Microsoft resurrects one of the classic RTS games of yesteryear, but will it still be of interest to modern gamers?
Clearly the video games industry has designated this as remake and remaster season. In recent weeks we’ve had everything from Shadow Of The Colossus to Secret Of Mana, with seemingly any game from any era poised for a second chance. Age Of Empires is certainly one of the more unexpected blasts from the past though, even if its main reason for existing is to promote the upcoming Age Of Empires IV. But because there are so few real-time strategy games around nowadays it still feels like an important release.
The original Age Of Empires was first released at the tail end of 1997, a few years after the release of Command & Conquer and Warcraft and right in the middle of the late nineties fad for real-time strategies. As hard as it may be to imagine, at that time every publisher under the sun was rushing to make their own strategy game, as the RTS became the hottest new franchise on the PC. But too many games were released in too short a time, and with so few of them showing any real innovation the genre burn itself out within just a few years.
Age Of Empires did last longer than most though, and to this day is still remembered as one of the best, especially in terms of those games that took their setting a bit more seriously. At the time it was described as a mix of Civilization and Warcraft, and you get the impression that’s exactly what the developers (the now defunct Ensemble Studios) were aiming for.
In Age Of Empires you can choose to play as 17 different civilisations, but unlike Civilization you’re only trying to get them as far as the Iron Age, passing the Stone Age, Tool Age, and Bronze Age as you go. You can try and play a defensive, technology-based game if you want but sooner or later an invading army will come knocking at your door and that’s when the game goes full real-time strategy.
The computer armies are never interested in diplomacy or trade, and so despite all the attempts at historical realism you still end up playing the game in a similar manner to Warcraft et al., as you use civilians to build infrastructure like farms and workshops and then create an army to defend them. (In one of the few concessions to modernity you can now queue production, unlike in the original.)
The original Age Of Empires was an isometric sprite-based game with not a polygon in sight, which makes it a very difficult kind of a game to create a traditional remaster of. You can still play with the original graphics if you want, but the new ones have much better animation and some quite impressive water and visual effects. Although to a new player they’ll still seem quite old-fashioned.
But rather than the visuals, the main problem with this remaster is it does very little to improve the artificial intelligence, which was always frustratingly dim even 20-odd years ago. Despite claims that the pathfinding has been improved units still continually get lost and confused and you constantly have to nanny them along the way. That was annoying even back in 1997 and it’s absolutely infuriating now.
Age Of Empires is basically Micromanagement: The Game, and while the remaster boasts of allowing even more units on screen at once that’s actually a negative once you realise that’s even more brain-dead soldiers you’ve got to constantly keep telling which way to go. But even if they do work it out on themselves the computer artificial intelligence is so basic you never feel you’re really fighting a fair or interesting challenge. For a strategy game there’s really very little tactics involved other than rushing your opponent and hoping for the best.
The obvious answer to this is to play against a fellow human, with up to eight-player online battles available. That’s definitely the best way to enjoy the game, although some of the historical challenges – which give you smaller scenarios to deal with and more limited resources – are also undeniably fun.
There’s really nothing wrong with this game in terms of it being a remaster, as to change any more of it would be to make the base game almost unrecognisable. The real problem is that it’s Age Of Empires II that’s remembered as the best in the series, and that’s still available on Steam for the same price. It quickly made the original irrelevant back in the day and there’s still little reason to go back to it now.
If its purpose was simply to raise awareness of Age Of Empires IV then it’s done its job, but otherwise this ancient relic belongs in a museum and not on your hard drive.
Age Of Empires: Definitive Edition
In Short: A well-crafted remaster but this ancient real-time strategy has little to offer modern gamers, especially when the sequel is already readily available.
Pros: The graphics have been updated very nicely and there are a few modern concessions, such as production queues.
Cons: The original game was always quite simplistic, and immediately overshadowed by its sequel. The AI and pathfinding are still terrible and the combat very basic.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Forgotten Empires and Ensemble Studios
Release Date: 20th February 2018
Age Rating: 12