All the improvements listed in the following link, loads of them, should answer all questions. I wonder why they don’t advertise them properly, it would make a big difference for people that might purchase:
Link to the German article (behind paywall though): https://www.gamestar.de/artikel/age-of-empires-2-definitive-edition-gameplay-preview,3345186.html
The author (Peter Barthge, https://www.gamestar.de/xenforo/members/peter-bathge.426605/ ) has played the E3 demo two times and did an interview with Adam Isgreen and Bert Beeckman. I tried to translate the article using deepl.com and made changes where my English skills allowed me to.
Disclaimer: I’m not proud of stealing journalistic work, but even if you would all like to pay for it, only few of you could read it because it’s in German.
- 4K graphics, zoom, destruction animations, yada yada
- intelligent unit selection (optional)
- still using AoE2 game engine (Genie engine)
- new population limit: 500
- re-recorded orchestral soundtrack, including new pieces
- new path-finding
- new, way stronger AI that doesn’t cheat (even on highest difficulty)
- spectators don’t take up a player spot, unlimited number of spectators
- seperate spectator lobbies
- Mixer integration
- does not use UWP (Universal Windows Platform), but “standard” Win32
- release on Steam and Windows Store, crossplay between both platforms
- using technology from AoE4, for example “Relic Link” (anti-cheat-tool, allows player profiles, similar to Battle.net)
- the new Age of Empires studio supports the other game studios
- HD mods are compatible with Definitive Edition, but need a tool for conversion that’s provided by Forgotten Empires
AgeofEmpires.com becomes platform for mods, so that both Steam and MS store users can get them
- reworked scenario editor
- four new civs (Tartars, Bulgarians, Kumans, Lithuanians)
- three new campaigns, one of them is called “The Last Khans”
- portraits of talking campaign characters are shown while they speak
- original campaigns have been reworked, AoK campaigns now feature HD civs where appropriate (e.g. Italians)
- there’s a so-called “Community Council” for each of the AoE titles, which cooperates with the developers
- there will be updates after release, they didn’t exclude another addon
- 15 Euros for HD owners, 20 Euros for everyone else
- re-designed interface
- control groups are displayed, building queues are displayed
- technologies can be queued
- buildings that are researching something show a visual effect (that’s not yet final)
- when deleting important buildings (e.g. castles) there’s a dialog that asks you to confirm (optional)
- auto-farm-reseeding (optional)
- newly trained units are in aggressive stance instead of defensive stance (optional)
- when settings waypoints units immediately start to move after setting the first waypoint (optional)
- waypoints can contain movement, attack and build commands (optional)
- so-called “challenges” are included to teach the player common tactics and other stuff (luring boars, build orders, etc.)
- in those challenges you get a score and can compare yourself with friends or players from around the world
– Now follows my ridiculous attempt of translating the article –
Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, nice that you exist
Peter had already declared the real-time strategy dead. Then he played the 4K Remaster of Age of Empires 2 for the first time at E3 2019.
America is a country of winners. Anyone who settled this year at the E3 in the USA at one of the Microsoft PCs at the fair to play was almost guaranteed victory in the test scenario specially put together for this demo.
As a Byzantine general I take over a prefabricated army, move from one enemy settlement to the next and destroy castles, town centers, wonders. But even if I don’t do that, like in my second run, and just wait in the main camp and read unit descriptions and marvel at new graphic details, the victory screen automatically awaits me at the end of the 15-minute demo time.
“Victory!” the game proudly announces and lists in a statistic my losses and those of the AI enemies (zero and zero). A high score is calculated. If you score over 5,000 points, you get a red T-shirt, if you score over 7,000, you get a blue bodice. At the end of my first trial game, 15,297 points are on my books - I just missed the high score with just over 200 points.
“You can only lose if you kill your starting unit,” Adam Isgreen admits to me in an interview afterwards, his eyes flashing mischievously. I understand: The typical US American trade fair visitor and Microsoft fan loves his Xbox and Gears of War, has no patience for complex basic construction and probably only knows real-time strategy games from bedtime stories.
The demo for Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition must be correspondingly simple; judging by the reactions of the developers present, one is already glad that anyone shows interest in their new edition of a 20-year-old PC game. While trying it out for Gamestar Plus, I realize: It’s a crime that this loving remaster doesn’t get more attention here in America! Also because it already uses parts of the technique of Age of Empires 4.
