There have been many, many attempts made to replicate the experience of playing a PC RTS on a home console, to retrofit a very keyboard-and-mouse-centric genre to work with a controller and on a big screen. I have fond memories of playing games like Warcraft II on the PS1 or even the more recent Halo Wars 2, but the holy grail for me has always been the opportunity to kick back on the couch and shout “wololo!” with some classic Age of Empires II. Now, with Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, that dream has finally come true.
This port of AOE2 marks what I’d say is one of the most considered and all-encompassing translations of an existing PC RTS to console, finally crossing a bridge that seemed impossible without drastically watering down the experience any (let’s please erase the game’s PS2 port from memory) and even keeping Xbox players legitimately competitive. It’s all a product of a clearly huge amount of care, iteration and innovation and it’s quickly become my favourite way to play the game.
The basics of the controller inputs for AOE2 are pretty much what you’d expect, with the analog sticks controlling the camera and an on-screen cursor, and the bumpers and face buttons acting as inputs and access to contextual menus. It’s the kind of stuff that’s been done plenty in the past with RTS games on controller, but so far this feels like the most intuitive and customisable take yet, as well as acting as a fantastic gateway for newcomers thanks to some of the mechanical concessions made. A brand-new tutorial for controller-based play also goes a long way to making either the transition or first point of entry as smooth as possible.
It’s the word “thoughtful” that comes to mind when trying to describe any number of the updates made to this Definitive Edition of AOE2 to fit the console experience, starting with great little touches like the way your in-game cursor will not only change to reflect what pressing the action button does based on where it’s located but also whether you have unit/s selected to perform it, and which ones they are. Or the easy three-stage unit selection process, where a single press picks a unit, a double-press picks all units of that type and press-and-hold starts sending out a radius to group up anyone nearby. It’s the way the most basic and oft-used actions have been looked at from every angle to make the very core of play feel just right on a pad.
Branching out from there though, things are just as carefully curated and contextualised to work in front of the telly. The team at World’s Edge hasn’t been afraid to rethink how the game plays at every level to make it work on Xbox, including implementing a new game AI that can help manage villagers with things like automatically divvying up tasks like farming and mining based on preset strategies. It’s the kind of thing that won’t drastically change the overall game flow but still massively streamlines things for players, not just those moving to console from PC but those altogether new to the game as well.
With help from the AI, an abundance of new shortcut commands and intelligent UI that automatically places the most appropriate units or commands within the reach of a button dependant on what you’re doing in any given moment, I genuinely found my building and management in Age of Empires II to be even more efficient with a controller than on PC. Granted, a large reason for that will be my overall aptitude for console gaming versus my very occasional PC gaming, but it bodes incredibly well for anyone else with a nostalgia for the game that has since moved onto more couch-bound endeavours.
If you have been out of the game for a while, the other great thing is all of the improvements from the PC release of the Definitive Edition are here too, like automatic farm reseeding, build sequencing, better unit queuing, auto-scouting and so on, all carefully implemented within the framework of the new control scheme and console-specific systems.
All of this is before even scratching the surface of the other great work done in bringing Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition to Xbox consoles – namely the positively enormous menu of options with which to tweak nearly everything about the gameplay, control and visual experience. There’s nothing watered down or gated off about what players can chop and change within AOE2’s settings menus on Xbox, with an almost-overwhelming amount of customisation available that feels completely on par with the PC release.
Initially I was impressed by the graphical settings menu alone, which not only gives you access to the same sorts of presets you’d find in the PC game with low, medium, high and even ‘ultra’ options but also opens up individual toggles for players to mess with at their leisure, like anti-aliasing, water rendering, particle effects and more. While I wasn’t able to play the game on Xbox One or Series S to really get a feel for how these options affect the performance in-game, I can at least say that switching everything to its highest setting on the Series X resulted in rock solid and great-looking output.
Further to that though, you can also dive deep into just about every other aspect of the game from the UI layout and behaviour to control layouts and game systems with a ridiculous amount of freedom. Everything’s set up from the get-go to be as comfortable and playable as possible on a TV with controller in hand, but purists and hardcore players are absolutely welcome to change things up to suit their needs – including simply plugging in a keyboard and mouse and playing that way.
That’s the crux of it, really. Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition on Xbox consoles is not just a great example of making the core gameplay work with a controller, but it’s the full-fat PC experience brought tactfully to console with all of its content, modes, options and overall spirit present. I can’t wait to see how World’s Edge brings the Definitive Edition of Age of Empires III to Xbox next, based on how good a job it’s done here.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition comes to Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One on January 31st, 2023. It’ll be available on day one to Xbox Game Pass subscribers.