Platform: PC (reviewed)
How do you bring back a 20-year old game? Well, according to developer Forgotten Empires you totally overhaul the visuals, add in a brand new orchestral soundtrack, smooth out a few kinks, and re-release for a third of the price of a modern new release.
That’s exactly what they’ve done here with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and it’s every bit the RTS that you remember -- for better and for worse.
The Return of a Classic
Across 16 civilizations and 10 total single player campaigns, along with robust multiplayer offerings, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is about as dense of a strategy game as you’ll ever find. It includes the entire Rise of Rome expansion and at first glance could easily pass for a new game first released in 2018.
At the time of its release back in the late 90s, all of its contemporaries were focused on modern or futuristic military settings -- with a smattering of fantasy properties like the original Warcraft -- but there was a distinct lack of historical video games. As a sort of hybrid approach between Civilization’s historical culture-focused premise and Warcraft’s fast-paced real-time strategy gameplay, Age of Empires broken new ground for the entire genre.
With remasters like this it’s easy to forget just how dramatically different game can look. When we think back to what it was like playing a game at release, our memories tend to be in higher resolution than our old computer screens. But when you compare screenshots side-by-side, the truth comes out. And the reality is that Age of Empires was, for the most part, not a very pretty game by modern standards and this remaster certainly improves things.
Part of me still prefers the pixelated style of the original game, but that’s more of a style critique than a visual fidelity issue. By and large this Definitive Edition is a significant enhancement in the production values department.
Win With a Wonder
Perhaps most significant of its contributions, Age of Empires was one of the first games to really offer players creative avenues other than wiping out an enemy to secure a victory. It was just as much a game about sustaining and evolving a culture as it was about out-maneuvering opponents on the battlefield. For example, you could play a purely defensive game, wall yourself up in your city, and “win with a wonder” instead of wiping out your enemy.
Much like the rest of the game, this is no longer that novel of a concept. Many games have taken this idea and iterated on it, expanding the premise of alternative victory paths, in the wake of Age of Empires. But at its core, this is still the RTS you remember from all those years ago.
The tutorial is still extremely long and detailed, with plenty of missions covering the most mundane and often needlessly specific things -- but it’s certainly thorough as a result. Once you dig into the campaigns from each of the eras is when the game really starts to shine. Building up Ancient Greek cities and establishing the Roman Empire feels like a real accomplishment in a game like this. Rather than watching things happen gradually and often slowly in a turn-based game such as Civilization, Age of Empires makes you earn and work for each and every piece of your legacy.
Combat is not one of the game’s main highlights either, as the larger your force gets the more chaotic the battles become with little regard for tactics or true control of what’s going on. The pathfinding and AI are generally some of the worst you’ll find in any RTS game and it’s a bit of a shame that they weren’t upgraded for this re-release. It also doesn’t help that every civilization has the same unit tree no matter what, robbing them of their individuality and flying in the face of the game’s otherwise potent “historical” backdrop.
Times are Changing
In some ways the work put into the Definitive Edition is admirable -- such as with the visuals and sound design (including the “wololo”) -- but on the other hand the lack of gameplay and quality of life improvements feels lazy. The AI in a 2018 RTS game should not struggle to navigate a map or walk around obstacles. That just isn’t really acceptable anymore.
While this Definitive Edition is a mostly beautiful and incredibly faithful remaster of one of our industry’s most prolific RTS games, it’s hard to really recommend it. Honestly, the fact that Age of Empires II HD already exists with a bevy of content and expansions and just all-around better game design, renders this as a bit of wasted effort. There’s a reason why Microsoft remastered the sequel first: it’s just better in every way. Oh and that one is on Steam -- Age of Empires: Definitive Edition forces you to play through the Windows Store.
But if you’re dead set on revisiting the original Age of Empires, where it all began, then this is totally there for you. It feels and plays just like it did back in the 90s, but it just looks a bit prettier and doesn’t require fumbling with CD-ROMs to get it working.