There are certain series where the question “Which one’s the best?” is difficult to answer. Ask someone what their favorite Civilization is for instance and you’re bound to start an argument. (It’s Civilization IV, by the way.) The same goes for Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Fallout, Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat, Tony Hawk, Assassin’s Creed, Street Fighter, Elder Scrolls, and so on and so forth.
Age of Empires? Not so much. People by and large consider Age of Empires II to be the pinnacle of the series. Oh you might find a few holdouts for the original, or for Age of Empires III, but the second game is the runaway fan favorite—as evidenced by the fact Microsoft remastered it back in 2013, before the original.
Which makes the prospect of remastering the original after the fact a bit odd. Not unthinkable, but odd. That’s what Microsoft and developer Forgotten Empires have done though, giving the original Age of Empires a face-lift for its twentieth anniversary. The question: Is there any reason to go back to this earliest of Ages?
It depends how much you care about the classical era, I guess. That is the one advantage Age of Empires: Definitive Edition has. Unlike Civilization or Empire Earth or what-have-you, Age of Empires never tried to encapsulate the entirety of human history into a single game.
Thus the original Age of Empires focused on ancient history—the Hellenic Greeks, Egyptian Old and New Kingdom, the Phoenicians, Persians, and as of the Rise of Rome expansion, the Roman Empire. By contrast, Age of Empires II focused on the Medieval Era and early Renaissance, while Age of Empires III focused on the Colonial Era.
That separation might not matter if you’re concerned only with mechanics. You could certainly argue names like “Phalanx” and “Legion” are just fancy set-dressing, the units indistinguishable from their Age of Empires II counterparts.
History has always been so intrinsic to Age of Empires though. That’s part of what I loved about the series. Every faction, every campaign, is informed by historical context.
Take the “Ascent of Egypt” campaign, for instance. It’s basically the Age of Empires tutorial campaign, teaching prospective players how to use their villagers to build structures, chop wood, farm crops, construct military camps, use those camps to train troops, attack neighboring factions, and so on. Basic real-time strategy ideas, and the tutorial seems incredibly long and drawn out by today’s standards.
But every step of the way, Age of Empires tries to contextualize your actions in the larger scheme of history. You’re not just learning to farm, for instance. Instead, “The great Pharaoh Narmer seeks to unite the Upper and Lower Kingdoms into a unified Egypt. Using the wealth brought from farming along the Nile’s banks, he will finally be able to defeat his rivals.” A mission where you destroy a few watch towers and take over an island isn’t just a tutorial about naval units, it’s a pitched battle where Pharaoh Senusret III plans “to subdue lower Nubia by building forts along the Nile River all the way to the Fourth Cataract.”
It grounds Age of Empires, lends importance to even the smallest actions. And establishing that tone early makes your later conquests feel all the more important as you lead Octavian against Marc Antony, or pit Hammurabi’s Babylonians against the Akkadians.
There’s a draw, in other words. Trying to delineate between Civilization IV and Civilization V would devolve into a nuanced discussion of specific mechanics—square versus hex grids, one-unit-per-tile, and so on. It has to, because thematically Civilization IV and V are identical. They’re both historical-fantasy, both trying to capture the progression of humanity from the development of tools and writing and the wheel to nuclear weapons and rockets and tanks.
But Age of Empires, despite obvious surface-level similarities, is still relatively different from its much-loved sequel. Maybe it’s not a huge reason to go back, but there is a reason.
That said, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is more interesting to me as an archival document than a game proper. Fact is, Age of Empires II HD does exist, and I’ve been playing it for almost five years now—and it’s a better game.
I find myself missing a lot from Age of Empires II. Gates are a big one. Age of Empires lets you build walls, but has no equivalent gate structure—meaning you can either wall yourself in and never leave, or simply use walls as a chokepoint instead of an actually meaningful barricade.
Age of Empires II also does slightly more with its factions. Each civilization in Age of Empires II had unique units, which could really change the balance of matches. That aspect has gotten even more prevalent with the release of multiple Age of Empires II HD expansions—The Forgotten, Rise of the Rajas, and The African Kingdoms, each of which added unique architecture, even more unique units, and so on.
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition feels a bit barebones by comparison. Fighting against Egyptians fielding Roman Phalanxes never ceases to be a bit weird, and is directly at odds with the history-first tone the game tries to establish. Every faction plays pretty much the same, with minor differences to movement speed or villager yield, and while that undoubtedly is easier from a balancing standpoint it also can make the game feel a bit stale. Once you’ve played one match, you’ve seen almost everything Age of Empires has to offer.
All of this makes perfect sense in the context of “This is a real-time strategy game from 1997,” but as a hook for 2018, and with a fully-fleshed remaster of the sequel plus new expansions already available? A bit harder to swallow, maybe.
Which is not to take anything away from the quality of the actual Age of Empires: Definitive Edition remaster. As I wrote in our hands-on with the multiplayer beta last month, “I like to think the sign of a good remaster is whether it looks the way you remember a game looking in your memories.” Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is definitely that, and more. It looks phenomenal, with Forgotten Empires bringing the visual fidelity up to the level of Age of Empires II HD. No small feat.
There are also some neat quality-of-life changes. Population limits have been increased, which makes for larger and more impressive battles. The game also seems to default to “Fast” speed—everything moves maybe 1.5x as fast as it did originally. You can speed the game up further, or drop it down to normal speed, but for 2018 the “Fast” speed does seem like a good compromise, maintaining the spirit of the original but making the pace more palatable for modern players.
Oh, and all the old cheat codes work—even the silly ones, like “Pow!” to spawn a tricycle-riding baby with a shotgun. That’s fun.
Are there things I’d like to see changed? Sure. Even with the Definitive Edition’s “Enhanced Pathfinding,” unit movement is still aggravating at times, with units often taking stupid detours or getting stuck on trees unless you hold their hand to the destination. I also hate that you can’t queue up research or different types of units—that’s an Age of Empires quirk I could do without in 2018.
More? Well, you can use Right Click to drag the map around—but only if you don’t have units selected. If you have units selected, you’ll order them to move to a location. It’s not the best camera. Oh, and the system for getting a multiplayer match together can feel a bit convoluted. I haven’t played the release, but in the beta we spent at least a couple minutes in the menu trying to explain to someone how to simply change teams.
But none of these are specifically the fault of the Definitive Edition. They’re issues carried over from the original game, part-and-parcel with creating a faithful remaster instead of simply remaking Age of Empires from scratch.
The title doesn’t lie, in other words. If you’re dead set on playing the original Age of Empires, this is the best way to do so. It is the Definitive Edition. The question is whether that’s appealing to you or not.
For me? I’ve enjoyed it well enough. As a fan of history, it’s been great playing the Greeks, the Romans, and some of the early-Japanese history. That’s enough of a hook for me—especially the Ancient Greeks, which are criminally underrepresented in video games.
But Age of Empires II HD is still probably the game I’ll go back to most. It’s more interesting, more expansive, better balanced—all the things you’d want from a sequel, basically. And that wouldn’t normally be an issue, except for the fact that Age of Empires: Definitive Edition arrived after its sequel this time around.