Age of Empires 2 stands among the few RTS games that continue to grow its user base 25 years after release. Unmatched by its successors.
An RTS game was released back in 1997 and is considered a genre classic! It’s the game we multiplayer aficionados grew up with. Us 90’s kids still get nostalgic thinking of late-night LAN parties at our friends’ homes and self-made rules like “no one attacks for 20 minutes”.
Age of Empires 2 is more popular than its sequel, Age of Empires 3, because AoE 2’s gameplay is much more balanced and intuitive than AoE 3’s. Though Age of Empire 3 overall features better graphics, frustrated players return to AoE 2.
What surprises even seasoned gamers is the never-ending and growing popularity of AoE 2. The sheer size of its eSports scene is surprising for such a classic title.
It is so famous that more than 50,000 players registered for “The Hidden Cup,” an Age of Empires II tournament organized by T90Official.
No matter the metrics – physical sales, multiplayer tournaments, player base on Steam, or forum activity – you will find Age of Empires 2 unmatched. It even enjoys a significantly larger player base than ever, even after the release of Age of Empires 4.
With Age of Empires 3, Microsoft tried a lot of new ideas that we will discuss shortly, which many believe impacted the early adoption. Microsoft Studios tried to create something awesome from 30% percent the same, 30% borrowed, and 40% innovative.
It was like trying to re-invent the proverbial wheel but made Age of Empires 3 look and feel like anything but coming from the AOE universe.
We are not saying that Age of Empires 3 is not worth trying. It has its own sophistication and features, which attract a certain audience. However, this article will focus on why its prequel AoE 2 will not soon renounce its throne.
The Age of Empires 2 is Intuitive
Games set in the Medieval era (AoE 2) evoke images of knights in shining armor and simply look cooler and simpler than Colonial settings (AoE 3).
But Age of Empire 3 suffers from problems beyond simple looks.
For example, it is often hard for the player to memorize how the similar-looking units interact. In fairness, Age of Empires 3 is very transparent about its attack multipliers, considering its Colonial time frame. But, honestly, it is not better than its prequel.
To demonstrate the point just made: In AoE3, we have 3 different guns:
- the Field Gun
- the Culverin
- the Horse Gun.
They all look the same, but their effectiveness against enemy units differentiates between winning and losing…
Time and again, newbs erroneously pick the wrong unit type in the heat of a battle. Unfortunately, this problem continues throughout the game, resulting in a very steep learning curve for players to master.
In comparison, Age of Empires 2 feels very intuitive. For example, siege units like ram and mangonel instantly indicate when best used. Making it very easy for new gamers to get up and running in no time.
Another problem of AoE 3 lies with the heavy infantry units. Though they yield much power on paper, even light infantry units beat them in a skirmish.
This undeniably feels counterintuitive. Frustrating. You might get over it eventually, but boy, it can be frustrating.
And it does make no sense. A big gun should carry a bigger punch. Heavy infantry should, in almost all cases, beat light infantry. Not the other way round.
Verdict: AoE 3 feels out of balance.
Clunky Units and formations in Age of Empires 3
AoE 3’s clunky physics is another aspect that turns Age of Empires 2 or any other RTS players away. The battles feel awkward, and your army’s performance rotates between sprinting and fighting as if stuck in quicksand.
If a single unit falls out of formation, your battalion’s performance switches from marching quickly to slow-mo. This even feels worse when your battalion gets attacked by melee infantry. This effect is known and has a name called the “snare effect.”
You will learn all the tricks to speed up the game and your units. But it still feels odd that, at first, your units seem perfectly happy to sprint around the map looking for enemies, only to flee out of a battle a bit later.
And even one single unit in your army losing order slows your whole formation down to creeping.
It is frustrating to have units feel clunky and unresponsive in critical moments. If you pick an unwise fight, you get punished doubly. Your slow-moving forces take extra losses during the inevitable retreat.
The game’s imbalance starts a domino effect when one poor engagement sets you up for losing the game. This snowball effect is one of the many contributors to a frustrating experience in Age of Empires 3.
Age of Empires 2 gives you more time to build-up
Another big difference between the two titles is that the overall pace in AoE 3 is much faster. For example, in Age of Empires 3, you typically advance to the next age in about half the time compared to AoE 2.
In AoE 3, the ability to build large armies quickly leaves you with no time to build your base before the fighting begins. And the fighting begins very early in the game.
We do understand wanting a faster pace, and certainly, there is an extended first dark age phase in the Age 2 that turns some players off. But we think that AoE 3’s emphasis on early action comes at a cost.
Age of Empires 2 is organized so that you spend the first 10 minutes of the game with just base, placing buildings and planning structures on the map and expanding. As a result, growing and protecting your base is much more fun than in AoE 3.
This design also gives you the feeling of ownership and investment in your town. And when your town comes under an attack, an emotional attachment comes into play. You urgently feel the need to defend the city you so carefully planned and built.
This also bonds you to the game more.
Age of Empires 3, by contrast, focuses less on a base and key buildings. Instead, half your villagers will be all over the map searching for resources. First skirmishes break out very early in the game. Such a setting takes away that empire planning and personal investment in your base, which is considered the hallmark of the AOE universe.
The Age of Empires 2 is easier to master & more fun to play
Next, we will touch on some of the more philosophical shifts in the development of Age of Empires 3. While coming down to basic personal preferences, these hinted at why the prequel is still more popular.
Our first choice in Age of Empires 3 is between fewer unit types than in AoE 2 and radically different civilizations with very little overlap.
Or Bonuses: You get a free villager upon building a new house when playing the British. This is radically different from AoE 2.
Other differences in the game’s logic are that the Japanese have shrines that can be built for passive resource generation. Or even more extreme is the Dutch villagers’ cost of gold instead of food.
Since every civilization needs to be handled differently and comes with a unique set of features to be unlocked, you have to specialize in one civilization at a time.
In comparison, in Age of Empires 2, all civilizations share a similar tech tree. Only in the late game units do slight differences become noticeable.
And nearly every civilization’s dark age is identical and offers the same unit types.
In Age of Empires 2, you require general strategies rather than entirely new and complex game mechanics. Unfortunately, in Age of Empires 3, these mechanics vary across civilizations, making them difficult to master.
And mastering one civilization also helps a player master another civilization pretty easily in Age of Empires 2 with slight adjustments to army arrangement and economy. This is one of the major reasons why many players like Age of Empires 2 concept much better!
Age of Empires 3 is less balanced than AoE 2
In Age of Empires 3, the Russians are great at early attacks but lack offensive power in the later game.
The Dutch, on the other hand, are good at both the early and late-game defenses. So any match between the two will certainly put the Russians at a disadvantage.
Age of Empires 3 has more issues like the campaigns, map size, the user interface, artificial limits on buildings, and the number of villagers.
However, these issues are subjective, and none of these must be deal-breakers for everybody.
What makes Age of Empires 2 superior to AoE 3
Age of Empires 3 doesn’t suffer from a lack of content but requires extra effort to learn. Its prequel also shares nearly the same depth but remains fairly easy to learn and play.
Age of Empires 2 succeeded in building a larger following unmatched by any of its sequels. Hope now you understand why Age of Empires 2 rules to date and why you should not bet on it stepping back anytime soon.