Updated 23/02/2018 12:15pm – Review now with final score and multiplayer impressions.
Original Review: 19/02/2018 08:01am
It was nearly twenty years ago that Age of Empires first set sail on PC to rave reviews and cult acclaim.
1998 really was a golden year for games with small titles like Half Life, Thief, Grim Fandango, Baldur’s Gate, Starcraft, Ocarina of Time, and AoE really showing development studios at the peak of their craft. And now Forgotten Empires have brought a true classic back for a new generation, completely revamping the visuals and tweaking the gameplay to make it a more modern fit.
The differences are immediately apparent. This isn’t a thrown together port made for a quick-buck, it’s been re-designed from the ground up with a lot of love and affection. It truly is a Definitive Edition – not just because it has the Rise of Rome expansion – but because it comes with beautifully crafted art, animation, and cut scenes with full narration and gorgeously recreated assets and visuals which support up to 4K.
There are drastic changes to the environment, including upgrades to the terrain sets, units and objects. Building damage is quite an awesome sight to behold as well as it crumbles beneath the chips of an axe and flurries of arrows. It adds more weight and gravitas to a conflict and is a nice subtle touch that just wouldn’t have been possible years ago.
This sort of thing breathes new life into the campaigns now, giving them more of a visual and audible narrative as opposed to just presenting the player with a series of instructions and victory conditions in order to move onto the next. And yet, it plays in much the same way as you’ve come to expect from the series, a sort of hybrid between a Civilisation and a Warcraft.
You have four ages to progress through, each offering different building and unit types which can be used, both for research and development, as well as preparing an army to protect your borders or even expand upon them. Each unit has been painstakingly re-imagined, but in a faithful way and every method of attack looks different, the way units move and feel as they push across different terrain.
You mostly always start out the same way, needing to build a town center then use your villagers to gather different resources. Wood and food are pretty much essential from the very beginning – so you’ll be chopping down trees, gathering berries and even killing wildlife – but it’s not until you reach the Bronze and Iron ages that stone and gold become more essential components to your ongoing development. For instance, building short swordsman and even developing a wonder of the world. While you can speed up the passage of play to quicken the pace of games, naturally there are lulls and you do have to play a bit of a waiting game for your villagers to finish. This certainly does harken back to the early era of RTS games.
Much like other titles of this ilk, AoE still lends itself to the idea of building the biggest army possible to outmaneuver your opponent. There’s no real sense of drill tactics other than positioning your players or choosing what to focus on, unlike a Total War Warhammer where you can split your armies in sections, issuing different commands at any one time. But as someone who grew up on the likes of AoE, that’s certainly no problem for me. I actually found it quite refreshing when compared to the immediacy – sometimes over complication – of the modern day game.
Something we did find, though, is a few bad habits from the original have managed to creep in. Unit movement can be damned frustrating at times. I regularly got footmen stuck on a tree, and even decide to take the long way around to get to an enemy. By which time, any advantage you might have had would be lost and you’ve got more casualties to show for it. Likewise, some villagers refused to go to slightly concealed resources when there was a clear path to them. They’d rather cut the trees down in the way instead and do it the hard way.
There was also some very unusual AI tactics. For instance, I was on the verge of wiping a tribe out of existence, yet one or two of their villagers would actually walk into my territory and start building a house or a gathering spot to keep them in the game. They had an entire map to choose from, but instead decided to walk into the lions’ den. Bizarre!
The game also becomes noticeably stretched and pixelated when you zoom in, proving, at least, that despite all the amazing touching up this is still the same engine. Considering this is one of the games’ selling points it’s a shame that it does look a little bit rough up close, though obviously if you take a look at the original the upgrade remains substantial and impressive.
There were also a few graphical breakups on certain campaigns with random borders appearing on the screen for the briefest of seconds, and some frame rate slowdown if too many units showed up at once. Again, though, nothing game breaking.
As for the elephant in the room, this is a Windows Store Exclusive as the game uses Xbox Live to go online. And while this might be a deal breaker for some, for the most part I’ve had no issue with it. The game runs smoothly enough and providing you already have an account, it’s easy to log in and start playing. There’s even a wealth of Achievements to unlock. When I did venture online, it did sometimes take me longer to find a game than I would have liked. In some cases, it’s because the people I tried to connect to had specific requirements – play moderate 1v1 battle, no … ping allowed – but I would also find myself randomly disconnecting from rooms and also unable to join others. Overtime, I imagine there will be stability improvements, but in the games’ launch week there have been a few problems with getting into matches.
Once you are into a match, however, it runs smooth as butter. I played with a maximum of 5 other people and barely experienced a hiccup or a stutter. It can also get quite lively in chat with people making conversation as you play, whether it’s to taunt you, compare strategies, acknowledge good play or find something out about you. But AoE does seem to be open to a social experience and that’s cool.
Of course, I was absolutely trounced in the matches I had. As good as I thought I was, making my way through the tutorials and campaigns, I was definitely put in my place and in rapid time. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Starcraft 2 levels of embarrassment – I actually frustrated my opponents more than a few times, once by hiding a villager and building another base around the map as mine was getting wiped out – but you should definitely make sure you’re comfortable with how the game plays and what everything does before even thinking about playing online. You can and will get rushed and overpowered before you even realise what just happened.
There’s no ranked matches as such, merely the option to Join, Create, or Find a Game, so you don’t need to worry about your worldwide standing or work towards ladder status, but you get the feeling this could be introduced in a future update. For now, at least, there were a healthy amount of games to choose from online and while there are a few teething problems with the lobby, once you’re in a match AoE Definitive Edition works like a charm.
For the most part, I loved Age of Empires Definitive Edition. It looks great, sounds incredible, plays well, and has me hooked. It’s been a while since an RTS has got its tenter hooks into me so deeply and it’s nice that the online component is active and alive from the early stages. Even though I was humbled and battered by my betters almost every single time, I enjoyed the experience from beginning to end. When you’re under that kind of pressure, you learn how to defend yourself better as well as what building and resources to prioritize in a pinch. It makes you a better player, which is surprisingly something of a rare find in the online world of gaming.
And rest assured, the single player component is better than ever. Slight hiccups and graphical breakups aside, this is, unquestionably, the Definitive Edition of the Age of Empires campaign that fans have long deserved. With a few more updates to tighten everything up, AoE Definitive Edition is a memorable and truly impressive remaster and will be enjoyable to audiences old and new.
+ Same addictive and enjoyable gameplay
+ Incredible remastering of visuals
+ Lots of content for the price
+ Memorable melodies and lovely animations
– Odd AI Pathing and Behavioural issues
– Lobby System in Matchmaking can cause problems
– Graphical breakups and distortions and can appear stretched zoomed in
– Modern RTS fans may struggle with building and resource management
Age of Empires Definitive Edition
7.5 out of 10
Tested on PC (Build 5100)