“Age of Empires is very important to us. We want it to last another 20 years.”
Age of Empires 2: A Definitive Edition between Modern Comfort and Oldschool Purism
Adam Isgreen works for Microsoft and is Creative Director for the Age of Empires series. If he had introduced himself to such a group of Age fans ten years ago, the reactions would probably have fluctuated between disbelieving snorting, hysterical laughter and loud scolding triads. After the closure of inventor Ensemble Studios, Microsoft relied on offshoots such as the unpopular Age of Empires Online and questionable mobile games.
But the mood in the community has changed recently; Microsoft seems to be serious about reviving the series. With Relic, an experienced developer is working on Age of Empires 4, while partner studio Forgotten Empires is working on Definitive Editions of the first three parts. The first Age of Empires Remaster was released in 2018, and this fall, by far the most popular part of the series gets the usual graphics update with 4K resolutions and new convenience features.
For Bert Beeckman, co-founder of Forgotten Empires, the development of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition is a balancing act. On the one hand, certain changes to the 20-year-old formula are necessary. On the other hand, you don’t want to scare the purists, the fans who have played Age of Empires 2 HD so far and helped the title to a second heyday in multiplayer mode on Steam.
Therefore, almost all game mechanics changes to the AoE2 concept are optional: In the menu you can deactivate innovations such as the intelligent unit selection when pulling up a mouse frame. But who would want that? You know the situation from Age of Empires 2: If you try to mark your army in your own base, you will inevitably catch a few workers buzzing around the town center, who are then sifted out of the attack troops by hand. In the Definitive Edition, the game doesn’t mark the workers at all when it’s a mixed group of civilians and military units.
For Bert Beeckman, the real-time strategy genre has seen many improvements over the past 20 years that he and his team wanted to incorporate into Age of Empires 2. However, he admits that this process was not easy: “The gameplay of Age 2 is practically perfect. Where do you start?”
More beautiful and better - in front of and behind the scenes
The graphical leap from Age of Empires 2 or HD Edition to Definitive Edition is less than the first part of the series, taking 4K resolution into account or not. “That’s mainly because Age of Empires 1 just didn’t look good anymore,” Adam Isgreen explains. “Age of Empires 2 is a much more timeless game.”
But there are still improvements to the visuals, especially in the new zoom, you can see them in the sleekly bobbing coat of a mounted general or in the new detail of the units, which were previously colored pixel clusters. Just as pretty are details like icicles on snow-covered roofs, rising steam and intoxicating calves and splendidly thundering waterfalls. In addition, all the buildings have received new skins that retain the iconic style but bring the textures into the 4K age.
And then, of course, there are the destruction effects: Buildings disintegrate into hundreds of individual stones when they are torn down or burned down by the enemy. This always looks nicer than simply replacing the texture in the original, even if the effect isn’t too realistic: Didn’t the builders use mortar in the Middle Ages?
In any case, the Remaster impresses with the fact that the Definitive Edition is still based on the old AoE2 engine despite all these graphic updates. “We’re pushing the boundaries of 90s technology,” says Bert Beeckman. The new population limit is 500 units (twice as much as in the Definitive Edition of the first Age of Empires). Through scripted reinforcement in missions, you can even control up to 600 strong armies without the computer melting.
The complete soundtrack has been re-recorded by an orchestra, plus new pieces in the style of the grandiose music from the original. I’ve listened to it and was enraptured by the quality of the composition and recordings.
For Forgotten Empires and Publisher Microsoft, when it comes to game-mechanical changes, artificial intelligence and pathfinding are the key issues. I can convince myself of the latter during the audition. Units don’t get stuck as much as in Age of Empires 1: Definitive Edition. Units find their way safely to the target and stay in step with the rest of the group. This is also due to the formations that were introduced with Age of Empires 2.
As far as Artificial Intelligence is concerned, Creative Director Isgreen is self-confident: “The improvements to the enemy AI are beyond good and evil. In internal tests, we’ve had seven computer opponents compete using the old AI against one of the new opponents at the Extreme difficulty level. The new AI has completely disassembled the others.”
