Age of Empires II Definitive Edition - 4K nostalgia

Updated: August 10, 2020

I'm a great fan of the AoE/AoM series of games. Many an hour of my life has been spent in delightful medieval castle building, resource harvesting and battles galore even since the game was release some 20 years back. When the remastered HD version came out a few years ago, I rushed to try and play it, and it was as if no time had passed. Wunderbarness all over.

Now, there's a new version of the game, called the Definitive Edition! It comes with some additional nations, new campaigns, somewhat revised AI, and most importantly, super-hi-res graphics, intended to bring the old AoE styling into the 2020s. With a low price tag and an enticing promise of a fresh bucket of enjoyment, I set about testing.

Teaser

Ambitious, but is it delicious?

AoE Definitive Edition weighs a hefty 8 GB - and this is without the UHD Enhanced Graphics Pack, which triples the total installation size. I started with the standard set, and the game installed fine. Launched, all good. The UI is slightly different than before, but not in a cardinal way. You still have the usual goodies - standalone games, campaigns, including the William Wallace tutorial. There's also a new set of The Art of War challenges, designed to help you learn different progression strategies, which can be quite important for multiplayer games. You can learn how to Zerg-rush your foe, quickly progress through ages, hoard resources, and so forth.

The Art of War

The maps are all there, but you can now supersize them, and there's a new option for ultra-high and infinite map resources, which both open up new possibilities but also make the standalone scenarios easier. For instance, in AoE II HD, high resources net you only 500 units of food, so you would usually instantly spend it on the villager queue and then gather fresh food. In AoE II DE, the same setting gives you 1,000 units, so you can basically build a bunch of villages and almost instantly progress to the Feudal Age. But let's play, let's see what gives.

The plot thickens

I kicked off a couple of regicide scenarios, trying some new civilizations - Cumans and Lithuanians. The former have their own architecture style, similar to the Indian one introduced in the Rajas expansion, so this is a nice little addition. The game mechanism are almost the same. Build, fight, win.

Cumans scenario

Overall, the Definitive Edition is easier. This is primarily because you get more resources - and the new global build queue. What the latter does is - it allows you to stack actions. Then, these are shown in the top-left corner of your screen, so you know what you're doing at all times. This makes civilization management simpler and faster, which takes away some of the charm and the challenge that RTS should entail. I mean, if you can simply click a dozen actions all at once, then you can focus on combat entirely, and never have to not worry about your buildings standing idle.

Global build queue

You also get the farm auto-queue at your mills, so this takes away from the workload, too. Yes, it can be tedious rebuilding farms, but that's what makes the Age of Empires so engaging. You're fighting, and then you hear the farm expiration sound, and you need to abandon the combat and send your villagers back to work, so you don't run out of precious resources. Annoying, but that's how it's meant to be. If the whole resource management becomes a background task, then it's not really fun anymore.

And then I encountered a bunch of niggles ...

Game dynamics, performance, sounds

The default keyboard shortcuts have changed. Primarily, Q/A/E, which would give you house, farm thingie in Aoe II HD, are now mapped differently, and your muscle memory goes into a spasm. Especially early on, time is super-precious, and if you waste seconds figuring out what you need to build, or even worse, build a wrong thing, this guarantees a spectacular defeat later on. Similarly, the idle villagers icon has been moved from the mini-map to the top of the screen. More muscle memory PTSD.

Performance isn't ideal. In AoE II HD, actions are instant. Say click on a villager build shortcut, and the building template is painted on the screen, instantly. Job done. In the Definitive Edition, there's a lag. It might be only 50-60 ms or so, but I feel it, and it annoys me.

Now, the system I played on is no slouch - it's my new desktop, and it comes with bazillion cores and an Nvidia RTX 2080 card. And yet, the game wasn't as sprightly as I expected it to be. The delay never went away. Mid-game, CPU utilization is minimal, but the graphics utilization was about 30%. This is quite a bit for a remastered title based on a Windows 98 era game.

AoE map, zoomed

It is also harder to select buildings using the mouse. I often found myself clicking on trees or empty space, whereas I never had that problem in the standard version. Not really sure why. Maybe it's the higher precision of detail, but then, why would I want to click on a tree? Tiny things, but they can really disrupt your flow.

Villagers working

The fuzziness also extends to visuals. First, you can zoom in and out, which is a new feature that doesn't exist in the original version. When you're fully zoomed in, things aren't as sharp as they could be - this might be the fact I don't have the UHD graphics pack just yet. But overall, there's a softer, more cartoonish feel to the unit textures. This is most notable with the in-game blood. In the original title, dead units would render in a fairly accurate splash of red and white, until they slowly faded from the map. Here, blood is shown as a mere blob. Text screen is also too big - I like big fonts, but this is like wow.

Old game details

A bunch of units arrayed for a spectacular showdown, Age of Empires II HD. Notice the after-battle details.

New game details

A bunch of units arrayed for a spectacular showdown, Age of Empires II DE.

Visual detail

Age of Empires II DE. Notice the after-battle details.

Battle details

Just a comparison, side by side, between the HD and DE versions. Notice the blood blobs.

