Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition on Xbox - The G.O.A.T Picks Up a Controller
Age of Empires 2 is, perhaps, the greatest RTS game ever made. Certainly in the eyes of the many many people who have discovered its resource-managing, war-mongering joys. It gave us a taste of history while serving up the best the genre had to offer at the time, in fact, many will tell you it has yet to be eclipsed, even by its own (still very good) sequels. But it was always a select group of people that could experience these joys. Those people were called PC gamers and oh how they lorded their superior strategy experience over their console brethren. But that stops right now because finally, the G.O.A.T has picked up a controller.
Coming to consoles was always going to be a tough road for a game like this. After all, it has been built from the ground up with the precision and micromanagement that is only possible with a mouse in mind. How would the developers take such a complex set of systems and make them not only accessible on a controller but fun to use? It turns out they did it with a little bit of outside-the-box thinking and a few changes in key areas. This has allowed the development team to not only bring Age of Empires 2 to console in a way that is playable but to make the experience worthwhile even for those who have played hundreds of hours of the game on PC and that is no mean feat.
The first thing that has happened is the UI has had a bit of a shake-up. Now, it is clearly designed for sitting on a couch and playing on a big-screen TV. Large fonts, easy-to-see icons and clear maps and resource counts. It takes up a good portion of the screen and can initially seem a little cluttered, but it is something of a necessary evil. What is important though is that all the information needed is easy to find and easy to read, making navigation easy while making sure knowing exactly what is going on at any time is something that comes naturally. Graphically the game is on par with the PC version, which is to say it looks old, but in a timeless way. The only gripe here is the same one I have for the PC version of The Definitive Edition and that is it feels like you can’t zoom the camera out far enough. I would have really liked an extra step out on the camera so I can see more of the battlefield at any one time, but that is probably something that was too hard to include in the aging base game.
The second smart move the developers have made is the automation of the villagers. In the PC version, players were required to manually assign villagers to where they were needed, but as that was simple with a few clicks of the mouse, it wasn’t a big deal. Now there is a great new feature that automatically tasks all available villagers according to a range of preset guidelines. For example, there is a preset that focuses on early game army build-up, one that is designed to gather the resources required to build walls and castles and another that is focused on the best things to gather for trade. It is a fantastic system that has been well thought out and implemented. The preset can be changed with a simple selection in a radial menu at any time as what you need to progress changes. I cannot speak enough for it and it is my hope they patch it into the PC version as well. You can still micromanage if you like, but honestly, it felt like a revolution to me. In the case of food, Villagers will automatically gather food from any animals or berry bushes around before automatically planting farms (if resources allow) so players are always sure their villagers are taking to the task at hand and not sitting idly by.
Another villager improvement is the ability to queue up buildings. By simply holding the LT while selecting where you are placing a building you can queue up multiple sites ready to start once the first building is finished. This is fantastic for houses and saves a huge amount of waiting for things to complete just so you can start another building of the same type. Finally, all the commands for Villagers and buildings (i.e Building things or buying units and upgrades) are now accessible via a simple radial menu instead of little icons at the bottom of the screen. It makes sense when using a controller as it is simple, precise and easy to master without being excessively fiddly.
As for other general changes, the biggest one is perhaps the shortcuts. The development team have done a remarkable job of getting as many keyboard shortcuts onto the controller as they can. For example, if you need a villager, just tap up on the d-pad. To select all of your military units simply hold left on the d-pad. To queue up a scout’s path, simply hold left trigger and select all the points on the map you wish them to travel to. It is remarkable how well they have done making all of these extra commands available on a standard Xbox controller.
There are a few downsides that are probably just unavoidable. The select-all military command grabs any scout units too, which is frustrating because they are as useful in a fight as a heater is in hell. Hopefully, this gets patched out in the future. The other problem I came across is making unit groups. It can be done, but it is a little fiddly, especially when compared to how easy it was on PC. The thing is, I am sure the developers know this and probably spent an inordinate amount of time thinking of the best solution. Sadly sometimes, you just can’t beat a mouse and keyboard. This holds true in the heat of the battle sometimes too. It is easy to get a little bit flustered on occasion and select the wrong thing, though that lessens noticeably with time as you get used to where everything is mapped and how the game uses these shortcuts.
Those two issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme of what is simply an amazing achievement. For so long, RTS on a console just hasn’t worked. There have been so many attempts and while some have come close (Halo Wars comes to mind) none have recaptured the joy of the genre using nothing but the controller, until now. Age of Empires 2 is one of the best games ever made, I say that with no words of hyperbole. The fact that so many years after its release AoE2 is finally available to a group of people who have never had the opportunity to experience it is simply wonderful. It is a masterful port that not only makes the game thoroughly enjoyable on console but even improves on some areas of the original release. I hope the rest of the series gets the same treatment for their Xbox release because it means, for the first time ever, that RTS has a home in your lounge room, not just at your computer desk.
Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition was reviewed on the Xbox Series S and X with code kindly supplied by Xbox Australia.