Load up Age of Empires II, and I promise you won’t beheading towards defeat

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (1999)

Alright, hands up who’s a sore loser? Today I’m too brow-beaten by life and accepting of mediocrity to really care anymore, but I used to be a right screaming shit back in the day. I distinctly remember playing a relaxing game of chess with my brother, no pressure or tension at all, except for my self-professed young grandmaster status getting in the way and letting my ego get the better of me. It looked like I had the game won, until – wouldn’t you know it – I fell right into the trap.

Not an instant defeat, which would have been fine, paradoxically. No, even despite my best laid plans I plunged myself into a stalemate – effectively a last-minute victory for my brother, and a humiliating defeat for me. Let down by my own brain. Well, by God, I wasn’t having that. I took my white king, the pilchard who’d blindly walked straight into an unwinnable battle (my steer may not have helped) and I flung it from the board with as much determined ferocity as a ten-year-old could, and then it happened.

If you’re familiar with chess pieces, most kings, those worthless charges to be protected, have a cross atop their ‘eads. Well, the king I flung hit the bottom of the radiator head-on, or rather head-off – since the cross was cut clean off the top of the piece.

So that’s what happens when I lose – the beheadings begin. That’s probably as serious as I’ve done, but don’t think you’re safe. Come out on a game of pitch-and-putt with me and you’re lucky if I shout “fore” before a flung sand wedge land son your nut. Don’t worry, I don’t rip Happy Gilmore off by smashing people places and things up with a club, but I’ve definitely been known to, again, throw the club as far as possible when things start going bad, which they also do in golf. There’s no safe place on the golf course with me, if you’re not ducking my putters you’re jumping over my daisy-cutters.

Of course, with video games I’ve previously cried, shouted, slapped, spat and generally thrown the head in many ways. Sometimes this behaviour is justified, even in an adult. If you think that’s ridiculous, then I ask you to think back to the last time a Mario Kart victor was in your grasp, only for an absolute barrage of items to smack you on the bottom. When all looks lost, wouldn’t you lose yourself to the throes of despair, or fury?

Or better yet, wouldn’t you try to cheat? I know I would – and did- several times on Age of Empires II for PC, whenever the computer AI would give me yet another pasting. My cheat of choice was the AC Cobra machine-gun cars, spammed en masse, always guaranteed to turn the tide of any Random Map battle. Not very appropriate for the Age of Empires Ii time period, but who could resist a classic cheat for a classic car?

And everything else about this game just screams classic. I’ve never been a PC gamer actually – I’m much more into pissweak laptops than top level desktops – but I’d always been jealous of my mate who had Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Civilization II and Settlers, not forgetting Westwood’s Monopoly on his PC. He had a PC way before we ever did, but when my family did splash out not far off two grand for a Windows ME PC in 1999, the package came with Age of Empires II.

I loaded it up out of curiosity and was absolutely transfixed. This was an ultra-modern, utterly compelling Real-Time Strategy game when the genre was at its peak. PCs just do certain genres beautifully, and RTS is one of them. I don’t think many women play RTSes, I could be wrong, but I’d actually consider this genre a form of male therapy, to occasionally load up an RTS, Command & Conquer or Age of Empires or whatever you like, and move a load of units around, think up a few nifty strategies, and lovingly micro-manage your economy. Get all that together in beautiful harmony and it’s an unbeatable feeling.

Ah yes, the economy. No just loading up on Ore and spamming a zillion Prism Tanks here, you’ve got a full economy to look after in AOE2 – many different buildings for many different units, built by a thousand villagers. Those same villagers will be breaking their backs for hundreds of years gathering food, wood, stone and gold to keep everything running. You’ll be researching technologies, ruling the lands seas, building walls, advancing through the ages, training mixed armies and generally trying to keep on top of a million and one different things.

Don’t let that put you off though, you needn’t feel overwhelmed and stressed. Take a breather and go into one of the most comprehensive and brilliant Map Creators ever, and build yourself a Custom Scenario or Campaign. You can also tackle the Single Player Campaigns, or get yourself a load more Custom Maps and Scenarios by taking the game online.

Ah yes, the online mode, another huge factor in AOE2’s success. When I was playing, the first online game I’d ever played, you’d used to log onto what was the MSN Gaming Zone to get a game going. This was also pre-broadband, so I had to play either after 6PM, or on weekends, and if any slag called our home phone during the game, then that was it, I was gone. Didn’t matter if you were nearly two hours into a game, you were at your phone’s mercy in the dial-up days. Luckily the phone was downstairs, or I’d have flung that too when someone called.

That was in the bad old days of online gaming, of course. Nowadays with high-speed, always on internet and Steam, this is all sorted out. Better than that, AOE2 has been updated for a new age – firstly, in 2013 with a HD remaster, including new civilizations and units into the bargain. And not only that, a full remastered Definitive Edition in 2019 with lovely graphics, animations and even more content, plus ongoing patches, DLC and updates, and a still thriving online scene.

Even when Age of Empires III came out, and probably the next five Age of Empires games after that, nobody cared. Everyone was still bet into this game, and we have been for the last 20+ years. Jesus, never mind that first PC we got back in 1999, a machine outfitted with Age of Empires II would still be a selling point today.

This is one of those rare games that you cannot pick a single legitimate flaw in. Even the soundtrack is a stone-cold classic, the graphics on lesser editions still look good, and the balance between civilizations is brilliantly and sensibly worked out. You can even learn a few pub quiz questions in the included History section, not as nerd-birthingly detailed as the Civilopedia, but it’s there.

That’s why, when it comes down to it, I don’t actually mind losing a battle in Age of Empires II. Even losing is a pleasure in this game, which is surely loser talk, but the trip is as good as the destination. I’d be happy to just sit there in peace, working on making my base as beautiful as possible, and not even go to war, and in fact I can do that if I want. They’ll still be playing Age of Empires II in 20 more years, you know, I’ll guarantee you that. They’ll probably still be rustling up new civilizations and units to keep it all going. This is a game I absolutely love, and even though I’m still a noob some two decades later, I can accept that now. After all, this is the game that never loses.

22 April 2022

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