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Age of Empires: Definitive Edition review: A celebration of classic strategic brilliance

Microsoft has unearthed a classic in Age of Empires Definitive Edition, dragging the 90s PC game into the modern era. But how does it hold up?

It's hard to believe Age of Empires is 20 years old. It's a game that I hold dear (and still have the original copy of) due to the symbolic nature of it being the strategy game that both myself and my old man played many hours of. It was also the first game I installed on my very first PC. Microsoft has decided to bring back the good old days and revitalize the classic game with new graphics, support for 4K, orchestral score, and gameplay improvements.

Question is: how does it play and does it do the original game justice?

See at Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Remastering a classic

The original Age of Empires game, available in the Definitive Edition.

There's a chance you may have never played the very first game in the Age of Empires series but it was the foundation of what would become Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, an equally excellent PC game. Age of Empires III followed and Microsoft has already announced the fourth installment. Here I'm looking at the remastered version of Age of Empires I — the big daddy of all Age of Empires games.

The original had superb gameplay, civilizations, soundtrack, and comical cheats.

The Definitive Edition includes not only the base game but also the Rise of Rome expansion. This means there's a total of 16 civilizations to play as, and 10 campaigns to conquer. The issue I had before firing up the review copy is whether or not I'm going to be disappointed, not because the game is bad but because it just isn't the original Age of Empires. These fears soon subsided once the title music kicked in.

Even the settings are the same (ish).

Keeping in line with the remaster of Age of Empires II, the developer has maintained the styling and available options to be configured. Various settings can be altered and even 4K is supported. Multiplayer and LAN menu entries are present on the home screen, as is the infamous editor, which allows you to create your very own maps and scenarios. I lost count how many hours I wasted using that tool back in the day.

Everything feels familiar, but new simultaneously.

Wololo conversion

Starting a new game reveals new graphics, sprites and a cleaner UI, but it all looks the same. The buildings resemble those in the original title and units react similarly when ordering them to carry out tasks. The same goes for various UI elements, including the minimap and diplomacy screen. It isn't quite the same as the Age of Empires II remaster as everything has been taken up a notch instead of simply re-using old stuff, but that's a good thing in my opinion.

It's like sitting inside your car after you have vinyl applied to the outside and a custom interior installed. It's the same but not quite. Improvements made the game include the ability to queue up unit creation at buildings, tooltips on pretty much everything to help newcomers out, indicators as to when it's possible to research the next age,

The old formula has been brought up-to-date without sacrificing anything.

The music is fantastic. It's uplifting just like the original soundtrack but introduces new scores, taking full advantage of modern technology — even some older tracks make it into the mix. The sound effects are also created based on the original game with villages and priests sprouting their usual gibberish. The graphics are solid, as good as you need them to be in a strategy game. As noted already, buildings and units have been carefully remastered in higher quality.

Advancing the civilization through research remains an important goal.

Just like other strategy games (and Age of Empires titles) you need to micromanage a budding empire while researching new technologies, fortifying defenses and forming pacts or breaking treaties. You can easily find yourself alone with little aid and hounded by the AI or cozied up behind a reinforced outer perimeter with ballista towers. The early game is incredibly improtant and a strategy needs to be in place from when you spawn the first villager.

The AI seems to be much better equipped to deal with a human player, which is a bonus when you don't wish to go up against human opponents. Overall, it feels as though Forgotten Empires has done a great job at capturing what made the original so good whilst improving it in more ways than one.

The best part is if you don't feel the new graphics and want good ol' Age of Empires back, the classic mode will do just that. It's also neat you can simply fire up a new mode to relive what was a great strategy masterpiece.

Teaching the old dog new tricks

If you somehow managed to miss out on trying the original Age of Empires, this is your time to get stuck in. The Definitive Edition is an excellent nod to the classic title that made the series what it is today. The performance was solid throughout my testing, I had no issues with gameplay improvements and the graphics looked great. There were some pathfinding issues and units did enjoy clashing with one another, which made battle rather hectic, but the clunky controls and movement were among the things I loved most about the original.

Pros:

  • Nostalgia hit.
  • Excellent soundtrack scores.
  • Great improvements on the original.
  • Access to the classic game.

Cons:

  • A little clunky at times.

Is this game worth the asking price? Absolutely. You should definitely pick it up if you're a fan of the series. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition can be downloaded right now from the Microsoft Store for $19.99.

See at Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

This review was conducted with a copy (build 4994) provided by the publisher on a PC with an overclocked Intel Core i5-6600K, GTX 1070, and 16GB of RAM.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

11 Comments
  • Wololooo! Wolowolowolowolowolowolowolowolowololoooo!
  • Wasn't that age 2 or did it start in the original?
  • It's from the original.
  • Still waiting on tie fighter vr
  • It's great (talking about beta experience) but I wish that they had made a new engine for this game. They could use it for the upcoming AoE2 DE too. I like the graphics, the better UI, the zoom levels and the comfort functions. But the game runs pretty bad. You need a strong PC for running this game in all it's retro glory. A game like this should run just fine on iGPUs and U-CPUs. And the fact that you can't change the resolution (what makes sense considering the engine) makes this even worse. Running this on a office laptop with a high res screen is a bad experience.
  • So does this mean I will be disappointed playing it on a Surface Pro?  That's a real bummer if so, because as you said, these games should be able to be played on laptops with integrated graphics.   Rich, would you have a Surface Pro, or similar, you could test it on and let us know?
  • I have a SP4 i5 4GB which is my most powerful gaming PC right now. Yeah I know...
    I have to say that the game run better and better from beta version to beta version. But zooming out was a mess. I'll test it on release and post my results here.
    It is most likely playable but not really great. And my 4GB RAM could also be a bottleneck. Let's see.
  • I have the 8GB i5 Surface Pro (5), hoping it will work well enough on this.  I just cashed in a bunch of Microsoft Rewards points to buy it.
  • I'm hoping they release this for Xbox at some point. Don't care when, just that they do it. And get right. I don't game on PC anymore. Prefer the Xbox for my gaming. So please MS adapt it for console. Heck I'll play it with Mouse and keyboard of I have to. Just bring this glorious game to me. Hahaha. Cheers Phil.
  • You forgot the brilliant Age of Mythology (between II and III and their first real-time 3D game).
  • Such found memories of this game. It's a blast from the past. A simpeler Era, when the pc was at home an not in you're pocket, if you'd wanted to play multi player you had to put wires in your house (or between two houses as my uncle's did, living next door really payed off that day). Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, War Craft and Star Craft really defined the early Era of PC gaming with great RTS games. Oh boy, this feeling of nostalgia is overwhelming! Can we put this amazing feeling in bottle? So I can feel this happy all the time 😀