Age of Empires has been a staple of the real-time strategy genre for many years, and one might even say it brought it to the mainstream. First launched in 1997, the title garnered critical acclaim, making it an instant success. It featured several civilizations from across the planet, including the ancient Egyptians and the Persian empire, which later fell to the Romans. For its time, it was one of the better-looking titles on PC featuring highly detailed sprites; however, as time passed as it did for the long-extinct empires it featured - it clearly was time for a refresh.
At E3 2017, Microsoft announced that it was working on a remaster of the original game. To make matters even more exciting, remasters for Age of Empires 2 - personally my favorite - and Age of Empires 3 were in the works as well. I was lucky enough to have played this game several times during the beta and enjoyed it, even more so when the final code was released. Though the game hasn't changed much since its original release, seeing the updated graphics brings the game to life, in a world where power and visual fidelity is the name of the game.
Sticking to your roots
On the point of the remaster, I asked Adam Isgreen - Creative Director at Microsoft Studios - why the team felt it was the most opportune time to take on such a project. It's clear that in the last few years there has been a dry spell relating to AAA RTS titles. Civilization VI comes to mind, but that isn't even in the same genre:
Age of Empires games are played a lot – I mean a lot – every day by people around the world. We haven’t touched the original Age of Empires, which, until the recent launch of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, was completely unavailable through legal means unless you can track down the CD-ROMs. We felt the time was right to bring the original up to snuff for modern audiences.
When you fire up Age of Empires: Definitive Edition you're met with several new additions. First off, the game includes the Rise of Rome expansion - which adds civilizations like Rome and Carthage - but not only this, it comes with a Classic Mode when setting up a game. To me, this was quite fun going back to the good old days, when I would fire up our Celeron desktop PC with a mere 24MB of RAM. For those of us who wondered, no, the game won't run on hardware that old even in Classic Mode.
Isgreen commented on this feature:
We included this mode because it was important to acknowledge the game’s roots when updating it for Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, so that we didn’t lose sight of what we came from.
Graphically the game has been reworked from the ground up as far as I noticed, and is gorgeous. Everything from the terrain and the ocean feature textures and environments that seem more 'alive'. The ocean has tides that constantly batter the shore, with fish that look appetizing instead of strange ghostly shapes swimming in circles.
Talking about changes - of which there are many - the remastered version of Age of Empires include several additions that only appeared in games followed by the original. If you have ever played the original games, the nightmare of managing your hoard of peasants was made even worse by the constant fear of an all-too-powerful foe conquering you at any minute. Luckily in the game, the 'Idle villager' button - which first appeared in Age of Empires 2 - is included. This helped me a lot during gameplay and ensured that I didn't have someone hiding in the bushes trying to evade the duty of building a wonder.
Something that was introduced in Age of Empires III made its way to this remaster as well; during combat, buildings would crumble and implode as your army descent upon them. This, in my opinion, made combat so much more gratifying.
Beyond that, farms are radically improved. In the past, a farm would expire and you would need to completely rebuild it. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition borrows from the original's successor by giving you the ability to build multiple farms, and when they expire you can right-click on them to rebuild. Granted, it's not as useful as the update that allowed farmers to automatically rebuild, which was introduced in the sequel's Conquerors expansion.
I asked Isgreen about this, and he pointed out that it was quite a juggle to ensure the game remains true to the original vision:
Every change to gameplay we discussed internally with the Forgotten Empires team, and with our design council of dedicated players. These two groups (along with build queuing) were ones that we unanimously agreed were simply better to have than not, as they removed a level of micromanagement from those activities that could be tedious.
Single player games dying?
When I played the beta - and later the final game -, the multiplayer continually struck me as one of those places only the brave go. As I tried and failed continuously - this was evident during my time with its two successors as well -, I kept going up against people who were insanely good at this game. Joining a lobby just for 'noobs' didn't help either since there would always be that one person who would rush everyone. Beyond that, when you were in a game that was remotely fair, the game would freeze ever so often. I later noticed that this would happen when a single person joined with a bad connection, and strangely enough, long after they left the game.
With Microsoft pushing games toward a multiplayer future - see Sea of Thieves, Crackdown, and State of Decay - I found this rather frustrating. I pointed this out to Isgreen, and he noted that thanks to the game connecting to Xbox Live now, the telemetry data would help the team over at Microsoft Studios figure out how to circumvent these issues. However, he didn't much agree that the multiplayer was too difficult for beginners:
I don’t know if I agree that it’s difficult for beginners – that all depends on your opponents and their skill levels. That said, yes this is something we’re very aware of. I’d suggest new multiplayer gamers get into the game via “comp stomps,” where you and friends take on the AI to reduce the sting of losing and make it more of a team game. Ranking systems can help a lot here when used in conjunction with matching. For Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, since players can make their own lobbies, it’s rather easy to set one up to be more of a social/beginner experience than one that’s looking for high APM right off the bat.