Bert Beeckmann gives the all-clear to all those who suspect unfair methods behind such an exhibition: “The AI does not cheat. We simply taught it to use tactics that very experienced players use at the pro level. It can do anything a player can do, but not more.” Ergo, the computer opponent in Age of Empires 2’s Skirmish neither sees the whole map until it’s uncovered by hand, nor collecting resources faster, nor being given preferential treatment in unit training.
“If you look at the records of an AI game, you might even learn something.”
But why wait for saved replays when you can just watch them live? Until now viewers used to take one of the precious eight seats in a multiplayer game, the Definitive Edition now allows an unlimited number of other players to watch. For this purpose, the re-release of Age of Empires features 2 separate Spectator lobbies - and Microsoft’s in-game streaming platform Mixer allows games to be transferred directly from the menu to the Internet.
AoE2 Multiplayer in the Definitive Edition
Even today, 20 years later, Age of Empires 2 is still played in multiplayer mode. The HD edition on Steam attracts over 10,000 players every day - a respectable number for a strategy game so old in its core. The Definitive Edition will therefore offer a robust online mode. Forgotten Empires “threw out the old netcode completely”.
Players can also look forward to increased stability compared to the Remaster of the first Age of Empires. This was created using UWP technology (Universal Windows Platform, a restrictive runtime environment that does not allow mods, for example). Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, on the other hand, relies on Win32 - and also appears on Steam. Thanks to crossplay between the versions for Microsoft Store and Steam, the community is not split.
That’s very important to Adam Isgreen and his colleagues - also regarding the next Definitive Edition of Part 3 and Age of Empires 4 developed by Relic. “Age of Empires 2 already uses technology from Age of Empires 4, for example Relic Link. This is a powerful anti-cheat tool and also allows us to give players a uniform community profile for all games. It’s similar to Battle.net.”
More information about AoE4 cannot be elicited from the Microsoft employee though. Just this much: “We’ll talk about Age of Empires 4 later this year.” And: “We’ve set up a completely new internal Microsoft studio to support the other developers working on Age of Empires.” Developers like Forgotten Empires.
According to the creators of the Definitive Edition, mods for the HD edition of Age of Empires 2 are compatible with the 2019 version thanks to Win32, the hobby developers only need to run a tool provided by Forgotten Empires. In case of doubt, there’s guide from the developers: “Everyone who works at Forgotten Empires is originally from the community or has made mods themselves,” explains Bert Beeckman the closeness to the players.
AgeofEmpires.com is to be established as the central download point for mods. The Steam Workshop is not supported - because if you buy Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition from the Microsoft Store, you won’t have access to it. But there’s a completely reworked editor for both platforms that should make it even easier to create fresh maps, scenarios and campaigns.
Adam Isgreen acknowledges the important role of the modders who not only kept the series alive, but also indirectly made Age of Empires 4 possible. “Mods are the reason Age of Empires has been in people’s minds for so long.”
Age of Empires 2 gets even bigger
But it’s not just other players who are supplying new content, Forgotten Empires is also adding to the scope of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition. In addition to the main game, all four addons are included. The Conquerors from 2000, developed by Ensemble Studios, and the HD extensions The Forgotten, African Kingdoms and Rise of the Rajas, conceived by Forgotten Empires. But wait, there’s more!
A brand new addon called The Last Khans is released exclusively as part of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition. This brings with it four new civilizations (Tartars, Bulgarians, Kumans, Lithuanians), three of which you can control yourself in just as many campaigns, each with several missions. This brings the total number of civilizations to 35, up from 13 in the 20-year-old original. In total, Forgotten Empires promises 200 hours of play in Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition.
The Last Khans, by the way, won’t be a new edition of the Mongol campaign from Age of Empires 2, the addon plays much later than the conquest campaign of Genghis Khan and focuses on Eastern Europe as a setting. In the production, Forgotten Empires modernizes the old AoE2 way of doing things of the mission descriptions with voice output; when characters speak up on the battlefield, they are now displayed with a small portrait.
The Remaster team has also reworked the already existing content. The main focus was on community wishes. Some of the unpopular scenarios, such as some missions from the Aztec campaign in The Conquerors, received massive changes. In addition, Forgotten Empires has added the civilizations added with the HD Addons to the original missions where appropriate.
