Age of Empires 2 on Xbox: How AI helpers are giving the console real-time strategy genre a new lease of life
Making an RTS work on console is no mean feat, but World's Edge has come up with some advanced tools that make the console experience as enjoyable as the PC one.
As technology has developed, it’s felt as though the line between PC and console gaming, once vast, has significantly thinned. We now have consoles that have online, graphics settings, and even keyboard and mouse support. Many things previously thought impossible on consoles are now simple. But a few types of game remain largely the purview of PC players – most notably, the real-time strategy genre.
There have been a number of attempts over the years, of course. I have fond memories of those slightly-crap console ports of the earliest Command & Conquer games, and then C&C actually managed some pretty damn good controller-based releases of C&C3 and Red Alert 3. I’d argue those games have a direct lineage in control scheme to Halo Wars. Halo Wars was a decent bit of fun – and now another Microsoft strategy stalwart is entering Game Pass on console. Age of Empires has hit Xbox, with a raft of improvements and tweaks to make it more accessible and easily playable on console, regardless of what control method you choose.
First up is Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, a strong re-release with a beautiful 4K visual overhaul and a smattering of new content that was first released on PC in 2019. This release truly is definitive, featuring everything from the original game, plus a smattering of new additions, and even the option to choose between the original 1999 enemy AI and more advanced versions.
The complete package now makes its way over to Xbox, acting both as an exciting release in its own right and as a sort of prelude to the much more contemporary Age of Empires 4, which is coming to Xbox later this year.
This wasn’t a simple matter of a port, however – because this is a genre that can’t just be dumped onto console. Compromises and adjustments have to be made, and this definitely appears to be a title that has placed a considerable emphasis on finding a truly elegant control input solution rather than simply muddling out some ‘good enough’ offering.
“Our team conducted a significant amount of research and prototyping during development,” Alex Liu, design director at AOE developer World’s Edge reveals. “We discovered quickly that simply porting our deeply PC-centric game to Xbox was not going to provide the right gameplay experience.
“To truly deliver a gold standard console strategy game, we needed to rethink and rebuild everything from the ground up, and do what was right for console. This meant new controls, new UI, new features, new tutorials, everything.”
All console RTS ports have gone through some degree of iteration to even work, and even then not all avoid being headache-inducingly fiddly. But through experimentation, the Age of Empires team happened upon a single solution that could significantly lessen many of the genre’s controller-based ills – and it’s all about artificial intelligence.
“AI automation and site-based commands were our biggest game-changers during development,” Liu says of the console version’s most significant addition.
“Both features are brand-new to the Age franchise, and resolved many of our outstanding design challenges, and at the same time, will significantly lower the barrier of entry for new players.”
Early prototypes of the console version didn’t have this feature, but Liu notes that the team quickly noticed that the “intense and repetitive aspects” of managing your villagers and other base units was proving to be taxing on players – both in terms of mentally staying on top of everything and physically executing it. Hopping around the map and performing ‘micro’ is a hell a lot easier on keyboard and mouse - but on controller, things are more sluggish, upping the stress level.
The solution? An AI automaton that steps in and helps players take care of more of that stuff automatically, which allows players to shift their focus onto the larger-scale strategic decisions that will actually shape the flow of a match. The AI can be cycled between preset approaches with the right stick. And if you feel you can do better without it, you can turn the AI automation off. Leave it on, however, and it’ll really hammer through that classic RTS busywork on your behalf.
“Once active, a player can direct Villagers to gather each resource based on selected ratio. We have created presets designed for many common economic needs, and experienced players are welcome to manually adjust the ratios after enabling the Advanced Interface profile. The automation will affect all Villagers, including idle and newly created ones. They will gather appropriate nearby resources and can even auto-build farms.
“During the AI development, we took great care to ensure that it does not take away players’ initiative for strategic thinking. All strategically meaningful actions, such as training Villagers, building Houses, building resource drop-off structures, herding sheep, hunting boar, or scouting for more resources, remain firmly in the hands of the players.
“The AI system is inactive at the beginning of each game and can be manually turned on or off at anytime. The auto-Farm function can also be enabled or disabled.”
Naturally, this leaves a little bit of concern for balance. As does the inclusion of cross-platform play to allow controller players face off against PC warlords and even keyboard and mouse support on Xbox, meaning there’s no guarantee that all console players are on controller. I’m old enough to remember the hand-wringing and endless debates about the Xbox 360 Shadowrun reboot having cross-play, and how the KBM players would smoke the pad players every time.
There’s potential for that again here, but World’s Edge has strongly considered every aspect of Age of Empires 2 on console to avoid it. For a start, cross-play with PC is optional for controller players – but if you plug a keyboard and mouse into your Xbox, you’ll be thrown in at the deep end with all the PC vets. That seems fair.
“Age is ultimately a game of strategy. We hope that, for all players except ones at the highest competitive level, the deciding factor for victory should be strategic decision-making, not actions per minute,” Liu explains.
For what it’s worth, it’s bloody good. I’ve had a bit of a toy around, and the controls are intuitive and effective, and are actually probably a good bit superior to those 360-era Command & Conquer control schemes that I also found more than acceptable. A lot of it is down to the shortcuts, like how the game alerts you if there’s idle villagers and lets you instantly skip to them with a single button so you can un-idle them. There’s also a lovely button – I have to give Halo Wars credit for this one – that just selects all military units, ready to roll them towards the enemy.
The thing about Age of Empires is that compared to a lot of other comparable RTS experiences, like C&C, is that micromanagement has always been a larger part of it. In Red Alert or Starcraft resource management is important, but your ‘micro’ takes place on the front line. In Age of Empires, micromanaging your empire’s home base is just as important – and the AI addresses how to make that work with a fairly deft hand.
With all this said, some of the UI still reminds of how this game was built a long time ago, and only for PC. Age of Empires 2 wants to throw a lot of information at you at any given time, and the way that’s all displayed on-screen can sometimes feel a little overwhelming on a big screen – it’s a lot of UI to look at! The more you play, however, the more it all becomes second nature - which is the sign of a well-designed control scheme.
Perhaps most exciting is that this release, and that of Age of Empires 4, might be a chance for this series – and this genre – to find a whole new audience. As Game Pass additions on day one, the ultimate strategy might be these titles, ‘free’ to subscribers, acting as a Trojan Horse to get even more people bitten by the RTS bug. The developers have been thinking about this too, of course.
“We are extremely excited about the prospect of the strategy game genre today,” Liu says.
“More people are playing games than ever, and the barrier for entry for our genre has never been lower, especially since Age 2 is available on Game Pass for both Xbox and PC. We hope everyone interested in strategy, history, or our passionate and supportive community will give Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition a try on Xbox.”
And if they do, and love it? Well, Age of Empires 4 awaits. Liu says the two teams have been working “very closely” together, but also warns fans to “expect to see some differences” in control and UI – but as an audition tape for that newer, bigger, more contemporary game, Age of Empires 2 on Xbox is a hell of an audition.