Age of Empires 2 is a real time strategy game that released in 1999 that is, to this day, alive and kicking with an active online community.
In it you take control of a historical civilisation and guide it from the depths of the dark ages into a highly advanced imperial age through the assertion of military, technological and economic power over your opponents. While at first glance a lot of civilisations might appear to be very similar to each other because of how many share the same unit types, the opposite couldn’t be more true. For example, a British arbalest with the bracer and chemistry upgrade is going to utterly annihilate Teutonic arbalest with the same upgrades because the British get access to the Yeoman upgrade, which grants all of their archers superior range. And in a game where a lot of late-game combat revolves around staying out of range of defensive castles and towers, while simultaneously trying to bait your enemy into range of your own buildings or units in order to gain the upper hand, range is immensely valuable.
Then you have civilisations like Malay, which appear to be awful in the late game because of how they lack crucial upgrades most other civilisations will have access to. That is until you consider that they can buy the cheapest elephants in the game from one of the most common buildings in the game, making them an excellent pick for anyone confident enough to rush and speed their way into the Castle Age so that they can unlock these elephants. It’s perfect for daring players looking to force an early victory.
Another notable civilisation is the Mongols who have access to some of the best cavalry archers in the game that are so mobile that even ranged units will have trouble hitting them until you get access to the ballistics upgrade, which increases units accuracy against ranged targets. Because I am a bully, I like to sit a horde of these guys right in the middle of my opponents town and then run away at the first sign of retaliation, only to return 0.5 seconds after I see them pull back and realise they can’t catch me.
Simply put, there is a lot of diversity in this game that allows for a lot of different playstyles. And while each civilisation excels extraordinarily in one way or another, that doesn’t mean they can’t be countered even at their best. Britons for example, struggle to counter siege rams because they take next to no damage from ranged attacks. Mix them in with some light cavalry or skirmishers and you might just be able to push against them. Malay fall behind pretty quickly if they cannot force an early win, so outlasting the pressure they will try to put on you should lead to you eventually gaining a technological lead over them. As for the Mongols, although they’re great at murdering your workers and soldiers, they struggle to burn down your production buildings and defences, so a defensive playstyle that will allow you to maximise your economic output may work in your favour against them.
Speaking of your economy, it is made up of four valuable resources:
1. Wood, which is used for making buildings.
2. Food, which is used to produce villagers.
3. Gold, which is used to produce units.
4. Stone, which is used for making defences.
There is a lot of overlap with what these resources can do, so what I’ve listed above is more of a general overview. In order to gather these resources, you need villagers. When you make a villager, you need to give them a job that involves collecting one of these four resources. But to do that effectively, you need to build him a place to gather these resources once they’ve got them all. For wood, you’d need a lumber camp, for food you would need a mill and for gold and stone you would need a mine. All resource types can also be returned to your town centre, which is where villagers come from.
Now that that’s understood, it’s time for me to explain why this game is still played today and why it’s such a great strategy game. It is simply because it encourages creativity.
For example, on a map called Arena, all players start inside of a set of defensive walls with a handful of safe resources to gather. However, what if your opponent decided to build extra walls around your walls so that you could never escape your base? And what if every time you tried to destroy the enemy walls, they just kept adding more and more layers, shooting over them to stop your siege engines form advancing? Well at first it sounds great because, since your opponent is telling you that they have no incentive to engage, it provides you the perfect opportunity to just build your economy up to eventually produce a doom army. But then you run out of resources in your safe area. The only extra resources are outside of your zone, which is being perpetually blocked off by your foe. By the time you escape, you will have suffered such high losses that whatever resources are left on the outside – presuming your enemy hasn’t exercised their free reign over them yet – won’t be enough for you to recover. Meanwhile, your enemy is swimming in gold and preparing to finish you.
On the map called Black Forest, opponents start opposite one and other in a dense forest with only one or two chokepoints into each other’s area. The best thing to do on this map is to blockade the chokepoint, build a massive economy to fund a large army, and then try to be the first person to initiate an advance while maintaining a steady production of military units. But what if at the start of the game your opponent sent a single villager through the chokepoint and hid it in the corner on your side of the map before any blockades had been established? In the event that you fail to find that sneaky villager, it will surely build a variety of well hidden military buildings and train units to attack you from within your own safe zone. Even if you are not defeated and manage to repel the enemy, your economy will be left so far behind your opponents that they could easily launch a second offensive from their own area that most players would be unable to answer.
While the examples I give here are quite detrimental to the loser, the fun thing about Age of Empires 2 is that there is always a fighting chance. If you can migrate away from your starting area and build a new town somewhere else, you might be able to recover provided you can keep the enemy both busy and looking in the wrong places for you. On the flip side, if your army cannot repel the invading force decimating your economy, then your best bet would be to counter-invade the enemy economy since it will be left unguarded. At least that way both of you will have no way of producing resources and will be forced to put the fight on hold in order to recover.
And while there are a great many real time strategy games that also offer diverse civilisations/factions combined with the opportunity to develop creative strategies, I think Age of Empire’s has a different kind of competitive edge to it a lot of other games don’t since 99% of all your difficult decisions in this game will come down to “should I wait” or “should I take initiative”. Timing is everything because losing your army can mean losing the game for the average player. Attacking is scary as even a successful attack will leave you weakened, and stronger players can easily recover from one-time losses.
What’s scarier is playing diplomacy games, where players start on teams but can freely realign themselves with any player they like, or even choose to go in alone. Games like this involve building trust, a lot of backstabbing and sometimes leaving half your army at home, instead of pressing the advantage against the enemy, out of worry your ally won’t be entirely faithful towards you.
And I think that sums up this game: Scary, but very fun. Even from an advantageous position, you feel a lot of pressure to finish the game decisively. What you end up with is a game that feels incredibly rewarding when you make advancements and execute your strategies, but one that never loses it’s tension even after you have mastered its systems.
I haven’t even talked about the many, many, many campaigns yet that all focus no historical figures and battles, which guide you on a figure’s rise to power and domination, all of which have had a lot of effort put into them and most of which feel diverse.
That’s… That’s just the base game.
This game has a very good modding community. A highlight is the 256x mod, which allows all technologies in the game to be researched 256 times. The result is archers that can fire across the entire map at the rate of an MG42, mangonels that nuke all buildings, units and animals within a five-mile radius and horses so fast that they might as well be teleporting. Of course, there is also the community favourite: Forest Nothing. This is a map where every tile is nothing but forest, and whereupon games can last anywhere between 2-7 hours. Masochistic as it sounds to play, it’s also very fun and requires a surprising amount of tactical thinking regarding your build-order throughout the early and mid game, before the endgame dissolves into utter chaos. Using the in-game editor, you can also create your own maps and campaigns using unique assets and scripting tools.
To be truthful, there isn’t a world where I don’t recommend playing Age of Empires 2. If you want to ask me which version I recommend, then I currently recommend the Definitive Edition on Steam or the Microsoft Store since it is one of the best remasters of a classic game I have ever played, and has kept the community alive. It stays true to the gameplay and systems that made the game popular to begin with, but addresses many of the technical short comings and tedious systems left behind from the 90’s. I started playing this game when I was ten years old on my PlayStation 2 (god, it plays bad on console), and still have as much fun playing it now as I did back then. If you haven’t already, you should absolutely play this game.