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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 [Jeddunk - editors note] 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 has done so much work to mod, fix and make the game playable 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

  • 900x600 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 800x600 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 (900x600 vs 800x600).

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 the 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 jaggy 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

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 window will be opened, and pressing play will take you directly into that lobby.

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 support for high resolution like 1920x1080 and higher, which is a marked improvement over the original game's 4:3 800x600 resolution.

Both the original and the HD edition 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 in a borderless window to the display's 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.

Fully 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 seen 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 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.