In the summer of 1999 my parents bought myself and my sister a brand new PC. Back then Windows PCs came pre-loaded with a number of demos, and one of ours was the original Age Of Empires. My 11 year-old self was glued to the computer for hours upon hours, giving point and click commands to tiny sprites who hunted animals, built cities and waged war on opposing factions. This however was only the beginning.
After a couple of months of playing the same few scenarios over and over again, I read online that there was an Age Of Empires II: Age Of Kings. The very next evening I would spend seven or eight hours download a demo of AOE II, an endeavour that almost result in me getting grounded for jamming up the phone.This was the glory days of 56K modems when nobody could use the phone if you wanted to use the internet. Kids these days don’t know how good they have it!
I enjoyed the original Age Of Empires, but Age Of Kings was a revelation by comparison. Medieval technologies to play around with instead of the Egyptian and Roman Empire era technologies of its predecessor, better graphics and smarter AI, admittedly easier than the AI of the original due to Ensemble studio coding it in such a way that the AI couldn’t cheat by giving itself extra resources. The demo even included the entire William Wallace tutorial campaign.
Not long after this one of my friends loaned me a copy of the full game, along with its recently released Conquerors expansion. Finally getting to experience the full game was amazing. Age Of Empires II: Age Of Kings and The Conquerors expansion have one of the best campaigns I have ever experienced in a game of any genre. Genghis Khan, El Cid, Attila the Hun, the Aztec struggle against the invading Spanish to name but a few of the available scenarios, with each offering varied gameplay experiences. The El Cid campaign was a personal favourite of mine. Just as you are comfortable controlling the Spanish the game pulls the rug out from under you and forces you to adapt to the Saracens half way through the campaign.
Aside from the hours of real time strategy fun that AOE II gave to me, I remember it just as much for how it opened me up to historical periods and figures I never got to learn about in school. I probably would have paid more attention during history lessons if we were learning about the great military battle between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades, how Frederick Barbarosa brought together warring city states to form his Holy Roman Empire and how Pope Leo I supposedly convinced Attila the Hun not to sack Rome. Looking back now it is amazing to think the impact Age Of Empires II had on me as it led to me reading extensively on historical topics that would otherwise have flown under my radar.
Aside from the personal significance this game holds for me, Age Of Empires II played an important part in the history of online multiplayer gaming. Age Of Empires II was a very popular part of the now defunct Microsoft online gaming platform, MSN gaming zone. Before Xbox Live, Playstation Network and Steam (the service was only in its infancy at this point) made online multiplayer a norm in the industry, MSN Gaming Zone was one of the only games in town.
Playing games online, especially real time strategy games, wasn’t exactly the fluid experience that it is nowadays. Those of us playing on 56k modems could experience up to eight second delays on mouse commands with that delay lessened slightly if you were lucky enough to have an ISDN connection. Given the storm of vitriol that fills social media nowadays whenever a server goes for an hour or two, it is amazing to think gamers ever endured 56k internet gaming.
Despite the technological limitations of the internet services of the time, in 2001 Microsoft held a worldwide Age Of Empires II: The Conquerors tournament. This tournament was of particular significance as any player from around the world, from ranked amateurs to professionals, were eligible to enter through preliminary rounds held on MSN Gaming Zone. I myself entered the preliminary tournament but sadly failed to progress. The final match of this tournament can be viewed by those who own the Gold Edition of Age Of Empires II using the recorded game playback feature.
Recently in a nostalgia driven Steam sale purchase, I picked up the HD re-release of Age Of Empires II. Sadly this proved to be a mistake. While the Forgotten Kingdoms and recently released African Kingdoms DLC make the HD edition an attractive purchase, this Hidden Path Entertainment headed re-release is a poor representation of the original game. The addition of Steam workshop support and more polished graphics is welcome, but the HD Edition suffers from sluggish frame rate and poor unit path finding which tarnished my ability to enjoy the game anew.
Any gamers out there thinking of taking a trip down memory lane would be better off picking up the Gold Edition, which isn’t available on Steam or GOG, but brand new on disc copies are available on Amazon.
Words by Matt Conroy