Age of Empires: Definitive Edition satisfied my nostalgia without forcing me to deal with outdated mechanics.
I like to judge a game based on what the developer set out to do. In this case, Forgotten Empires set out to bring the original Age of Empires back to life in its full glory, minus the clunky bits we forgot about. And they did just that.
Nostalgia Ain’t All it’s Cracked Up to be
Nostalgia is a tricky beast. Sitting down to play an old classic can quickly turn sour as the player recalls just how terrible game cameras were a couple decades ago, or how clunky the control setups were. Which is one of the many reasons why developers take their time when updating a game for a new generation.
In the case of Age of Empires, there were many missing features that we have come to take for granted in modern RTS games. Things such as rally points for new units, automatically gathering resources after building a storage facility, or toggling through idle villagers. In fact, back in the day, I remember playing AoE after spending a summer on AoE II, and even then the plethora of missing features drove me nuts. Imagine how maddening the differences are after 20 years!
But if you like to keep your nuts in your fruitcake, have no fear. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition allows players to play in the “Classic Mode” which keeps all the new features out. I ran my first custom game in Classic Mode to tickle the nostalgia bone and remind myself just how silly the old days were. Despite the missing updates, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip down memory lane.
Now, that’s not to say that the Classic Mode is entirely untouched from the old days. Some of the new features, such as the rally points, are still present but disabled. (You can set a rally point, but villagers won’t walk to it.) Not to mention, the UI maintains it’s updated layout, but it still feels natural in both classic and HD gameplay. So it’s not an exact replica of the original Age of Empires, but it’s close enough the trigger all the necessary nostalgia buttons.
And that’s exactly why I bought it.
Screenshots from the original Age of Empires vs. the AoE:DE Classic Mode
The HD Remaster Doesn’t Seem Like Much- Unless You Spent Time in Classic Mode
I’ll be honest, when I first saw the screenshots from the new Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, I was underwhelmed. It looked just like Age of Empires II graphics. Which wasn’t a bad thing, I loved Age of Empires II. But I couldn’t get behind the hype for the new graphics.
But, as I said, when I first fired up Age of Empires: Definitive Edition I played around in Classic Mode. In my next playthrough, the Definitive Edition playthrough, I was blown away. Every tree my villagers uncovered, every new stone quarry I discovered, left me staring. Everything was meticulously detailed and beautiful to my Classic Mode eyes. It was great!
Then my husband sat down and said, “Eh, the graphics don’t look special.” I couldn’t argue. As I said, that had been my first impression as well. But- but- they were so much better than the old graphics!
It was kind of like getting a new gaming PC and trying to explain to your console friends how much better the graphics are. Some will fall in love, some just won’t see the magic.
The updated mechanics were a pleasure as well. Being able to set rally points and refresh farms with a click was refreshing after playing a game without those quality of life features. Of course, some features are still missing, such as gates and the ability to set your military units on a patrol route. But I didn’t care, I was having fun.
(Okay, I did care a little about the lack of gates. I had to get crafty with my defense strategies.)
It’s Not Perfect
Here’s the part where I tell you what’s wrong with the game.
Taking a peek at the comments below the “Welcome Back” post on the Age of Empires website, it is clear that many people had technical difficulties. Some players couldn’t even open the game. To be fair, the comment section doesn’t have an upvote mechanic, so it’s hard to say if most players had this problem, or if the players with technical difficulties were simply more vocal. I have a hard time trusting any forum without an upvote mechanic since most players don’t bother to write a comment, and upvoting is a handy way to gauge how much weight there is behind a particular issue. Either way, I experienced none of these issues, so I can’t speak much on the matter.
That being said, the menu was a clunky 90’s throwback, complete with keyboard prompts that confused the heck out of some users. For example, hitting, “Enter” on the opening “Message of the Day” screen brought players to the AoE website, instead of skipping to the home screen as players expected. The prompts below the message tell the user to hit “Y” to close out, but it’s easy to miss when you’re on autopilot.
And as I mentioned above, while Age of Empires: Definitive Edition did make many strides towards modernizing, it still missed many features players have become accustomed to, such as gates and patrolling units.
Of course, some things were flat out changed. Originally, I noticed these things as subtle breaks in my muscle memory. I would build a granary and set some villagers to hunting, only to watch the villagers carry the meat across town to a storage unit. I would click on a storage pit and notice that all my blacksmith upgrades were there. Huh?
I wrote these moments off as odd differences between AoE I and AoE II, or perhaps I had misremembered the flow of the game. As someone who started playing AoE II before going backward to AoE I then jumping forwards to Age of Mythology, it was common for me to run into weird differences with these games. But it turns out, these double takes weren’t part of my imagination or game hopping.
The Forgotten Empires team had changed things, and quite a bit too. Even the names of the ages were different. Some changes didn’t make much sense, such as the blacksmith upgrades sitting in the storage pits, but I appreciated that I no longer needed to spend precious wood on a blacksmithing building. You can see the full list of changes here.
Taking these flaws into account, they didn’t negatively impact my experience one bit. Like I said, I didn’t have any technical difficulties, so that didn’t bother me, and the old school menu made me nostalgic, so I was happy to have it. As far as “modernizing” AoE, I think they did enough to make the game playable, but not so much as to change the game entirely. Despite the odd changes they made here and there, I was still able to settle into my usual routine and play the game the way I did years ago.
Age of Empires: Definitive Edition felt like the game I remembered. The same difficulty spikes, the same units, the same (remastered) music. It’s everything I had hoped it would be.
When the Forgotten Empires team announced the delayed release date, it was clear they were struggling to decide how much of the game needed to be updated, versus how much should stay the same. This was clear in the Classic Mode that retained some updated features, the Definitive Edition mode that still lacked some modern functionality, and the list of game design changes that subtly altered the flow of the game for a better PvP experience. But at the end of the day, I think they struck a good balance between the old and new. I walked away with the exact experience I was looking for: all the nostalgia feels with none of the nostalgia frustrations.
Disclaimer: I never played PvP or the campaign modes as a kid. I ran through Custom Games hundreds of times over, tweaking things here and there for a more dynamic experience. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition delivered everything I wanted. I didn’t want a robust PvP experience or a bigger campaign, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you are a PvP or campaign player.
If you would like to read the original Age of Empires: Definitive Edition Announcement, check out this page.
If you would like a peek at how modern RTS game Aven Colony matches up to Age of Empires, go here.