The only problem with Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition is that you can already play the original Age of Empires 2. Oh and you can also already play Age of Empires 2 HD, which tidied up the original's visuals and, according to its store page, brought in "improved AI, workshop support, multiplayer, Steamworks integration and more!" So if you're anything like me, that might've made you think twice.
Thankfully, there is more to the Definitive Edition than that. Talking to Adam Isgreen, Creative Director for Age of Empires on the Microsoft side of things and Bert Beeckman, co-founder of Forgotten Empires, the studio that takes the lead on these remasters, the first thing I wanted to ask was why an HD owner would want to upgrade. There is actually a decent answer.
"Well, we sell expansions for the game as well and the expansions usually run about 10 bucks, right?" Isgreen tells me. "So, within the Definitive Edition you have a whole new expansion, basically: you've got three new campaigns, a whole bunch of new missions, you've got four new civilizations to play with as well, so right there you're pretty much already at 10 dollars into the game."
You'll also get five dollars off if you already own the HD edition, which helps (I didn't get confirmation for the UK side of things - know you're wondering - but imagine it will be an equivalent amount). "So for five dollars more you also get brand new AI, an entirely new multiplayer with a super-secure, awesome anti-cheat multiplayer solution that's super-stable across all kinds of connections. You get all the new social features, you get everything like the unified community, there's just a lot of things - for any kind of player you are - to take advantage of."
Fair enough. That chat was actually after Isgreen and Beeckman had taken me through a closer look at those features in the game, via a peek at the new Tamerlane campaign, the most striking of them being that new AI.
"If you look at the old AI, it cheated" Beeckman chuckled. "It totally cheated. It doesn't cheat anymore."
"If you put one AI, non-cheating, of the Definitive Edition version against seven of the original that do cheat, it just wipes the floor with them. No problem. Every time. So that's the kind of level we were aiming for here... the new AI is so good that you can watch replays of it to actually learn how to play the game, because it plays the game correctly now... it tries to follow the competitive meta - on the highest [difficulty] level - because we have 20 years of pro players doing tournaments and we tried to get that in the AI as well."
You can also talk to the new AI in a more sophisticated way. I didn't see this in action but the example I was given was how, in the past, interactions were limited to things like "do you have any spare Gold you could give me?" whereas now you could ask an AI ally "hey, can you attack, with Knights, that specific player at that time", and they'll go ahead and do it.
Again, it's hard to really evaluate those sorts of claims without having a proper, lengthy hands-on, but to me the talk about an AI trained on competitive strategies is genuinely exciting. I might not ever see much benefit from it, mind - I'm one of those strategy players who hits a skill cap somewhere in the no-man's-land between teching-for-fun on Medium and struggling with a rush on Hard - but even the fact that the AI always sticks to the rules is promising enough for those like me who can now actually watch what they're doing and mimic it.
The rest of the improvements in the Definitive Edition fall comfortably into the category of neat stuff for nerds - which I really should stress I count myself as, too! - rather than big headline revolutions. Isgreen and Beeckman told me that the feedback they had was always a request not to touch the gameplay, and so their focus was on how they could help that "stand out more" and deciding on looking mostly at how it's controlled, which first of all meant the ability to zoom in and out. Hope you were sitting down for that bombshell! (Although it is, actually, weirdly neat to see, especially if you've the dosh to witness it all in snazzy 4K).
There's now a global queue for what you're building. "If you look at professional players," Beeckman told me, "they're constantly clicking on all the buildings to see what's going on, so it's really hard to follow the game. Now, it's there. You know what's going on, you don't have to click any more, there's more time to actually enjoy the game." Or as Isgreen put it: "We want you playing on screen, not necessarily playing on the UI."
There's also a kind of "automatic farm receiving," so villagers will keep going as long as they have enough resources to do so (a boon for old school players who remember having to micro-manage this). There's a command queue, which has been in plenty of Age of Empires games and just about every other strategy game since, but was never actually in the original Age 2. There's better unit selection, so if you click and drag over a large amount of military units with a few villagers smattered in there, the game will know you're only trying to select the military ones and automatically leave out the villagers. No more "why did my villagers stop working on my Wonder?!", as Isgreen put it. Even the ability to attack-move is new. "All these foundational things that everyone takes for granted in RTS games now, we had to go put all that in."
It does add up - at least in theory. The Definitive Edition will have 27 campaigns in it; the original had five. There were 13 civilisations in the original and 35 now. I'm really not one for equating time spent in a game to value-for-money but, if that's your bag, Beeckman claimed that "if you play through all the campaigns and win them all in one go, you have 200 hours of gameplay. That's how much there is, just in the campaigns, for 20 bucks." Again, fair enough. It's cross-play between stores (Steam or Microsoft Live), "basically it's like a mini version of Battle.net," as Isgreen told me, so "you have all the AoE games, all of your friends from both Steam and from Live; chat, everything across games all in one place, so we're kind of bringing the whole community together with Age" - hence the "unified community" comment when I asked.
Basically, it does actually seem like a proper, ground-up job and a reasonable ask, given everything that's included - but it does also seem like it's still a big reasonable ask. It seems like the teams behind it, at Microsoft and at the three studios - Forgotten Empires, Tantalus, and Wicked Witch - are aware of that. The demo felt as much like a sales pitch as a walkthrough of what's new, because it's necessary if they're going to get players who bought Age of Empires 2 back in 1999, and then HD, so they could play it again with their friends, in 2013, to triple-dip on an even-more-HD version now. I can tell you it's pretty though (it really is), and I can tell I think I'm probably sold myself - even if it's just the cost of getting an AI friend to teach me how to play.