As a child, I grew up on the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation with my only PC gaming interactions coming from games like Freddi the Fish and Pajama Sam. As such, I missed out on great games like Age of Empires despite growing up and becoming primarily a PC gamer with a love for RTS titles. Thanks to the release of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, however, I can experience one of the best classic RTS titles out there on modern systems and in modern resolutions. So did this 20 year old game impress me with its classic charm and modern polish, or was it just another remaster of a game meant to cash grab on our nostalgia?
Having no previous encounter with Age of Empires, I jumped right into the tutorial campaign modes that the Definitive Edition has to offer. The tutorials ranged from helpful to straight forward knowledge that didn't need its own tutorial dedicated to it. Each tutorial stage has the player completing just a few tasks before ending the scenario and moving onto the next. However, I can't help but think that combining these tutorial stages into one entire tutorial campaign would have been time better spent. Rather than teach the player the basics of city management and then moving on with the same scenario into more complex things like trading and combat, each chapter has the player begin anew with the only goal being one or two small objectives. If it had all been streamlined, I would have gotten a much clearer sense of how progression works in the game and tutorial aspects that felt more straight forward would have felt like less of a time waste. Sadly, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is a remaster and not a remake, so the focus is more on updated visuals rather than moving the game and its mechanics forward since its release 20 years ago.
But where the tutorial is lacking, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition makes up in simplicity. Even when the game failed to explain things in detail, it was easy to figure out on my own when making my own play though. Indeed, Age of Empires is exceptionally simple compared to modern RTS games of the same style. This is obviously because Age of Empires is a classic RTS that created the basics for future RTS titles. That being said, the Definitive Edition is the perfect way to play this classic game, but it's also a super accessible RTS for newcomers to the genre to start out with.
Outside of the tutorial, there are a bunch of other campaign modes to tackle. They vary in difficulty, but many create scenarios that really had me thinking over strategies and how I might best grow my city to then tackle other empires. I've always been more a fan of the sandbox modes, but the challenge the campaigns offered really pushed my understanding of the game's mechanics after finishing the tutorial and messing around in my own created scenario. I feel like I got a quicker understanding of Age of Empires through the story campaigns than I would have on my own, so I fully encourage players to give them a go.
Although being impervious to Age of Empires nostalgia means I won't dote on the game for my fond memories of it, it does have the misfortunate side effect of not knowing just how much the game has been visually updated. After playing it for some time, I decided to check out exactly how much the game's visuals had changed and was surprised by the comparisons. Everything has been visually updated so much that it's difficult to tell the game's age through visuals alone. There are aspects of the Definitive Edition that are really quite pretty to look at. That's not to say that it looks like a current gen graphical masterpiece, but the reworked graphics work to give it the same aesthetic as the original while also creating a more clear visual for the player to interpret.
However, while Age of Empires: Definitive Edition looks the part, the AI is still very obviously dated. The biggest example of this is in the pathing of armies. I would move an army to an area of the map, only to have them split in half and move in different directions. This was normally not an issue unless it happened during combat. Then it was entirely possible for the enemy to take out a good chunk of my units before the other half pathed around whatever obstacles had split them and get into the fight. Twenty years ago these pathing issues would have been totally excusable, but I wish a bit more had been done to make the game that much smarter.
Regardless, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is still a lot of fun, and even more so when playing with or against a friend. Each of the game's 19 empires have different tech to unlock and different visual aesthetics which make upgrading and advancing more interesting. It's fulfilling to see your empire grow and thrive and it's also heartbreaking to watch it all catch fire and crumble when enemies attack.