Age of Empires II’s Xbox edition features surprisingly great gamepad controls

Bringing a more than two-decade-old PC real-time strategy game to console isn't an easy task

Playing Age of Empires II (AoE II) on an Xbox Series X with a controller is a surreal experience for me.

After all, even though AoE II has received several solid re-releases and expansions (Dynasties of India dropped just last year), the iconic real-time strategy (RTS) title is still the same 23-year-old game I spent hours playing as a child on my parents’ chunky, grey-coloured desktop.

But real-time strategy (RTS) games can really only be enjoyed with a mouse and keyboard, right? With very few exceptions to this rule, including Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2, this is the opinion I’ve held for decades, particularly with titles from the late-90s-to-early-2000s golden era of the genre (I blame StarCraft 64).

Thankfully, Age of Empire II Console Edition for Xbox breaks this trend with surprisingly intuitive and fluid gamepad controls.

“I have to be honest with you and say that the work [on the controls] was more challenging than we originally anticipated. When we first started, we did what everybody does, ‘let’s just take the whole PC game to console and just map to controller.’ It works, but it doesn’t feel great — it’s not smooth…” said Earnest Yuen, executive producer at World’s Edge, in an interview with MobileSyrup.

In A0E II‘s Console Edition, every aspect of commanding your units is cleverly mapped to a controller button. For example, instead of making a square around your troops with a mouse like you would in the PC version of the game, on Xbox, you form a green circle by holding down the A button. You can also select idle Villagers by pressing up on the D-pad, any military unit by hitting left, and access villager properties by clicking the right joystick. Other easy-to-access actions include the left trigger to chain commands, the right bumper to access the mini map and the X button for attack move/special actions.

“The first challenge that we encountered is moving the cursor on the screen, because the PC version of Age of Empires II is all about clicking, in a sense. Translating that experience to a controller using an analogue stick is cumbersome. The first thing we tried was a multi-cursor — that didn’t feel right,” said Alex Liu, design director at World’s Edge.

Liu explained that to do Age of Empires II justice, the team needed to reimagine how to control the game.

“How can we make a game that’s 20 plus years old and beloved by fans feel fresh, new and welcoming for new players… The Xbox game introduces quite a few new features, from automation to new ways to build stuff and to control units — all of these are things we developed in the process in order to make the game more accessible for people.”

Additions to the AoE II include automation mechanics, a first for the Age of Empires franchise, but a move Yuen and Liu say was necessary to adapt the title to console. You can set Villagers to automatically build farms around town centres or ask them to seek out and gather resources with defined automatic presets like ‘Food and Wood’ foraging, allowing you to concentrate more on building military units and battle.

If this sounds complicated, you aren’t wrong, but after moving through AoE II‘s comprehensive tutorial, the actions became second nature; except for switching to different Command Menus with the Y button (for some reason, that didn’t click with me — at least not yet). Still, I never felt my controls were limited in the few hours I’ve spent with AoE II on the Series X. In fact, I enjoyed leaning back in my computer chair and playing familiar campaigns like ‘William Wallace,’ ‘Joan of Arc,’ ‘Atila the Hun’ and more with only a gamepad. Sometimes I found myself wishing my cursor would move a little more accurately via the joystick, but for the most part, the experience was excellent.

Another critical aspect of Age of Empires II Console Edition worth highlighting is how good the game looks running on the Xbox Series X in 4K. Of course, AoE II is over two decades old, and a remake should look this great on a modern console, especially given it’s a port of 2019’s Definitive Edition for PC. I constantly zoomed in and out of the battlefield and marvelled at its detail. As a long-time fan of AoE II that remembers the game looking stunning back in 1999, even though it didn’t, the fresh coat of 4K paint lines up perfectly in my imagination (our minds have a funny way of preserving gaming memories and making them look better than they actually did).

Of course, you can ditch the gamepad for more traditional mouse and keyboard controls, which I spent a few hours doing. With this control method selected, everything plays exactly like the game’s PC version, only on an Xbox console.

“I personally feel it’s important to give players choice… Let players play the game the way that they want to. If a player wants to play with mouse and keyboard, let them,” said Yuen, when asked why it was necessary to still offer more traditional RTS controls in AoE II‘s console version.

Other things worth noting about AoE II‘s Console Edition include that saved files are transferable between the Xbox and PC, making it simple to start a ‘Skirmish’ on Xbox and then continue that same battle on your PC (this feature definitely would have come in handy for me in the ’90s).

While playing Age of Empires II on Xbox, one of the key things running in the back of my mind was how similarly the Age of Empires IV console port will play when it releases later in 2023. It makes sense for World’s Edge to use the title’s surprisingly capable gamepad controls as a testing ground for AoE IV‘s console release later this year, and that is precisely what the studio plans to do.

“That’s definitely the goal. Alex worked with the design lead on Age IV console as well, so they do exchange notes. Our goal is to make sure that once you learn how to play on console through II, you’ll be able to play Age of Empires IV on console as well in a similar fashion,” said Yeun.

As someone who has spent a lot of time playing AoE II over the past few years, first with the HD remake back in 2012 and then the Definitive Edition in 2019, I’m more interested in diving back into AoE IV on the Series X. While I played the game on PC back when it released, my desktop’s aging hardware didn’t allow it to run at top settings or in 4K. Will I opt for mouse and keyboard controls or gamepad, though? I’m still not sure, but after spending a few hours with the Console Edition of Age of Empires II, I’m leaning more towards the chilled-out experience playing with a controller offers.

Age of Empires II Definitive Edition launches on Xbox consoles on January 31st. It’s worth noting that if you own the PC version of AoE II: DE, you’ll already have access to the Xbox version, and the same goes for the Console Edition.