The 90s classic has never looked better, but beneath the makeover it can creak.
It may be over 20 years since Age of Empires first conquered our PC screens, but the Pelasgians are still monumental gits. After a relatively straightforward time guiding the Egyptians to supremacy, the campaign mode tasks you with building a Greek state, starting with a small agricultural hub. Yet you've barely erected your town centre when those red-skirted sods come to smash it with their clubs. Guys, I'm trying to build the foundation of western culture here. Take your caveman antics elsewhere. The stone age is so last week.
Naturally those gurning Neanderthals pay no heed, constantly harrying your perfectly innocuous attempt to dominate the entire Aegean peninsula. It's almost like they don't want to be homogenised into a civilisation built on slaves that will eventually be subjugated by another civilisation built on slaves. When did imperialism get so darned difficult?
Of course, Age of Empires has always been a challenging game. It's just that my fusty old brain has forgotten what playing it is like. In my mind it's a comfort-soup game, one of whiling away hours building pretty little cities on luscious isometric maps, rather than of bringing fire and sword to all four corners of its square, two-dimensional worlds. And that's not the only thing I had apparently forgotten, as when I launched this new Definitive Edition, my first thought was "huh, it looks like Age of Empires." Then I looked up what Age of Empires actually looked like back in 1997, and realised that I can never trust my eyes again.
I suppose this is a compliment to Forgotten Empires, the developer Microsoft has put at the helm of this remaster. If its delicate restorative work was enough to fool my weary critical eyes, then job done, right? We can slap a recommended badge at the top of the page and pop down to the circus maximus for the afternoon. But hold your horses, Ben Hur. This isn't Age of Empires: Remastered. This is Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, and it's worth exploring what that actually means, as well as delving into the slightly awkward subject of whether it's actually worth bothering with Age of Empires in 2018.
Despite the fancy name, this is for the most part an aesthetic overhaul, albeit one of substantial girth. The Definitive Edition comprises all the original Age of Empires content plus the Rise of Rome expansion, and also features the short Hittite campaign that served as part of the original game's demo. That means ten single player campaigns to play through, and 17 factions to dominate the ancient world as. The Definitive edition also includes support for local and online multiplayer, and comes with a new list of achievements for players to unlock.
Meanwhile, the graphical side of the update aims to bring the game up to a 4K standard while maintaining the timeless, picturesque style of the original Genie engine. All the models for buildings and units have been entirely redrawn, while the game takes advantage of modern effects for rendering water, reflections, and shadows.
Nonetheless, it remains a 2D, fixed perspective game, even though in some areas it looks more advanced. Units, for example, appear to be rendered in 3D, but in fact they're 2D objects rendered at 32 different angles (compared to the original game's 8). It's such extra detail that contributes to the Definitive Edition's substantial download size. According to the developers, a single trireme unit has a larger file size than the entirety of the original game.
For the most part, I think the remaster looks splendid. I especially like the new destruction animations for buildings, which now visibly collapse into a smoking heap of rubble, rather than simply replacing the building model with a brownfield sprite. I'm less convinced about the new zoom function. Although having more of the map onscreen and lets you better show off large armies, up close the new textures look smudgy and blurred.
The Definitive Edition isn't purely a visual makeover. New audio has been recorded for the game's music and sound effects. The former is superb, its rousing orchestral swells bringing a fitting depth and grandeur to the game, pairing up nicely with the bolder visuals. The latter I'm somewhat ambivalent about. The newly recorded mission briefings are great, but the unit calls just sound wrong in my ear. Perhaps they're simply so iconic that any changes are going to feel sacrilegious, but nonetheless it was the one aspect of the remaster that struck me as off-base.
Beyond the changes to visuals and audio, the game is pretty much identical to before. You collect your four resources, build your structures, train your units, erect your defences and finally venture forth to destroy the enemy. The one major alteration to play is that you can now create production queues, which helps eliminate some of the micromanagement.
Apart from that, though, it's business as usual, which also means that some of the first game's shortcomings, such as the rather shoddy AI pathfinding and the heavy focus on what today is extremely rudimentary combat, remain intact. I understand that Forgotten Empires wished to stay as true to the original game as possible, but that also means it remains a flawed game, and those flaws haven't improved over time.
I'm also a little surprised that there's no new campaign or faction on offer. Certainly regarding the former, I think there's scope for a campaign that mediates the difficulty spike between the tutorial campaign and playing as the Greeks, one that lets newcomers to the series explore a few larger-scale missions without flattening them against their own city walls while doing so. The Definitive edition is priced to reflect that this is primarily a graphical remaster, but I do wonder whether Microsoft and forgotten Empires have missed a trick here.
Such pondering assumes there will be new players interested in visiting a 20-year-old, highly orthodox RTS, and this, really, is the sticking point. You see, I love Age of Empires. I probably love it more than Alexander the Great loved his actual Empire. And for a few hours, playing the definitive edition provided me with some lovely, soothing waves of nostalgia. Exploring those early maps, watching my settlements slowly spread and advance, imagining names for my villagers like "Rogan Josh", all of it amounted to a pretty good time. But after a while, hearing the combat horn sound as yet another cluster of enemy troops arrived to slaughter my workers began to grate. When it came to clearing maps of virtually every enemy unit, boredom set in like dry-rot.
That's the problem Age of Empires faces. It may be a classic, but it's a classic that has been improved and iterated on by other strategy games, that going back to it now is like playing with a hoop and a stick after experiencing VR for the first time. This isn't to say you won't get anything out of it at all, but there are countless better ways to spend 40 hours of your time than cooing at how shiny the new Hoplites look. Age of Empires may have sharpened its spears and polished its shields, but as experiences go it remains distinctly last millennium.