Port Report: Age of Empires II HD

aoehd2cover

Port Reports are a new series of quick first impressions of the technical aspects of a PC game. This report was written by PCGamingWiki contributor Fwinest JediThug and Andrew Tsai. For an up to date account of Age of Empires II HD’s fixes and improvements, please visit its respective PCGamingWiki article.

Age of Empires II, one of the greatest real time strategy games ever made, will be available April 9th on Steam with new features including renewed graphical assets, The Conquerors expansion and Steam achievements and matchmaking. Comparing the HD rerelease against the original game is a little unfair given that the community have done so much work to mod, fix and make the game palatable on modern systems, so we will be comparing the HD rerelease with the original retail version from 2000 modified with the fan-made expansion Forgotten Empires.

What is Forgotten Empires?

Released recently in December 2012, Forgotten Empires integrates various fixes from xOmicron’s UserPatch including:

  • Higher resolutions and widescreen support.
  • Borderless fullscreen windowed mode.
  • Color fix for Windows Vista or newer.
  • Improved networking.
  • Improved AI system.
  • Increased population limit and many other bug fixes.
  • New content including new civilizations and maps.

What features does the HD rerelease bring?

  • Re-mastered for high resolution displays 1080p+.
  • Enhanced visual engine with improved terrain textures, water, fire and ambient lighting effects.
  • New Steamworks features: Achievements (197 of them!), Leaderboards, Matchmaking and Cloud support.
  • Share user created content with Steam Workshop support.

System requirements

HD rerelease

  • Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 Pro
  • Steam
  • 900×600 minimum display resolution
  • Direct X 9.0c+ GPU
  • 1.2GHz CPU
  • 1GB RAM
  • 2GB HDD

Retail (2000)

  • Windows 95/98/NT4
  • Pentium 166MHz Processor
  • 32MB RAM
  • 300MB Hard Disk Space
  • 4X CD-ROM Drive
  • 2MB Video SVGA 800×600 Resolution Card @ 256-colors

The main difference in the system requirements is that the HD rerelease requires Steam (instead of a CD-ROM drive) and it has a higher requirement for horizontal resolution (900×600 vs 800×600).

Graphics

Let’s cut straight to the chase – does the HD rerelease do much to update this 13 year old game’s sprites? The look of the art assets have been updated, but it might be harder to see than you might think. The improvements might not seem significant at a first glance, but comparing the HD screenshots with those of original version shows a marked improvement in the visual impact of the new graphics.

The most notable area which has improved is the water, which now has animations and reflections to give a more realistic look. Shadows on sprites and on the fog of war are improved, and are deeper and more defined than the original, giving  the visual image more depth. However, unit animations have not been updated, which is disappointing, and assets still appear fairly jaggly and dated. Nevertheless, objects have been revamped, and while these changes might be hard to see, they do make the game look smoother and richer than the original.

Multiplayer

lobby

The real draw to the game is not updated graphics, but the vastly improved multiplayer matchmaking system. Age of Empires II’s original multiplayer service, MSN Gaming Zone, closed down in 2006. Since then, other matchmaking services have taken its place, such as Voobly and Gameranger, and players congregated in communities such as AoCZone.

Age of Empires II HD’s new Steam matchmaking system is far simpler and more user friendly than previous methods. Players can now create and filter lobbies by setting, and play quick matches all through the comfort of Steam. You can also invite a player directly through the Steam chat interface. When a player accepts, the launcher windows is opened, and pressing play will take you directly into that lobby.

multiplayer

One of the noticeable improvements is that the population cap has been raised from 200 to 500 – making different types of games possible.

At PCGW Towers, we tested out the lobby system and played a few quick games, which seems to work great with no great lag or noticeable issues. Obviously, this situation could change upon general public release.

Unfortunately there is no support for offline LAN multiplayer, which is sad since this was a standard feature with the older Age of Empires II.

Settings

Like the Forgotten Empires patch, the HD rerelease offers high resolution displays over 1920×1080 resolution, which is a marked improvement over the original game’s 4:3 800×600 resolution.

Both the original and the HD edition both do not have many graphical options. The original version allows you to choose your resolution (with higher resolutions available with Forgotten Empires), the remake has only one checkbox to control it: “Full screen”, which is checked by default. This will stretch the game into a borderless full screen window at native resolution, which is really a great design decision since it makes alt-tabbing that much easier. When unchecking “Full screen”, the window’s borders will become visible, allowing one to stretch it to any preferred resolution or window size.

hd-mappingFully rebindable keys remain.

The “Graphics Detail” option is only available in the original, and this option would have been an unnecessary for the HD re-release since almost all PCs vastly outclass the system requirements for the game. Other available settings in both revisions are volume settings for both music and sound, scroll speed and other gameplay options.

