I clearly recall visiting my family in Indiana in fall of 1999 while clutching a game manual in my hands. Just the day before, I had picked up a copy of the new Age of Empires II, and it was killing me to not be able to play for a few days (although family visitation was good and all that). So resolved to study the manual cover-to-cover as a balm to sooth my anxiety.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were my RTS period, and what a glorious era that was. There were so many of those games out by then, but then along came Microsoft and there went a few months of my life, woosh, sucked right into Age of Empires II.
Coming from a background playing the Civilization games, I was perfectly primed to receive AoE2 with open arms. It was kind of a micro-civilization fantasy simulator, where you could slap together various cultures on a map and then race to build up your kingdom before raising armies to send out conquering forces.
The hook of this game was that each of the 13 civilizations would progress through four ages, from the Dark Age to the Renaissance, with each successive age providing new building and troop options. So you always had to balance building up your current age while putting aside some resources to move on to the next one. Fall behind, and the other civs with their advanced technology could end up steamrolling you.
Age of Empires II was so polished and played so smoothly that I held it up as the gold standard to similar games afterward. It was all of the little things that made this enjoyable, including sending peasants out to forage bushes for food to creating crazy armies of troops to see how they’d fare against other civs. Want a rank of primitive musketeers to fight war elephants? This was the game for you.
It cut out the turn-by-turn slowness of Civilization to give more of the flavor of progression and focus more on war and conquest. I was glad to hear that it got an HD remake a few years back — and a few new expansions, it looks like! — and I’m definitely psyched to hear that Age of Empires IV is in the works. The third game was enjoyable, but its New World focus felt very different than the other entries. I’m looking forward to heading back to the classic structure of civilization- and era-jumping.