Just the other day I received quite the blast from the past. I had heard that a new, high definition version of Age of Empires II had hit Steam, and to be quite honest, I was in no rush to pick it up. What always seems to happen when you are trying to convince yourself not to buy a game? You watch a friend play it, and it becomes all that you want and desire. Now that I been given it, I cannot really say that I find this SHINY NEW HD RELEASE to actually be that impressive, but it has led to my taking a second to think about how the Age of Empires franchise is responsible for who I am as a gamer.
Today, when a game attracts me I can usually give you a couple of quick reasons why it attracts me – except for League of Legends which has led me to simply believe I am a masochist. Back in 1997, a young 2hp did not really have the same motivations that this one does today. He didn’t have a set list of things that he looked for in games, so what was it that first got that crazy kid to play AoE? I had to think on this one for a second. Yes, I have always been a huge history nerd, and even then, I was well on my way to loving Greek and Roman history. This would have sealed the deal, but it was not my young self’s reason for first playing the game.
No, what got me into AoE was a friend of mine named Michael. Michael and I were an excellent pair for each other. He always had the latest and greatest video games and a strong desire to play them. I was rarely the first person to get games, but I was blessed (or cursed) with the ability to sit and watch others play, sometimes for hours on end. AoE had everything my young brain wanted. Ancient civilizations straight out of my history books fishing, farming and fighting for supremacy. There was so much cool stuff to do, so much cool stuff to see, and I would have never experienced any of it if it wasn’t for a friend taking the time to show it to me.
I had to wait a little while, but I soon followed in Michael’s footsteps and made AoE mine. I was found a delightful challenge in putting together an economy I did not always understand to kill units I knew just as little about. Interestingly, my love of this game actually helped drive my love of history. If there was something unfamiliar, or that I did not understand, I was quick to look it up. I am a compulsive reader of manuals and AoE was done in the golden age of manuals. To this day I contend that the AoE book contained more relevant history than my first year university classics textbook did – and that text probably cost me four times as much. The game play and the history helped make AoE amazing, but I do not think those things would have been enough, by themselves, to keep me playing it over and over again. What did that was the multiplayer.
Watching friends play was pretty ok; actually getting to play in the same game as them was absolutely mind blowing. We could chat about how the game was going, bask in awe at our amazing civilizations and share in the numerous humblings we received at the hands of the AI. Rarely did we fight each other. It was much more fun, and less likely to end friendships, if we teamed up to defeat our foes. Sometimes, this would even involve one person packing up and moving their civilization to start closer to the rest of us. Tactically, this was a very poor decision. To us young gamers, it provided us with a sense of security that can only come from surrounding yourself with friends – in a multiplayer game.
I would not say that the AoE multiplayer was overly ground breaking, but a game that was already accomplishing so much probably did not have to include multiplayer capability to sell copies. Look at the Total War franchise. They were built on the strength of all of the unique and cool things you could do by yourself. In 1997, AoE would likely have fit the same bill, but the folks over at Microsoft took the time to throw in the ability to play it with others (which was probably not as difficult as it would be for Total War games but bare with me). The combination of it being an amazing game and one that you could play with your friends made the two features synonymous in my head. For another game to be as good as Age of Empires was it needed to have multiplayer.
It was also around the time I started playing AoE that I think my parents realized they had a gamer on their hands. My parents have not always been super thrilled with my gaming, but they actually facilitated a great deal of my multiplayer shenanigans. My dad always had an old computer or two lying around that my friends could use. His work in I.T. ensured that we were among the first to embrace the internet and hook our computers into a LAN. When I had friends over, my parents gave up their computers, basement and sanity to allow three or four young boys to wage war for hours on end. When a friend who could not come over wanted to play, my parents would give up phone access for hours while my dad helped to enter in IP addresses until a dial-up connection with my friend was forged and games were underway.
In their own way, my parents were also helping to shape the way that I gamed. They knew that they couldn’t get their son to give it up entirely, so they made sure that at least he was getting some socialization out of it and was not so wrapped up in it that he had no time for friends. Thinking back to it, there is a pretty big chance that I could have turned out a lot worse for wear had my parents and AoE not teamed up to ensure that most of my gaming was done with friends. I will always be thankful to my parents for teaching me, possibly without their even thinking of it that way, that it was better to game with friends.
When AoE II arrived the first thing I remember doing was begging my good friend, Andrew, to come over and play it with me. My ulterior motive: to get him to buy the game so we could play it together.Good guy that he was, and remains, Andrew was quick to get the game and we were soon playing it together. My greatest accomplishments in AoE II were rarely done on my own. They almost always came from Andrew and I making some heroic last stand or developing some crazy strategy together. Despite all of the fancy new game play mechanics, graphics and history to explore it was still the opportunity to play the game with friends that brought me the greatest joy.
Today, the love of multiplayer games is very much alive in me. I would much rather watch League of Legends than solo que, but the minute a friend or two of mine comes online I am immediately good to play all night. Even in shooters I always look for games that have Co-op before all else. Left for Dead has become the standard by which I judge most shooters simply because I never have a better time than when I am killing zombies with some good friends. It is rare to find me staying in all night to game by myself, but I have been known to round up a group of people with the sole purpose of not leaving my basement until several games of Heroes of Might and Magic III have been played out. For a game to really keep me interested, or even just get me started, it must have some kind of decent multiplayer.
I admit I have only played a game or two of AoE II HD since I got it. The “changes” that they made to it were just enough to prevent people from accusing them of having not done anything to it. They were looking for some money and the way they decided to get it was through nostalgia. What I wasn’t expecting was that I could actually get more out of that nostalgia than actually playing the game. I look back on all of the hours I spent playing those games of AoE and AoE II, surrounded by friends and family, and I have no regrets. Nor can I be too mad at Microsoft for putting the game out there again. At the very least, it is now a lot easier to play online than it ever was before. Kids these days who complain about lag should have to try playing on a dial up connection. You do not know lag until you have done that.
I came into this article ready to badmouth AoE II HD and rip Microsoft a new one for what I viewed as being a shameless cash grab, but instead I want to end this piece by giving my thanks to both the game and the company that first made it, all those years ago. Without the Age of Empires series not only would I have not become the gamer I am today, I would not have become nearly as well rounded an individual. Playing AoE with others built me some of the strongest friendships I have, and my love of games like it continues to help me build friendships to this very day. I will always be glad that I would rather play games with friends than alone in my basement. Age of Empires and Age of Empires II convinced me that good games should always have a good multiplayer function, and that is something that I would gladly play a $20 re-release to be reminded of.
SPECIAL SHOUT OUT: I should probably stop making this sound like I bought AoE II HD when I was actually given my copy by my good friend, Shierra, who I now owe an even larger thank you to! If you’re not above a little profanity and general insanity with your gaming, you should check out his streaming adventures by going through his Twitter here. I can be a pretty awkward guy on stream, but Shierra has none of those problems. I am glad that our solid love of gaming, and occasionally drinking (Root beer) while gaming, has brought us much closer together.