In the Teutonic campaign, for example, the Crusaders stop in Italy. In Age of Kings, however, there was no separate Italian civilization there, which only became a playable faction with its own units and buildings with The Forgotten. In the Definitive Edition such civilizations are now integrated into the missions. In addition, Forgotten Empires took the opportunity to correct some errors in the historical facts, especially regarding the representation of borders on maps.
AoE2: A remaster for the fans
The focus is on the player - at E3 2019, Microsoft employees didn’t tire of emphasizing this point, no matter in which interview. With all due scepticism about such statements in times of coordinated marketing strategies: The closeness of the developers of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition to the fans seems true.
For one year Forgotten Empires has been in a lively exchange with a council of players; this so-called “Community Council” exists for every Age of Empires part. In cooperation with the developers, wish lists with features and improvements were created: “We worked through them point by point,” Adam Isgreen promises.
Even after the release of the new 4K version of Age of Empires 2, they want to stay in close contact with the community. More updates will be released than for part 1 and additional addons are not excluded. Isgreen: "We will ask the fans in which direction they think the game should develop. Feedback is expected for example from the beta of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, which will start in June.
Fair is also the treatment of the buyers of Age of Empires 2 HD. Those who own the previous Remaster on Steam pay only 15 Euro for the Definitive Edition; a discount of 25%. In addition, the HD version does not disappear from the store with the release of the Definitive Edition, but is still going to be sold. In the end, everyone wins.
I can already see the comments: “How hypocritical is it that Peter Bathge of all people wants to tell me that he has fun with Age of Empires 2?” “Haha, real-time strategy is dead, my ■■■!” “Fake news, fake news!”
I admit: When I last advertised to finally let the genre rest in peace, I wouldn’t have noticed that I liked the Definitive Edition of the best medieval strategy game so much. But that’s not a contradiction for me: Of course Age of Empires 2 is still a great game. But if the remaster of a 20-year-old game is the biggest re-release in 2019, then I don’t think the classification as a dead genre is up for grabs.
Anyway, that doesn’t change the fact that developer Forgotten Empires was very conscientious about the 4K release of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition. I especially like all the small comfort features that improve the game flow and, along with the newly recorded soundtrack and graphical improvements, justify upgrading from the HD Edition for me. I particularly like the fact that the makers have obviously really thought about what the fans expect from a remaster. That includes the Steam release. .
– END OF MAIN ARTICLE –
The article also included this:
More, partly optional new features in Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition
- Redesigned interface with larger, re-drawn graphics for resources and buttons.
- Groups defined with Ctrl + Number key are displayed including symbol at the bottom of the screen, at the top you can see the global build list with all currently ordered units. The developers have placed the button for finding idle workers prominently in the upper left corner.
- Units sent to a location with the “Attack Move” will independently attack enemies on the way.
- In buildings, technology upgrades and the production of new units share a common build list; upgrades no longer block the commissioning of new troops.
- With a single button, you can select all your military units at once.
- When a technology is being explored in a building, a glitter effect around the building will draw attention to it, even at low zoom levels. The glitter is more reminiscent of Christmas and is not yet final.
- Optional: There is a safety query when deleting important buildings such as castles and wonders.
- Optional: Fields from farms are automatically renewed on request (can be switched off in the mill to produce newly filled fields as before on stockpiles).
- Optional: After training, units are by default in aggressive mode and attack enemies independently (formerly: defensive mode).
- Optional: After setting waypoints while holding down the Shift key, units immediately start to run the route. To start, no click on the first waypoint is necessary.
- Optional: Waypoints can contain movement as well as attack and build commands.
Challenge Missions: Getting Better in the AoE2 Dojo
An innovation of Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition are challenges. In a special mode, the game presents you with a series of tasks specially designed to teach beginners and advanced players specific multiplayer strategies. Developers compare this to a kind of training dojo in games like Street Fighter.
For example, you’ll learn how to respond properly to an opponent’s rush attacks, which build order is best at the beginning of a game, how to take advantage of certain civilizations, or how to hunt boars without losing a villager. Your performance is rated by the game, the highscore can be compared to your friends and other players from all over the world.