14 April 2013

Remembering Ensemble Studios

Age of Empires II HD was launched on Steam last week having originally being released in 1999 including the Conquerors Expansion, released in 2000.

It was one of the earliest, perhaps the very first, real time strategy game I played and the series sold over 15 million copies before Age of Empires III was released. For a 14 year old game it holds up well, granted what were minor annoyances at the time have been aggravated by time.

Limited AI which, for example, allows units to be created behind a barracks (sometimes rendering them inaccessible) or making a villager stand still for several seconds for no obvious reason.

The most vexing issue, to me at least, are the farms and the need to replenish them regularly. Granted, you can set this to be auto-executed at a mill but it consumes valuable resources and time nevertheless. While the map editor does not seem to permit players to place resources (besides trees for wood) on the map - perhaps I'm merely missing the option to do so but it seems a rather odd omission. 

Regardless I've found it to be of great interest from the perspective of revisiting a classic game and seeing how, in general terms, it holds up quite well.

One of the great aspects of the game was the variety of campaigns offered. The conquests of Attila the Hun, the reclamation of Moorish Spain by El Cid, the Hundred Years War and the legend of Joan of Arc and more.

This range of gameplay led to less of a narrative than the one afforded in Age of Mythology, in part because it was grounded in historical events, in part because the story of these battles were told largely through the panels of writing with associated voice-overs rather than cutscenes.

Still, there aren't many games that grant such a broad range of story based missions even if, perhaps, the campaign - based far more on legend than history - in Age of Mythology provided for a more diverse game.

And in Age of Mythology there would certainly be interest in a HD makeover, if not a full blown sequel (the latter being significantly less likely). That game's setting, in a world with Atlantis and vengeful gods afforded players the chance to pitch minotaurs against sphinxes; not something a genre, usually founded very much in reality, often permits.

In lieu of Ensemble's games, there are of course a great many noteworthy alternatives. Total War, Civilization, Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis to name the principal titles which come to mind. Yet Ensemble's were very much suited to the task, even if age has tarnished their performance or appeal.

In 2009, Ensemble Studios was shuttered mere days after the release of Halo Wars for Xbox 360. The team were aware in advance that Wars would be their last game and that must have made development all the more difficult a prospect. Still, it was an accomplished title by the standards of the genre, more so given consoles are not traditionally RTS friendly.

Wars remains one of the finest games of its type on console and Age of Empires II HD shows why Ensemble were one of the finest RTS makers despite the wear and tear which would be apparent in virtually any 14 year old game - even with a glossy graphics overhaul.

At least until Rome 2: Total War or Civilization V: Brave New World launches I'll be re-conquering Medieval Europe in AoE 2 HD for some to time to come - unless that Age of Mythology HD remakes lands... 

For those intrigued in some history of the internet variety, interestingly enough, the game's website is still online. (The HD remake's website is here.)

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