With that said, I did notice the game's AI has been improved significantly over the original. When I first played the game back in 1998 - I could only afford the demo at that time - I would play on the 'Hard' setting. However, after firing up the Definitive Edition, and starting off with the modest 'Standard' difficulty setting, I was promptly swamped by my enemies.
Isgreen agreed that I might be a bit rusty, but explained how the game's AI was improved to match the gameplay styles of modern gamers:
The original Age of Empires logic in how the AI makes decisions is woven into the pathfinding code, so as we made that faster, it made the AI’s decisions fast as well.
This change was brought on by one of the biggest concerns among die-hard fans, during the beta:
Pathfinding is always a big concern and will continue to be even after release. That was a major one, which is why we took more time to improve it even further. Beyond that, we had a lot of requests for an in-game tech tree, which we added during the extension, so that you didn’t have to go outside the game to know what civilization had what units and bonuses.
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition launched on Windows 10 this month, leaving die-hard fans of the series that stick to the gaming platform from Valve wanting. On the question of a possible Steam port, Isgreen noted:
We’ve chosen to release Age of Empires: Definitive Edition in the Windows Store and we’re excited about what that entails, including tons of Xbox Live goodness (Achievements, cloud saves, multiplayer on the fastest, more reliable gaming network and more). We wanted to welcome new players on Windows 10 with a great experience in this and future Definitive Editions.
We’re not leaving Age of Empires fans on Steam behind – we plan to release new content and features – like cross-network play – to let Steam players come along on the Age of Empires journey with us.
History in the making
Talking about new content; Age of Empires has always been a series that would teach kids something interesting about history. I fondly remember a meme - back when they weren't called memes - when a guy said that the only reason he knew what Regicide meant was due to him playing Age of Empires 2. Although not as thorough as titles like Europa Universalis, or Crusader Kings that aim to make sure that every detail in the game is historically accurate, Microsoft continually pushed to bring something fresh to the table.
The most recent of these updates were the African Kingdoms Expansion for Age of Empires 2. I asked if the studio would continue this tradition in future games by adding content that reveal interesting aspects about things people know very little about, namely Africa and its ancient Kingdoms:
I’m very much a believer in educating in games, be it subject matter if possible, but certainly in how to play and why something is good or bad to do. We’re a history-based RTS game, so you can trust that you’ll be educated as you play, hopefully without feeling like it’s forced on you – both for play strategies and in the context of the scenarios/campaigns.
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition really is a marvel representing what can be done when a team sets their mind to it. It really re-captured my imagination, bringing me back to the good old days of LAN parties, huddling around a single display with friends, and arguing profusely over every single choice I made. Or playing for hours on end until every commodity on the map have been depleted, as every one of us battle it out to prove who was truly the greatest.
However, the game isn't without its faults. I have picked up on a number of bugs. First off, the sound would distort in some cases - in particular, the voice-over of the narrator in the campaign menu - which sometimes affects gameplay afterward. Even though the sound design has been overhauled, with the new background music and effects - yes, the Priest and his iconic wololo sound were made even better - adding to the ambiance, the constant issues I had in the final game with the voice-overs left me having to turn off most of the audio.
Some campaigns suffer from several bugs as well, with scrolling being completely disabled, forcing you to physically click on the minimap. Another issue that I faced continuously with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is the fact that the game would run in the background when you want to start it. Nothing would happen on-screen, and the only way to fix this is to open Task Manager and force close the app - which would then spontaneously start the game right afterward.
However, if you're willing to put up with a bunch of niggling bugs, and you're a fan of the series, I would wholeheartedly recommend picking up this game.
Mobile first, Cloud First
With that said, with the world ever moving towards mobile - and console - gaming, I did ask if Microsoft would ever consider launching the Definitive Edition on a console, or optimizing it for touch displays. Over the past year, we've seen so-called 'traditional PC games' from the likes of Cities: Skylines, to Civilization VI launching on console and mobile platforms; however, Isgreen noted that Age of Empires was a PC RTS, and that is its focus. So if you were hoping to play the game on a Surface tablet - or commanding your army on the Surface Studio - anytime soon, you're better off buying a mouse for now.
For those of us waiting patiently in the wings for Age of Empires IV, Isgreen remained extremely cryptic, only commenting that the studio is "... committed to the future of the Age franchise with Age of Empires IV", with no further details being shared at this time.
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is available on Windows 10 and includes the Rise of Rome expansion, and remastered 4K graphics. As mentioned, it includes several enhancements to gameplay, including support for Xbox Live, and achievements.
Neowin received a review copy of the game from Microsoft Studios for the purposes of this review. The PC it was played on runs the following hardware: AMD FX-8320 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a R9-270X AMD Radeon Graphics card.