Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 04/07/2020 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Age of Empires is a game that always has had and always will have a special place in my heart. It was my first introduction to the real-time strategy genre, and it was my first non-shareware or freeware PC game. I first played the original Age of Empires back in elementary school – I think in the second grade – when my friend, Thomas, had it on his computer (probably a whim-of-the-moment purchase of his dad’s). I vividly remember playing it on his dad’s laptop on the counter in their kitchen sitting on barstools and being completely enthralled by the ability to build a city, raise an army, and destroy our enemies. That game set me on the path of RTS obsession that has lasted into the present day. Not that I’ve ever gotten any good at the games, but whatever, they’re fun.
Age of Empires II, a sequel that was far superior by pretty much every metric, was definitely more popular and went on to receive both an HD remaster with new content as well as a later UHD remaster with even more new content. When a UHD remaster of the original game was finally announced (sadly without any cool new expansion like AoE2 got), I was obviously ecstatic. I did, however, make myself wait until it went on sale in one of my VERY rare moments of good financial sense. After all, I downloaded the HD remaster of Age of Empires II on day one (in one of my VERY common moments of bad financial sense), so other than nostalgia, there was no pressing need to download the remaster of the original game. That sale finally came (at least the one I noticed) during this COVID-19 pandemic – 50% off on Steam, marked down to $10 from $20. Normally $5 and below is my threshold for buying digital games I probably don’t need, but whatever, I’ll bite at $10 for the sake of nostalgia.
So this Definitive Edition includes both the five campaigns from the original Age of Empires as well as the five campaigns from the Rise of Rome expansion pack. Visually, they didn’t rework the models for everything to the point where it looks like Starcraft II or Halo Wars, but the visuals definitely got a very nice overhaul, and there are three specific parts of the visuals that do deserve extra praise for looking especially outstanding – the water animations, the fire animations, and the destroy building models and animations. They really went above and beyond on those three things specifically, so much so that it almost looks out of place with the rest of the game just how good those look.
It’s been so long since I’ve played the almost-quarter-century old release, so I can’t be sure if the audio was actually good then, or if it’s nostalgia coloring my memory, but everything sounds as crisp in the remaster as I remember it sounding in the original. Your villagers still say the classic “Rogan?” when you select them, and the priests still chant the famous and heavily memed “Wololo!” when converting an enemy unit. Honestly, “Wololo” and my fond memories of that are half the reason I took the 20+ hours to replay all ten campaigns. Another thing gloriously retained from the original release are the cheat codes. It’s worth noting that the cheats do NOT disable achievements (although the achievements are all really easy to get without cheats except for the one that requires winning a ranked match online), but who cares about achievements – I can spawn babies riding tricycles with shotguns or stormtroopers with nuclear-armed rocket launchers at my Town Center! Also worth noting is that Microsoft has integrated Age of Empires’s achievements with the Xbox achievement system, so your achievements give you points for your Xbox Live Gamerscore.
The campaigns themselves have always been a bit of an annoyance for me in their pacing. They jump around chronologically. You’ll do a campaign taking place in the 300s CE and then the very next campaign is in the 200s BCE. As a history teacher, I know full well that you don’t always teach history in a strictly chronological order, but when all of your campaigns (in the second half, anyway) deal with the Roman Empire, I feel like chronology is a good thing to maintain there. At least the campaigns themselves are pretty fun, and they do a good job of talking about the events they’re depicting in the instruction section before you start each mission. I also need to give the devs a shout-out for using CE and BCE as opposed to the archaic and inherently sectarian AD and BC. For those who don’t know, AD is “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “In the year of the Lord,” and BC is “Before Christ.” Those are, for reasons that should be obvious, not fit for a secular academic context. Instead, academics use CE for Common Era and BCE for Before Common Era.
All things considered, Age of Empires Definitive Edition is an exemplar of what a remaster should be in my opinion. They don’t add much, but they don’t take away, either; they give you a game you remember fondly from childhood (or adolescence) but make it prettier and smoother to fit with modern standards. The scenario and campaign creators are kept fully intact, the campaigns are kept intact, and the cheats are kept functional. They’ve also increased the number of units you can select at one time and the number you can have assigned to a specific hotkey (up to 36 from an original of 8 or 16 if memory serves). It’s Age of Empires that you don’t need Windows 95 to run well, and it looks great on modern displays. What more could an old school RTS fan ask for?