Preview — Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is a great project in a precarious position

Gameplay quirks, visual design choices, quality-of-life tweaks. These are aspects improved through time and iteration, yet often forgotten when reminiscing about the past. It was a worry I harbored while entering the Age of Empires: Definitive Edition beta, one strengthened by the fact that my best memories of the series came from the third entry, eight years after the 1997 original. Could this remaster live up in the modern age of streamlined RTS, or was this a love letter addressed solely to the most fervent of fans?

Age of Empires could be described as “Civilization meets RTS.” Your goal is to turn your fledgling group into a stronghold of the Iron Age, juggling resource acquisition and border expansion with a healthy mix of civilian and military units. Unfortunately, the closed beta didn’t feature any of the objective-based campaigns, so I was stuck with the online multiplayer. Either way, it’s less about emulating history and building empires than it is about warfare, so it does lean closer to Command & Conquer and Warcraft.

Yet the Civilization comparison isn’t just surface-deep. While the backbone of your civilian workforce are villagers who mine, hunt, build, and gather, their efforts are supplemented by fishing and trading boats that bolster your coffers. The buildings you access are locked behind Ages, with the penultimate of these being the Wonder — a laborious structure that, if left standing, would secure victory. And while the need for resources drive expansion, the resource type determines where that ends up being. Unlike most RTS, the maps here are randomly generated.

One of the top agendas for any remaster are the visuals. Age of Empires doesn’t look too shabby but it’s obvious that it came from the ‘90s. The Definitive Edition makes for a sharper and detailed look, best seen in the tiled structures, trees, and units such as cavalry. Ground textures look a little more pleasant too, and so does the water. Lean closer and you’ll see that the unit animations aren’t as polished, but that’s likely to keep movement and general pathfinding faithful to the original. The same can be said for the new art in general; it’s distinctly Age of Empires, yet easy to tell that the game is a remaster.

The developers said they’ve improved pathfinding, but I haven’t been able to pinpoint where. It plays very much like a classic RTS, in that you’ll have to micromanage your units regularly rather than making sweeping orders to groups. You do not want to send a unit out without some amount of supervision, lest they get trapped or attacked, and the same can be said for villagers working in your cities. While older strategy fans can work back into old rhythms, newer players may find themselves struggling a little. I imagine the transition would be easier via the campaigns, though I am curious to see what tutorial elements it’ll have.

My thoughts are far more mixed when it comes to the user interface. The multiplayer lobby is purely utilitarian in its design and is frankly the biggest tell on just how old this game is. I was honestly disappointed, though the dated look wound up being an omen. In-game, the menus have been reworked to better reflect modern styles, replacing the single huge block at the bottom with separate windows for commands and unit information. Text is a little odd, however, with color choices or stylings that make things a little less legible, especially in the menus and statistics screens.

Finding a full multiplayer session proved difficult. There weren’t as many multiplayer rooms as you’d expect for an upcoming release, especially when it was a beta close to launch. The fact that the Definitive Edition is only available through the Windows Store for Windows 10 fuels concerns over long-term community health, and it was here that I got the sense that Microsoft was only marketing towards veterans. The company has been consistently attempting to bring gamers over to their ecosystem, but I fear Age of Empires may not have enough pull and general excitement for new players to go the extra mile.

With latency all over the place and dropped connections happening one too many times, I stopped being selective and dived into whatever room was open. Once loaded up, things ran smoothly for the first ten minutes or so before the dreaded pauses popped up. These range from short skips to long freezes. The game’s basically trying to synchronize all the players so nobody gets too far ahead or behind, but this was a network issue I haven’t seen in a strategy game in, well, ages. To be fair, maybe this would occur far less often once more players with compatible connections are available, but when you consider the previous point above, it’s hard not to be worried. Developers Forgotten Empires are aware of the problem so I’m eager to see what features get patched in for launch.

Beyond that, the gameplay I saw was undoubtedly fun and engrossing, if a little frustrating at times. The players with me were content to build in relative peace so there were only small skirmishes and no full-on base attacks (possibly due to fear of making the latency worst). Even so, that brief 2v2 session pointed to an RTS experience one does not get outside of the franchise.

Age of Empires: Definitive Edition seems to be a great project stuck in a precarious position. The updated visual and musical presentation is certainly worth the revisit, and stepping back in history, in terms of human civilization and the games industry, is always a fun trip. It retains a few mechanical hangovers that is both nostalgic and trying, but it’ll take the full game for me to see which of the two ends up dominating. While I’m keeping my hopes up for the campaigns and single-player experience, the poor netcode and store exclusivity have unfortunately sown their seeds of doubt.

Look out for our full review to see how it all turns out. Age of Empires: Definitive Edition releases on 20 February for Windows 10 PCs, priced at S$20.25 on the Windows Store.

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Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.