I spent the better part of my holiday break leaping from one real-time strategy game to another: a They Are Billions failed run here, a Command & Conquer: Red Alert skirmish there. I even dug up my physical copies of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth and its sequel from my parents’ basement. The liminal space between 2023’s late releases and 2024’s January rush provided the perfect opportunity to zoom out (literally and figuratively) and enjoy the act of telling tiny little people where to go and what to do.
At a certain point, my nostalgia morphed into curiosity. Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition’s Steam news feed has been more active than those of many newer releases, and I finally decided to take a closer look. It turns out, developer Forgotten Empires and Xbox Game Studios have been releasing new DLC, updates, patches, challenges, and seasonal aesthetics on an almost weekly basis since the remaster’s 2019 release. This cadence, coupled with the fact that 26,000 people were playing the nearly 25-year-old RTS on Steam, convinced me to take a detour. (I played on Steam, but it’s also available via Game Pass.) And not only is Age of Empires 2 still pretty damn good — like many, I consider it one of the best RTS games of all time — it feels more vital than ever in 2024.
To start, there are now 37 total campaigns. This count ignores the dozen discrete historical battles, the tutorial missions revolving around William Wallace, and the eight remastered campaigns from the previous game. (Did I mention Forgotten Empires also remastered much of the first Age of Empires and released it as an expansion for the sequel?) If, like me, you prefer narrative campaigns and skirmishes against the AI in RTS games, then Age of Empires 2 is tantamount to a single-player gold mine.
While I always hesitate to consider a breadth of content a quality in and of itself, it’s both surreal and encouraging to see this many new missions, cutscenes, and unique units in Age of Empires 2 this long after its initial release. Forgotten Empires’ remaster plays like a dream, with a bevy of quality-of-life improvements (I’m looking at you, farm queues) and enemy AI that actually knows how to exploit your weaknesses and bait you into vulnerable situations. Sure, pathfinding is still an albatross around Age of Empires 2’s neck — chasing one scout halfway across the map with an entire battalion of cavalry will never be fun — but it’s a much smaller albatross these days. I can actually maneuver an entire army across a river ford without half of it doubling back to find another crossing.
When it comes to a game that feels this good to play, I’ll take all of the missions I can get. I kicked off this particular stint with one Vlad Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler) and his campaign to lead the Turks, Magyars, and Slavs against the Ottoman Empire. Each of the five missions in his storyline involve vastly different scenarios. The third, titled “The Breath of the Dragon,” is as challenging as it is thrilling, tasking me with capturing the central Wallachian city of Giurgiu before defending it from attack in every direction. Its placement on the banks of the Danube necessitates building up a naval presence and sailing to numerous small settlements working to supply the main Ottoman citadel of Darstor. When my Slavic forces finally entered Darstor, destroyed its fortifications, and demolished its castle, I almost had to step away to catch my breath.
My return to the 1999 classic begs the question: What about Age of Empires 4, the most recent entry in the series? I’ve been a fan of Relic Entertainment’s sequel since its 2021 release. That appreciation has only grown as the team refines and builds upon an already impressive foundation; I especially appreciate 4’s asymmetrical faction design, which makes playing the nomadic Mongols, for instance, feel vastly different than managing the complex dynasty system of China. Age of Empires 2’s civilizations, by comparison, feel much more uniform outside of their unique units.
But in its slick mechanics, its stunning art style, its wealth of creative missions, and its strong content cadence, Age of Empires 2 remains atop the pedestal it climbed almost 25 years ago. I haven’t even touched “The Mountain Royals” or “Return of Rome,” its newest expansions, as of this writing — but I absolutely plan to soon. The game’s ongoing health is proof that, given proper time and funding, a team can revitalize a classic in a medium known for its ephemeral works. I booted up Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition on the doorstep of 2024 in order to replay an enduring classic; I also found a vibrant modern game.