This might not be a popular opinion in 2018 but I still love real-time strategy (RTS) games. To this day every couple of months, I’ll boot back up an old Command & Conquer, Company of Heroes, or Age of Empires and run through a couple of skirmishes. For me, these real-time strategy games are comfort food. While my friends were off playing Quake, I was the Romans taking out hordes of Egyptians in my fifth street skirmish in Age of Empires II. RTS is a genre that’s all but disappeared, that is except for an updated versions of Age of Empires.
A couple of years back, Forgotten Empires brought back the AoE series with Age of Empires II HD which has had a string of HD expansions since. Now they’ve come back with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition - a remake of the original Age of Empires game that was released back in 1997. Not only did the original Age of Empires receive a new coat of paint but it also received some minor gameplay improvements, both of which we will cover in this review. Was it worth going back to the beginning or should they have left the past in the past?
I guess I should start by saying my personal ranking of AoE titles goes II, III, and I. That may be unpopular as there’s a lot of hate for Age of Empires III, but I still find that game to be quite good. Going back to an RTS from 1997 is no small feat. There’s been a ton of quality of life improvements in the genre in the two decades since that game's release. Some of that has been addressed in the Definitive Edition, but a lot of it hasn’t. There’s a pretty thorough tutorial that will bring RTS-newbies up to speed. Age of Empires, in general, is one of the more approachable RTS franchises out there and after the tutorial, most players should feel comfortable with the core mechanics.
When you think about a game of Age of Empires, there are three key activities to it: gathering resources, building your empire, and combat. The first has been streamlined quite a bit in the Definitive Edition. Your townspeople are smarter than they were back in 1997. They’re more apt to continue gathering resources after they've been gathered, and there’s a handy button that alerts you if any of your townspeople aren’t currently doing anything. Building is also streamlined, making it easy to plan out your town, build walls, and ensure you have the right defenses. It’s still a lot more finicky than in more modern RTS games but still not too bad.
Where Age of Empires: Definitive Edition struggles is in combat. I had forgotten how hard it is to fight in this game. Even if you build enough troops, it's incredibly difficult to have them attack the enemy troops you want them to target. Unlike a game like Company of Heroes, which focuses heavily on combat strategy, Age of Empires has always struggled in this area. For some reason, there’s still a cap on the number of units you can grab, making you assign groups of troops to numbers and try and maneuver combat that way. Unfortunately, what ensues is utter chaos. What you'd have hoped for in an updated version of Age of Empires would be able to have more control of how you maneuver troops, put them in formations, and attack on command. Unfortunately the AI has a mind of its own during combat and after going towards an initial target, they tend to wander aimlessly attacking whatever they feel like. It makes combat in this twenty-year-old game a lot more frustrating than I remember it being.
The biggest change between now and 1997 are the visuals. Although Definitive Edition doesn’t look like a game from 2018, it still looks great. The upgraded models, environments, and destruction all look great. I played the game in 4K and found everything to run incredibly smooth and great-looking. There’s no doubt that the new coat of paint really makes the twenty-year-old game sparkle. There were a handful of glitches, though, where troops would get stuck in parts of the map or between foliage. That happened often enough to be slightly frustrating.
If nothing else, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition has an enormous amount of content. Along with ten different campaigns, expanded multiplayer, and a scenario editor allowing you to create your own missions, there’s almost too much to do in this game. For me, though, I spent the majority of my time in the game’s skirmish mode, where I could set up whatever sort of scenario I wanted to play out. For those curious, I tend to do matches of 4-6 players with teams of 2 or 3.
At the end of the day, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is a huge amount of content for only $20. The developers have done a fantastic job updating the game's visuals for 2018, even if they’re not going to tax your new gaming rig. I still have major concerns about the game's combat, but Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is a good history lesson for what inspired me and so many others to love RTS genre so much. It’s a brilliant game with a ton of content and for such a low entry price, I think it’s worth a look even if it’s not perfect.
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