Age of Empires II was released on September 30, 1999. It went on to win many awards and became a real-time strategy classic. Yet it wasn’t enough to keep the franchise moving. The ill-timed Age of Empires 3 didn’t arrive until six years later and, by then, it was too late. The world had moved on.
Last night, over 15,000 people were playing Age of Empires II: HD Edition. That’s enough to put it in the top 50 games on Steam, and occasionally, it comes close to being in the top 25. It seems the game’s popularity is accelerating. The average player count has swung upwards since the 2013 release of the HD remaster, rising from a low of 1,361 simultaneous players in October 2013 to a high of 10,605 simultaneous players in January 2019.
It’s pretty bizarre, to say the least.
Age of Empires II will hit its 20th birthday this year and the HD Edition is very much an update, not a remaster. It’s a thoroughly ancient game in presentation, graphics, and gameplay, a literal relic from a different era of gaming. The nostalgia is strong here. I certainly feel warm and fuzzy when I see the title screen, which looks much like it did when I first started the game almost 20 years ago.
Childhood memories might explain the initial enthusiasm for the game’s return, but its consistent ascent suggests there’s something else going on. Look closer, and you’ll see it. Age of Empires II: HD Edition is still alive and supported. Several small expansions and regular patches keep players engaged and address balance issues, particularly in the competitive scene.
Yes. The competitive scene. It’s no Overwatch League, but Age of Empires 2: HD Edition is supporting two tournaments in 2019 — the Escape Champions League and King Of The Desert 2. Together, they offer over $75,000 in prizes.
Age of Empires II: HD Edition is no flash in the pan. It’s a robust game, updated game with a loyal fan following that seems to be growing over time. In a way, the game is more relevant now than ever before. Age of Empires 2 sold about a million copies in its first year and is estimated to have sold a couple million more since then. The HD Edition, according to SteamSpy’s admittedly imprecise estimates, is owned by at least 5 million players.
As unusual as its resurgence may seem, there is a reason for the madness. Age of Empires II is a great game.
Playing it remains a treat. Yes, it does have its wrinkles. The ancient interface feels too busy at times, and unit AI is daft but the game still translates the rise (and possible fall) of an empire into a bite-sized chunk of gameplay that usually lasts about an hour. Unless everyone turtles – but that can be its own fun. Rise of Nations is the only game that comes close to improving on the formula, though I haven’t played it enough to decide if it’s better.
Age of Empires II: HD Edition isn’t a fluke. Other strategy games have also refused to die from old age. Sid Meier’s Civilization V kept pace with Civilization VI for years, and consistently remains in Steam’s top-20 today. Starcraft 2’s best years are behind it, but it’s still receiving updates and still has the strongest competitive scene of any strategy game.
Then there’s the master of longevity; Paradox. The Swedish company has developed multiple franchises, like Hearts of Iron and Stellaris, into games that just…Keep. On. Going. Paradox has even translated that success to its publishing efforts. Cities: Skylines and Battletech are successfully following the same formula, polishing already solid games to an ever more complex shine.
Which brings me to my big, hairy point. Anthem could learn a lot from Age of Empires II. I get that might sounds nuts, but it’s true. And it applies to Anthem’s competitors, too.
Bungie started this mess with Destiny. Though it fell short of expectations, it seemed to kick off an exciting new era. The core gunplay was good. All it needed was more polish and better systems built around the excitement of shooting an alien in the fact. Surely, its successors and competitors would only improve!
Instead, Destiny’s followers have entered a downward spiral. They seem focused on anything but the core game, as if the game itself has become an afterthought to the ‘live service’ systems (including monetization) that will follow. Destiny 2 was a side-step from the original. The Division took over a year to be worth a second look. Even Red Dead Redemption 2, critically acclaimed for its single-player mode, seems uncertain how to blossom into a game that’s half as fun as Grand Theft Auto Online.
Which brings us to Anthem, a game that seems dead on arrival. Updates might give players more reason to play. They might also suck. Either way, the game will still have a core problem – blowing up baddies in Anthem becomes dull way too fast. A bad game updated frequently is still a bad game.
No one’s going to be playing Anthem twenty years from now. I’d be surprised if anyone remembers it. But Ages of Empires II, I suspect, will still have its niche.
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