Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition charts a new path on Xbox

Posted on January 31, 2023

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has finally made its way to Xbox, marking its first console port. As a generally PC-centric genre, there are not too many Real Time Strategy games on console, so the controls and user interface have had to be overhauled to make the game work without a keyboard and mouse. The developers have done a decent job in making a game so rooted in PC gaming playable on console, even if longtime Age of Empires fans are still probably going to stick to PC.

As with the game’s many previous iterations, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition sees you manage the armies that took part in several campaigns based on historical military conflicts. The single-player campaigns include the forces of William Wallace, Joan of Arc and Attila the Hun, among others. Bundling together many of the game’s previous expansions and Co-op campaigns, Age of Empires II is certainly not hurting for content.

As far as how it works with an Xbox controller, I’ll say that I was pleasantly surprised for the most part. Using the D-Pad, the player can cycle between villagers, military units and siege weapons, as well as mass selecting each type by holding the button down. You can also select groups of units by holding down the A button, and can save groupings into distinct and easily-selectable teams for ease of maneuverability. Although moving villagers around to obtain resources can feel like herding cats, the option to automate it and dictate which resources they focus on collecting made that substantially more manageable. The upgrade trees and issuing build commands to villagers are also done via fairly intuitive radial menus with large icons that read quite well on my television.

“You simply don’t have as much fine control over the battlefield with a controller as you do with a mouse.”

However, once you move on to the more challenging post-tutorial campaigns, the limitations of the interface start to rear their ugly heads. You simply don’t have as much fine control over the battlefield with a controller as you do with a mouse. You cannot zoom in far enough to select specific units when they’re all bunched up together, and in a pitched melee, trying to get specific units to focus on specific enemies becomes an exercise in frustration.

In some of the easier maps this isn’t much of a concern, as simply mass selecting your giant army and choosing the poor enemy that you want to steamroll over is enough to secure a victory. The more challenging maps often penalise this behaviour by limiting the number of units that you have and forcing the player to play more thoughtfully and allocate their units in multiple directions. Those more nuanced tactics are really tricky to execute when you can’t just drag a square over the units you want to command, or zoom in far enough to distinguish your archers from your cavalry.

Compared to Halo Wars 2, a recent RTS developed from the ground up with consoles in mind, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition comes up short in terms of user-friendliness. Halo Wars 2 allows players to zoom in far more closely, which both makes it easier to distinguish units on a far away television and makes selecting specific units much more reliable. Halo Wars 2 also made it easier to select specific groups of units when you want to set up a pincer move or leave some units behind for defence, which Age of Empires II’s clunky “hold A to make a circle and try and get the units you want in that circle” controls just don’t make easy.

Fundamentally, although it is kind of impressive that the developers made a two decade old RTS playable on console in the first place, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition does not feel at home on the Xbox. The fine tactics that the game demands are not intuitive enough on a controller. The game is cross-play compatible with the PC versions, which is neat. Despite this inclusion, I cannot see many players opting for the console version if they want any kind of competitive advantage over PC players. For console players who have never played an Age of Empires game before, this Xbox Game Pass release at least makes the game accessible and might be a good introduction to the genre and franchise. PC RTS veterans will probably find the clunky controls too much of a drawback, however, and won’t find enough to make it worth the switch to Xbox.