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?
Remastering a classic
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- Nostalgia hit.
- Excellent soundtrack scores.
- Great improvements on the original.
- Access to the classic game.
- 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.
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 was formerly a 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 on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.