Why I love Age of Empires 2's scenario editor

WHY I LOVE

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Samuel makes elephants fight it out to become ULTIMATE ELEPHANT.

When I was young, I had too few games but too much spare time. Now I’m an adult, I have the opposite problem, and I’m sure you do as well. That changing relationship with games means I now see them as things to be ticked off as quickly as possible, rather than to be got into as deeply as I used to. Having just five or six games as a younger man meant I would endlessly pore over them, repeating skirmishes in Red Alert, or missions in X-Wing. Everyone has done something similar, I’m sure, whether it was installing endless Doom WADs or conquering every last piece of land in Total War, long after the victory conditions were met. 

Age of Empires II’s map editor was the king of time wasters for anyone with just a few games in their collection. I remember the first time I discovered its potential. I opened it up and put about 30 William Wallaces on screen and sent them to battle against ten or so enemy Robin Hoods (I needed to win, of course—my self-esteem was very precious at that age). This was the dumbest representation of history imaginable: dozens of real-life figures from different eras fighting on a flat, plain grass field at the whim of a bored 12-year-old, delighted that he can defy the game’s somewhat stingy unit cap by creating the worst scenarios this RTS had ever seen.

That’s how messing around with a level or map editor starts. From there, you get better at it, and begin to create semi-decent levels. You learn about elevating the terrain, how to lay out a base, and how to balance the difficulty so you have to strategise with your finite resources. Obviously you know your own tricks, so there’s little to surprise you, but the editor is so simple you can create maps almost as sophisticated as those in the game’s campaigns. You can also create unusual Skirmish setups with up to eight players, scaling the resource gathering up or down depending on how long you want the scenario to drag on for. Alternatively, you could put a hot desert next to thick ice, and watch one hundred elephants have a fight on top of it. 

There’s a lot of excitement in the potential chaos of it, and there’s real catharsis in watching all these pieces collide when you click the Test option in the scenario creator menu. It’s not really real-time strategy anymore, not when I’m in charge. It’s a pit of death that’s about as historically nuanced as that episode of Futurama where Genghis Khan and Evil Lincoln riot in Zapp Brannigan’s Holoshed. 

You don’t even have to control your own side if you’ve put all your units next to their enemies, as I did for the screenshots in this piece—they’ll just scrap automatically. As pointless and anti-strategy as the whole thing is, it fulfils a wish in the stupid part of my brain.

Then there’s the option to download the community’s own campaigns. It helps that sites like Age of Kings Heaven have curated the best custom maps since the game’s launch in 1999, but it’s way easier now with Age of Empires II HD’s Steam Workshop support. You can add entire campaigns instantly, as well as new units and refreshed AI. 

Age of Empires II’s enduring success is a fascinating thing. In the past 30 days before I started writing this, the game averaged over 7,700 players per day according to Steam Charts, compared to just 1,600 for Age of Empires III and a mere 900 for Age of Mythology’s HD edition. This is no doubt helped by the fact that Age of Empires II is still receiving expansions from the team at Forgotten Empires almost two decades later, with the most recent being Rise of the Rajas in December. Clearly there’s something about this entry that stands apart from Ensemble’s other games, which are all superficially similar. As well as adding new campaigns, units and factions, the new expansions also throw additional objects into the scenario editor. 

Clearly other people are making more interesting levels out of Age of Empires II than I am, then, but I’m content with merely defiling history on a grand scale. Which in a way befits a man who only got a C in the subject at A-level.