“A well-realised remaster of the RTS classic.”
If you have ever played and enjoyed an Age of Empires game, you will appreciate just how exciting, albeit important, the release of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is for franchise fans. Reviving and revitalising the original game in the epic real-time strategy series, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is the first new release in the franchise since the Age of Empires II: HD Edition hit the Steam store five years ago. Coming exclusively to the Microsoft Store (at least for now), this new title will have fans watching closely for more reasons than one. Not only will they seek to approve this new version of the franchise-spawning classic that it claims to bring back to life, but the release of this game is a symbol of things to come. With Age of Empires IV confirmed to be back on our menus, taste buds are tingling, and passionate onlookers seek affirmation that the series’ strength and prowess will return along with it. The weight of the world is on the shoulders of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition before it has even started. So, has it wololo’d its way to wonderous victory, or fallen in the face of this crucial, overarching challenge?
For those of you who have not played an Age of Empires before, the real-time strategy game involves forming a society from a few starting villages, advancing your technologies through real world-inspired ages, and ultimately securing victory through domination, religion and the construction of great wonders. That simple premise is made up of far more intricate and interesting systems, which as a veteran player eventually become second nature. Gathering resources is your starting point, but as you and your enemies develop further, defending yourself and seeking to snuff out the opposition becomes a pressing cause for concern.
Like any good RTS, Age of Empires is very much a race to the top; the top in this case being securing one of the available victory conditions before the other players can do so first. It is a system which has been proven to work time and time again, but Age of Empires has made its name though its historical style, clean, simple and yet highly strategic gameplay, and of course the unarguably strong backing of Microsoft behind it. This new, Definitive Edition of the original game, however, has been developed by a different studio to the original, Forgotten Empires, who were made popular following their successful work on, and ongoing support of, both Age of Empires II HD Edition and Age of Mythology Extended Edition.
The most noticeable changes in AoE Definitive Edition are to the game’s visuals. For the most part, fans will be pleased to know that the developers have attempted to keep the feel of the gameplay the same as we always knew it. The major improvements to gameplay come in the form of old bug fixing, cleaner animations, a tidier and clearer tech tree and general improvements to operations, bringing the game up to date with more modern techniques and capabilities. These updates range from unit queuing, to fast farm reseeding, to finding idle units, to villager rally points, to a zoom function; something new to the franchise, and that fans have sought for a very long time. The full list of changes to the original can easily be found on the game’s website. All of the updates made to the game, although small on an individual scale, come together to drastically improve the gameplay experience. Does it hold up in a modern marketplace, then? That one might still be up for debate. For me, AoE II HD Edition is still the king of the franchise at present, but that game came with general improvements upon the original at the time of its first release, and many fans agree that it was the series’ pinnacle even at that time. Nevertheless, for newcomers to AoE as a franchise I think that this newest release could hold great merit. It makes for a fantastic introduction to what these games are all about, and the model of gameplay it offers still works in the modern gaming arena.
The visual improvements to the game, which have clearly been the remaster’s biggest focus, are fantastic. The difference to the original is astounding, and the team behind this work are due congratulations for this. Whilst maintaining the much-loved aesthetic of the game, the design and animation of pawns, structures and the environment has been improved significantly upon the base that the artists had to work from. A lot of care and attention has gone into making these models fresh but familiar for retuning fans, as well as attractive and acceptable to new players to the franchise. If we were to judge this game on visual improvements alone, it would easily merit a healthy score. The only criticism to speak of is that the detail could have been taken further, however doing so might have sacrificed the crucial familiarity that nostalgic fans will be looking for. In addition, the sounds of the game continue this theme of fresh but familiar, upholding the delightful atmosphere of AoE but improving the quality of the player’s audio experience quite significantly too.
In terms of game modes, AoE Definitive Edition has everything that the avid fan will have come to expect. 40 hours worth of updated campaigns give the game a hefty, story-driven single player experience, with new and much improved voice overs to carry you through the experience. If multiplayer is more up your street, you can play with up to 7 of your friends or against the ever-fiendish AI. The game’s flurry of ancient-era civilisations make for interesting battles between unique units between players, giving the game a very practice-makes-perfect feel in terms of learning how best to achieve victory. For the more creative player, the new scenario builder will allow you to share would-be historical missions and battles with your friends on Xbox Live, using in-game assets to bring your imagined stories to life. Or, if you use this feature more like myself, create epic battlegrounds of hundreds of units and make them fight to the death. Whatever your poison, the scenario builder is happily at your disposal.
There are one or two final elements of the game that are worthy of note to fans considering going in on AoE Definitive Edition. Firstly, player-controlled settings in the game are somewhat limited, especially from a graphical perspective. There are no advanced controls to speak of, and, at this time at least, gamers like myself who have come to enjoy strategy titles in an ultrawide perspective will stand disappointed. That being said, there is support for 4K visuals, which some players will no doubt put to good use. Otherwise, the game’s background functions work well, and the UI is as easily workable as ever. Fans of AoE II HD Edition will find the UI familiar, whilst new players will not struggle too much to get to grips with it. The lack of an idle villager button, however, did see me muddling around the mini-map in confusion once or twice during play. Prospective players should bear in mind, also, that the game is currently not available to purchase on Steam; it is only available in the Microsoft Store. For some, this has been a sticking point both pre and post-release.
It is clear that a lot of work has gone into making Age of Empires: Definitive Edition a remarkable remaster that stays true to its roots whilst bringing the game up to date enough for a modern market. As with any remaster, not all fans will be sold on the work that has been done. Certainly, some fans will find the few changes which have been made to the nostalgic experience they remember too much for them to bear. On the face of it, the game in its own right has been well handled and successfully revitalises an RTS classic. It is in terms of preference that the title will largely fall short. Even in this fresh and shiny form, AoE: Definitive Edition will struggle to defeat the AoE II HD Remaster to take back the franchise’s throne. Whether it is the variances in gameplay systems, the difference in the time period of the games or simply the fact that the AoE II can be played on Steam where this game cannot, AoE Definitive Edition’s biggest rival will be ironically be its own future. That being said, some fans have still craved a remaster of the original title for quite some time. For most of them, the results will be a delight.