And then, there's the whole high-FPS smoothness, which is the worst thing to come to the world of computing since monitor panels became sophisticated enough to refresh at high rates. This is the game equivalent of the nasty soap opera effect in smart TVs. As it stands out, monitors can refresh at 120 Hz, 144 Hz, whatever. What if means technically is that pixels can change their values faster, so there are no artifacts. On its own, this isn't a problem.

The problem is when content is also "displayed" at a rate that matches the monitor, but what this effectively means is an artificially smoothed motion curve for non-static content. To illustrate, here's a banal example. Wave your own hand in front of your eyes. You will notice that the outline of your hand and fingers isn't perfectly sharp. There's a little bit of blur - because that's how human eyes work.

And you can't really translate this onto computer screens. What technology does is transpose the high-FPS functionality of our eyes onto the screen objects, making them move "more smoothly" to try to mimic human vision. But what this does is simply make things look "slow motion" at normal speed.

Another banal example - car races shown at high FPS. You can see cars "gliding", and you can see the outline of wheels and whatnot turning smoothly. Awful. This is not what your eyes would see if you ever went to a racing event. Hence the unnatural smoothness. And if you ever wonder, there's a reason why movies are shot at 24 FPS, and it has nothing to do with technology - it's about the perception of the reality.

Back to Age of Empires Definitive Edition. The whole 4K UHD 60 FPS sounds mighty, but it actually makes the game action look less realistic (sans the UHD graphics pack). Arrows flying out of castles at enemy soldiers look like slo-mo videos. Soldiers walk like they're extras in The Matrix. It's real-time-speed action with roughly 1/2-speed movement. After a while, this becomes quite annoying.

Sound ... On one hand, the sounds are deeper, clearer, more glorious. On the other hand, some of the sounds are cartoonish. If you garrison a bunch of archers in a castle, when they fire at an approaching enemy unit, it sounds like a sawing machine. The original AoE actually had the bow twang and fletching whoosh done with greater fidelity. Here, battle sounds feel detached for the most part.

Artificial intelligence

This is the one aspect that seems to have been improved a fair deal. The AI still isn't brilliant, but it does some things better than in the past, which somewhat compensates for the simplified management. If you attack enemy villagers, they will usually put up a better fight than in the past. Then, the enemy might actually try to outflank you.

Under attack

Sneaky sneaky, village attacky.

While playing Gold Rush, I had a bunch of castles built in the middle of the map, protecting the vast gold resources. Normally, in the original game, the enemy would mount repeated and futile attempts to capture these, sending its soldiers as cannon fodder against an impregnable line of fortifications. In the Definitive Edition, the enemy actually sent its troops around me, and even mounted an impressive little attack on my town center, which wasn't too well defended. So I sustained some decent casualties, and had to scramble to defend my village. In the end, I repelled the enemy, and I actually enjoyed the twist of cleverness. Alas, these moments of adaptive brilliance are far and few in between, and the outstanding issues remain and cannot be ignored.

Victory splash

Enhanced Graphics Pack

I decided to see if there's any difference in the overall gameplay with the extra 16 GB worth of graphics data. The answer is: yes, there is. A significant difference. A positive one, too.

First, the game plays more smoothly and will less of a lag (still some). It sounds counterintuitive, but I guess having higher-texture graphics means the game engine doesn't need to upscale, which probably reduces the computational penalty. On the other hand, the GPU does need to work a little harder - 35-40% utilization on my machine, with the game displayed on a 2K monitor.

UHD 1

UHD 2

Second, the textures are now much sharper and clearer. The zoom factor also changes - you can't zoom as much out as you could previously, but you can zoom in to a much closer distance, so you can really see the units and their design. Now, finally, the glory of this 4K transformation starts to show. The fuziness doesn't fully disappear, but the annoying syrupy softness is almost gone. Blood effects are also more realistic, so all in all, the enhancement is a definite plus. In fact, this should be a default part of the game, because it drastically alters the user experience.

UHD 3

UHD 4

Conclusion

As I wrote this review, I realized that Age of Empires II Definitive Edition seems to be primarily designed for multiplayer games - and streaming. That explains the over-large text, the fact you don't need to go back so often to your town center, and simplified combat visuals. In the original game, spectacting a battle was an annoying thing - the players would jump back and forth between their villages and combat units, and it felt dizzying. Here, since most of the "boring" parts are auto-queued, viewers can actually watch battles, the interesting part of online matches.

And so, I'm torn about this game. It's actually very similar to AoE II HD, but then, there are some subtle and important differences. Yes, overall, little has changed. But the simplification takes away from the raw challenge, and the visual smoothness feels wrong. The action lag is also annoying. Then, if you try the Enhanced Graphics Pack, the extra 16 GB bring in freshness on all levels - performance, responsiveness, visual clarity. I really believe this should be included with the game by default. I'm not one to care much about graphics, but if this also means improved gameplay, then yes. Sometimes, more is more.

Anyway, there's no clearcut answer. The Definitive Edition makes the game more accessible, takes away some of the fun, and the Enhanced Graphics Pack is a must. I'll be playing some more, to see what gives. At the moment, I'm not sure whether to be indifferent or delighted. Dedoimedo out.

Cheers.

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