If there’s one thing I’ve learned from playing Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, it’s that using a siege engine to hunt gazelles is generally frowned upon.

It can’t have been a coincidence that, mere minutes later, a fleet of enemy ships sailed up and proceeded to incinerate my proto-Egyptian civilisation. Someone, somewhere, had informed the bronze-age equivalent of PETA and, just like that, I was done. It certainly couldn’t have been that, living on an island, I’d totally neglected to build an armada or any means of defending myself from naval attacks. Could it?

Okay, maybe my lack of military foresight had something to do with my colony’s fiery downfall, but Age of Empires is nothing if not a learning experience. This semi-historical real-time strategy game is over twenty years old but holds up remarkably well. The “Definitive Edition” gives the game a graphical overhaul and a tweaked user interface, but at its core it’s the same title that enthralled a whole generation of strategy fans.

Age of Empires 1

While I missed Age of Empires the first time around, I was given the opportunity to delve into Age of Empires: Definitive Edition’s multiplayer beta and test my mettle against a range of human foes. The most striking thing about the game is not that your units and buildings are drawn from history, appealing as that may be. Rather it’s that they’re so carefully balanced that precious few feel under or over-powered. The more time you spend with the game, the more you get to grips with your units’ effective use and, before you know it, you’re no longer being annihilated a mere five minutes into a match.

Equally welcome is the way that unit placement matters; merely flinging a horde of enemies at your foes is no guarantee of success. That said, it didn’t stop me from attempting to rush an enemy base with a horde of elephants. That went about as well as you could imagine given my earlier gazelle-splattering exploits. Besides which, there’s more to each civilisation than their respective aesthetic style; so only about half the game’s civilisations have access to elephants. If you’re planning on recreating Hannibal’s famous journey, which culminated in him using elephants to escape from a maximum security stockade, you’ll have to choose carefully. Resource gathering is also part and parcel of Age of Empires but since your workers are smart enough to mine the heck out of the local area without repeated intervention, it’s rarely an imposition.

Age of Empires 2

The more time you spend with Age of Empires, the more you come to grips with a game that requires you to use your brain, and fast. Units from the same era are well balanced, but fail to move forward into the bronze or iron age by building and researching the required technologies and you’ll be left behind.  The fruits of your inaction will be all too evident when your enemy rolls up in a siege engine surrounded by swordsmen and your soldiers are still waving clubs around.

My time with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition left me wanting more; not more multiplayer skirmishes that is, though they were enjoyable enough. Instead I’m looking forward to stepping into the game’s singleplayer campaign, to prove my skills as a leader of men and flattener of ruminant animals. Actually, maybe I should leave the gazelles alone this time.

Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is set for a PC release on 20th February. Find out more by visiting the game's website.