Nostalgia is a funny old thing. It can be comforting and autobiographical in a way, as it takes you back to a time or place that’s long forgotten, wrapping you up in the sights and sounds of your past. For me, playing Age of Empires Definitive Edition is perhaps the epitome of that feeling. Twenty years ago I sat for hours in the kitchen of my Mum’s house at this giant beech desk my sister had bought, staring at the 21” monitor of our thoroughly underwhelming PC, building mud huts and marketplaces on the way to conquering whatever nation’s outpost happened to be nearby. It’s the woodcutting that I remember most, though.
Left click on a villager to select them, and even though a batch of icons for the things this villager can build appears in the bottom left of the screen, in most instances you’ll be right clicking on the nearest tree to set them to work. If it’s not trees it’s berry bushes, or a nearby deer, but that’s how it always starts. Building your civilisation will take time, but it’s all based upon the resources you’ve collected – and later constructed – and you’ll live or die on whether or not your food, wood, stone or gold stores are robust enough.
It’s hard not to think about Age of Empires as being “My First RTS”, and that’s partly because, alongside Settlers, it was my first experience of the genre. To a certain extent it feels so intuitive, but whether that’s muscle memory or sheer clear-minded development I couldn’t say. On the other hand it’s obvious that this, alongside the Civilization series of this world, became a blueprint that so many other developers have built upon, and you’ll find yourself rushing about the map with ease.
The visual upgrade might not feel particularly spectacular at first, but put side by side with the original and the difference between the two is remarkable. While everything looks how you remember it, nostalgia is undoubtedly getting the better of you, and what we’ve got now is crisp and clear at high resolutions. It’s hardly going to wow anyone, especially if you were reared on more modern offerings, but it does the job, allowing you to focus on the dawn of whichever civilisation you’ve opted for. In a nice touch, you can opt to play with the original visuals, but besides the initial thrill of seeing it as it was I can’t imagine too many reasons to roll the upgrade back.
The Rippy Brother’s soundtrack has also had the remastering treatment and the melodies and tones of the original have never sounded better. Age of Empires has to have one of the best soundtracks of its era, never mind the genre, and it’s fantastic to return to it twenty years later, albeit with the advantage of being played through a pair of Astro A50s instead of the set from my Sony Walkman.
All of the content from the original and its subsequent expansion have been included, meaning that you can take part in a number of different campaigns, whether leading the Greeks from the Bronze Age through to the Hellenic era or charting the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. There’s hours and hours of content here, and that’s before you dip your toe into custom games and the sixteen races therein. The mechanical differences between raising a Persian or Macedonian army might be minimal, particularly at the outset, but each civilisation has special bonuses and different technologies to keep you coming back for more.
Multiplayer also returns and allows for up to four combatants to attempt rise up against the others. Prior to release there weren’t any signs of lag or connection problems, and you can have lots of fun with the text to speech option while you communicate with your friends/enemies.
For all of the modernity that’s been brought to the visuals and sounds though, there are still some creaky underpinnings that can frustrate rather than delight. The key one is AI pathfinding, a problem that’s largely been dealt with in the last couple of decades but remains here for posterity. When your villager walks the long way around it’s annoying, but when your warriors can’t get out of each other’s way it can be downright diabolical. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have been dealt with in some way, but at least once you’re aware of it you can try to find solutions. This generally means you have to lead them by the hand.
There’s clearly been plenty of love and attention given to the remastering of Age of Empires Definitive Edition, even if some of the less enjoyable elements of the original have also made it through the process unscathed. Twenty years later it still remains a hugely enjoyable RTS, and particularly thanks to its iconic soundtrack remains a joy to play, with hours disappearing as the eras pass you by.