II is so pretty. While its fidelity may have been dulled by time it’s still hard not to get sucked into its timeless miniature world. The amount of detailing on the buildings makes them incredibly evocative — every time I see the Teutonic castle, I can’t help but imagine what room lies beyond that drawbridge.
Of course that original thought — what if the people could go into the buildings? — is the one that has ever haunted me. It’s not much of a surprise that I later found a love for Baldur’s Gate and its Infinity Engine brethren (hell, and Nox), which really do let your people go into the buildings in a similar isometric style.
Baldur’s Gate doesn’t have an editor, though, so I built hero-focused custom maps in AoE2 instead — again and again and again. They were too large, never finished, full of one-note quests, and often turned back into skirmishes once I ran out of ideas… but hey, this was long before I had an audience beyond my brother (who definitely wasn’t interested). Expansion pack The Conquerors even introduced some new triggers that allowed you to rename and change the hit points of specific units, almost — almost — allowing you to make custom heroes. Not that they had any spells to cast to make them interesting, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right?
… but we’ll get to The Conquerors later. For now, the campaigns of vanilla Age of Kings… aren’t great. Ah well.