Celebrating 20 years since its inception, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition arrives as the best and most complete version of the game that kicked off a massive strategy franchise with a dedicated fanbase and numerous spin-offs. It's unfortunate, then, that it's hard to say just who this remake of the game is for.
Though noteworthy for its creation of a beloved strategy series, the original Age of Empires isn't the most exhilarating strategy game to play even for those with fond memories of its release two decades ago. It doesn't necessarily appeal to newcomers, either, when later games are much more refined and interesting. That said, there is still a decent experience to be found here that goes beyond the nostalgia factor.
Age of Empires Definitive Edition Review: Welcoming with Open Arms
Surprisingly enough, there is a level of accessibility found in Age of Empires that can't be said for most RTS games. It is simple enough to understand once you dive in, and it's helped by the tutorial campaign that eases you into all of its systems in an elaborate and fun way.
Following the birth of Egypt, it allows you to explore the basics of Age of Empires like foraging for food, gathering more villagers, and learning how to advance between the four distinct technological ages. Completing this optional opening campaign is sufficient at welcoming even the most novice of strategy players.
This simplicity does come at a cost, though. While its opening hours are full of curiosity and exploring the various systems at play, it can quickly lose your interest fast. Due to how the game is balanced, Age of Empires discourages thinking outside the box and rewards the player for sticking to the same old gameplay loop every match.
Age of Empires Definitive Edition Review: Thousands of Years in an Instant
Many buildings and classes are mostly useless for the majority of the match, as each battle ultimately plays out as an arms race. At the crux of Age of Empires is the switching between four main technological levels — Stone Age, Tool Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age — over the course of the match.
Upgrading to the next time period opens up new soldiers to train and buildings to create that give massive advantages over any player still playing with rocks in the Stone Age. As I quickly discovered during my time with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, there is little variation in how you advance to the next level.
This creates a monotonous cycle of starting the exact same way, saving up the four resources the exact same way, and playing out mostly the exact same way until you've reached the coveted Iron Age. Despite there being 16 Civilizations to choose from, they all play and feel the same outside of minor stat changes.
Though the graphics are an improvement over what it looked like 20 years ago, they, too, feel too simple and outdated. The shimmer of water is surprisingly pretty to look at but feels at odds with the static and uninteresting trees, buildings, and characters. There is also a poor lack of variety in the environments, making it always feel like you're playing in the same area every single time despite the story claiming otherwise.
It also suffers from technical issues that made playing alone frustrating. While the enemies are smart and create a challenge, the AI of your own villagers and soldiers are woefully unintelligent. When everything worked well (which was rare), workers would go about their assigned task and automatically move onto the next one upon completion.
Most of the time, however, it wasn't that smooth for me. After gathering food for a little bit, my villagers would suddenly stop out of nowhere and just stand there waiting for the next order. This idleness becomes an even bigger issue when it comes to combat.
I would set guards to defend the camp and they would stand around as soldiers came in and slaughtered the villagers and destroyed buildings. Moving more than a few people around the map is a pain to accomplish, too, as one or two would almost always get stuck in animation limbo on a tree or rock and I wouldn't notice until I was already halfway across the map.
Age of Empires Definitive Edition Review: At War with Itself
The monotony of Age of Empires is only broken up by the numerous single-player campaigns that have you follow the rise of multiple Civilizations like the Roman Empire, Greece, and Babylon. These campaigns are sometimes so different than the core RTS feel of what you'd expect that it made everything feel uneven.
Many of these campaign missions eschew the strategy aspects in favor of more core action gameplay. One mission might entail capturing multiple points before the enemy does while another has you embark on a lone suicide mission through the enemy camp to assassinate an enemy leader.
These moments create unique scenarios that you wouldn't expect, but not all are created equal. In the case of the assassination mission, the stealth requirements do not work well within the RTS nature of the game, causing it to be more annoying than it should be.
Though these mechanics and missions don't carry over to the rest of Age of Empires, it does create inspiration for one of the game's most important modes: the scenario and campaign editor. Age of Empires has an in-depth editor that allows you to create whatever scenario you'd like from editing the map's design to the match conditions to even how to achieve victory.
You can create multiple scenarios and then link them together in your own custom-made singleplayer campaign. The ability to play custom community-made campaigns is a welcome addition, expanding on the amount of content available and keeping things fresh.
Age of Empires Definitive Edition Review: Better Together
The saving grace of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is playing online or offline with teams. In a typical free-for-all match, there is no reason to trade or engage in diplomacy with rival Civilizations, as combat is far easier to achieve victory with.
However, being part of a predetermined team allows you to work together in ways that aren't encouraged otherwise, especially online. Having a teammate focus on gathering one resource while another scouts for danger, while still another amasses an army using the resources traded between the players, creates an exciting atmosphere not found anywhere else in the game.
You could even work independently or choose to demolish one enemy player at a time as a massive group. Unlike the rest of Age of Empires, the possibilities are actually endless. This is where the game truly shines, outweighing the various issues that define the core game.
Age of Empires Definitive Edition Review: Conclusion
It's hard to figure out just who Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is for. For each thing it does right, it does one or two other things wrong. Veteran fans of the original game will find that beyond the base improvements, it hasn't aged well in the last 20 years.
While it is certainly one of the most accessible RTS games I've ever played, Age of Empires: Definitive Edition does feel too outdated for newcomers. Unintelligent AI, monotony, and unbalanced gameplay hold it back from competing with modern strategy games out right now. That isn't to say there isn't fun to be had for fans, as the extensive map editors and online multiplayer are its saving graces.
Windows / Xbox One review code provided by publisher.