Ever wanted to found an empire? To craft a civilisation that will stand the test of time and be a beacon of hope to all who follow?
Then Age of Empires: Definitive Edition isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, your driving desire is to see your opponents crushed beneath the feet of an armoured elephant then you’ll be right at home.
Less Civilization, more Command and Conquer, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is a historically-themed, though not necessarily historically accurate, real-time strategy game. It’s a remastered version of the original Age of Empires, which first saw the light of day 20 years ago and, given a graphical overhaul and a few gameplay tweaks, it presents itself remarkably well. The game sports a total of 17 playable factions, each based on an ancient civilisation such as the Babylonians, Egyptians or the Yamato. The Age of Empires expansion pack, Rise of Rome, has been folded into this release, meaning you can advance your civilisation no further than the Roman era.
I was mildly disappointed by the latter restriction, since it meant my dream of strapping machine guns to a robot elephant would never be realised. But, in truth, the game’s historical context works in its favour. Lacking anything longer-range than a catapult, you’re forced to think creatively, luring your enemies into an ambush or seeking to outflank them on the battlefield. Merely flinging hordes of soldiers at your foes typically results in failure, particularly if you’re tackling one of the campaign missions where you have a finite supply of units. But having to actually put some thought into your tactics makes victory all the sweeter.
As is the case with many RTS games, resource collection and construction figures heavily into Age of Empires: Definitive Edition’s core gameplay. Fortunately, this rarely becomes grind as your villagers are independent enough to get on with their tasks once they’ve been assigned to them. Although they remain strangely oblivious to the distress of their fellow workers, even though they’re capable of taking on lesser enemies.
“Hey, Davius, you know you’ve got a crocodile biting your face, right?”
“Just checking, I’ll see you down the mead hall.”
Your combat units will generally intervene in such situations but when you’re just starting out it can be annoying to have to remind Villager 14 that maybe he should poke the crocodile with a sharp stick. One of the welcome tweaks that Age of Empires: Definitive Edition brings to the table is that you can queue units, so if Davius does end up as crocodile food you can quickly order up a few replacements. In a similar manner, you can order your villagers to construct multiple buildings.
Construct enough of a specific type and, resources permitting, you’ll be allowed to advance to the next “age”, unlocking new developments such as iron weaponry. Fall behind and you’ll be in trouble, as I discovered when, during my first playthrough, I sent my axe-wielding warriors to harass my computer-controlled neighbours. Their weapons were unsurprisingly ineffective against the armour and swords that Johnny AI had crafted while I’d been shepherding my civilisation through the Stone Age. But I only had myself to blame and that’s what lends the game much of its appeal. Failure rarely seems unfair and each playthrough is a learning experience, as you discover how best to balance your resources and manpower without leaving your populace undefended.
Also (mildly) educational are the game’s individual campaign missions which are based, loosely, on actual historical events. There’s a massive nine campaigns, each with between four and 12 missions; several of which plunge you straight into the fight, ideal if you’re growing a little tired of base-building. The units under your command likely aren’t historically accurate, however. There are civilisation-specific movement bonuses, and each has their own distinctive visual style. But with a few exceptions all civilisations have access to the same fighting units, which was not the case in reality.
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition’s graphical overhaul really does give the game a new lease of life, as does the improved soundtrack and re-recorded dialogue. The game’s multiplayer component has been given an overhaul too, making it easier to leap into civilisation-crushing combat against human opponents. Even so, there are a few telltale signs that betray the game’s age. Most notably, there’s the way that each unit sticks to their own square and, as a result, even the largest battles risk looking like brawl in a car-park. Age of Empires 2 solved this by letting you group units into a formation, leading to much more impressive looking battles, but that particular tweak wasn’t included here.
Resurrecting the original Age of Empires may have been an odd decision given that a fourth game is being worked on but I’m glad that Microsoft decided to give this strategy classic a second airing. While it may not have Civilization’s country-spanning scale or Total War’s grand battles, it’s nevertheless a satisfyingly deep strategy game. Age of Empires may be ancient by videogame standards but this engaging, challenging overhaul is well worth digging up.
Now if only Age of Empires 4 has mecha-elephants…