Age of Empires: Definitive Edition
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition tries to hide its age, but can’t.
The first Age of Empires introduced the world to Ensemble’s Warcraft- meets- Civilization concept, and got a good two years in the spotlight before being overshadowed by its follow-up. Two decades since its launch, and it’s been resurrected, with electricity pulsing through its veins and a couple of new conveniences stitched on for good measure. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is prettier and slicker, but it’s still not as good as its
We’ve had enough remasters now that it’s pretty clear what people want from them: The game we remember, rose-tinted glasses included. We want our memories of the game, not the messy reality. When it comes to the sights and battlefields of the ancient world, at least, developer Forgotten Empires has given us exactly that.
The Definitive Edition’s visual upgrade is a significant one, though you might not notice how significant it is until you fire up the classic mode to see what it looked back in 1997. It’s an overhaul rather than just a bit of HD polish, full of new art and animation, but it’s all in keeping with the original style. And it goes beyond aesthetics; the game’s simply cleaner and easier to parse. The result is that it certainly doesn’t look 20 years old, but neither does it look completely new.
It’s not just the visual identity that’s been maintained despite the 2018 facelift. Growing your towns and conquering other empires feels broadly the same as well. The rhythm of gathering, expanding, and conquering is still hypnotic despite how familiar it is, but it runs out of steam quickly. The systems that set it apart, things inspired by Civilization, were a bit half-baked even in 1997, with trade, diplomacy, and research existing in name only. The focus then and now is on micromanaging lots of fiddly units—up to 50 in the campaigns and over 200 in custom games—and constant expansion. Later additions, such as the idle worker button and the ability to queue up units, have made their way into this version, which means there are fewer headaches.
The 19 empires share the small roster of units and list of buildings, with their most notable differences being some unique upgrades. Age of Empires manages to do a lot with very little, however. The Definitive Edition contains the Rise of Rome expansion, so that’s ten campaigns in total. Missions run the gamut from anything-goes sandboxes to asymmetrical challenges with limited resources and fortified enemies. In a nod to Warcraft, there are also hero unit stand-ins in the form of mythological and historical generals.
I predict you’ll tire out before you finish every mission. A mountain of maps and objectives can’t disguise that you’re playing with the same small deck in every campaign. By the time you finish the Egyptian tutorial campaign, you’ll have seen all of it.
The terrible pathfinding—units have a predilection for taking weird routes and getting stuck—and dull AI have made the jump to 2018. They do seem less pronounced, but every unit is still useless without micromanagement. Since warfare doesn’t get much more complicated than growing a horde and clicking on targets, fights are like herding confused cats.
These aren’t problems that are only apparent now, 20 years later, but time has certainly made them stand out. And while this is undoubtedly, as promised, the definitive version of Age of Empires, it’s not really the Age of Empires that makes people swoon when they remember it. The series started here, but its successor is the one everybody remembers. That’s when it started to lean into the city-planning elements a little bit more, and when we were finally able to build gates and thus actual, practical fortifications. We could make fortresses! In Age of Empires, we can make bits of wall.
With definitive editions of the later instalments on the horizon, Age of Empires is once again poised to be overshadowed. If you have a sense of nostalgia about the birth of the series, this does a great job of preserving it while making it considerably more palatable, but for a trip down memory lane, it sure is expensive.
It’s an overhaul rather than just a bit of HD polish