Untested features

  • Steam Workshop: How far the community takes on Age of Empires II HD as a game for modding will remain to be see on release day. It also remains to be seen whether core mechanics will be editable, or whether this is for cosmetic mods only.
  • Cloud syncing: This is listed as a feature on their website, but has not been implemented on its store page listing.
  • Multimonitor: Unfortunately, we don’t have access to a multimonitor setup, and we’ll be looking to our friends at the WSGF community to test out and report on this brand new feature.

Conclusion

Age of Empires II HD’s improved graphics and compatibility with modern systems are a strong draw for new players. However, many of these fixes have been implemented in fan patches such as Forgotten Empires. Furthermore while the HD edition’s graphics are improved, the game still looks very dated. As a single player game, it might be a better value proposition to look for a markdown copy of the original version’s retail release, which is also compatible with many existing mods.

The real value of this package comes from its slick integration of Steam multiplayer. This new multiplayer system represents such a significant step up over the previous methods, it will revitalize the game’s multiplayer community with its easy to use lobbies and invitation systems. And once the community gets its hands on the Steam Workshop, we can expect to see a vibrant community rebuild itself around this classic game, and this alone may be worth the price of entry.

For an up to date account of Age of Empires II HD’s fixes and improvements, please visit its respective PCGamingWiki article.

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  • fwinest_JediThug

    “Unfortunately though, there is no support for offline LAN multiplayer, which is unfortunate since this is a standard feature with the older Age of Empires II.”

    I know… it’s unfortunate ;)

    • Andytizer

      Fixed :D . Thanks so much for writing this, I’ve made a number of additions and changes based on a bunch of testing.

      • fwinest_JediThug

        Thanks, I’m actually quite honored for my contributions. :D

  • http://daow.net DAOWAce

    Mods could do most of what the ‘HD’ re-release offers.

    A real shame they decided to push it out for $20. Rather just load up my original modded version instead of waste that much money.

    Firefly Studios released Stronghold HD as a patch for the original Stronghold games; companies should really learn from them.

    • nicereddy

      Is there still a large playerbase for the original? If not, you could consider it paying for people to play against.

      • http://daow.net DAOWAce

        Honestly, I don’t know. I was never really interested in PvP back when I played it. I mainly played vs AI in RTS games up until SC2.

        I’ll probably pick it up for $5 when it goes on sale just for the convenience of having it on Steam (download at any time, cloud saves), but it really sucks paying for a game I already own which is largely similar to the original.

        If it was a full on remake (like the Ys series games for example) I’d have no problem paying for it. (I’d mention XCOM, but the original version is still superior :P )

    • http://alllen.tumblr.com/ allen

      As someone who spent thousands of hours in AoE2 many years ago, I’ll gladly pay 20 bucks to play this.

      Installing and modding and whatever is just a hassle I’ll gladly pay 20 bucks to avoid. I don’t even have a cd-drive in my current computer. Plus I’m really excited about the matchmaking and ladder system. Slightly improved graphics is nice too.

    • kontis

      Bullshit.
      This uses highly modified graphics engine, works much better on new systems.
      Terrain is rendered in a completely new way and uses 3D mesh for calculations.
      Sprites are remade for higher resolutions.
      There are no HD mods which do such things.

      • http://daow.net DAOWAce

        I said ‘most’.

        The most important part of being ‘HD’ actually being, you know, ‘HD’. HD refers to resolution, either 720p or 1080p. Running a 640×480 game on a 1920×1200 display is murder on the eyes.

        Improved assets is just a bonus. Textures we can replace, but actual changes to the engine that enable better rendering on things is something entirely different, as you said, and a welcome addition.

        Still, Knights & Merchants, another game from this era, is being freely remade by fans, featuring some improvements to its engine like AoE2HD has received. Again, yet another title with a free upgrade, albeit not actually made by a company this time..

  • http://twitter.com/DevilRejected Cory D McDonald

    Whats missing on steam is AOE 1, rise of rome, age of mythology, the titans expansion. Is this AOE 2 the age of kings or the conquerors ?

    • Andytizer

      This version includes The Conquerors expansion.

  • nicereddy

    You forgot to include my suggestions from the Duke Nukem 3D article! Not a big deal, just thought I’d point it out.

    They really improved the UI in the HD version. I’m also glad they improved some of the texturing and changed the font, it was really ugly before.

    • Andytizer

      Thanks I forgot and I copied and pasted the wrong bit, link to PCGW article is a bit more contextualised :) .

      • nicereddy

        Can you add a Steam pre-order link as well, if there is one?

        • Andytizer

          Preorder link is at the top.

  • Drew Duncan

    Would get it for $2.99. Not spending $20… that’s just crazy talk

  • Anon12345

    Really.. the voobly community (www.voobly.com) have already made most of these edits over the years, putting in hours and hours of volunteer work only for MS to come and cash in on it as usual and split up the multiplayer community, after dropping zone and leaving aoe2 players out to dry. Awesome.