Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Is a Virtually Perfect Remaster

As a long time fan of the franchise, I of course pre-ordered the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition as soon as the option became available. As launch date grew closer, I became increasingly excited, but I worried I was over-hyping myself. Could a game that old, even polished up with modern graphics, still be exciting in this day and age?

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

The answer is yes.

I remember now why I spent what feels like half my childhood playing this game. It’s hard to even point to any one specific thing that makes it special, but something about the way all the pieces of this game come together — economy, military, exploration — makes it fiendishly addictive.

I’m a bit jaded these days, and I don’t often find myself binging games the way I used to, but I’ve spent the last few days devoting almost every free moment to this game.

There are a few things that have lost their luster now that I see them through an adult’s more critical eye, but only a few. Mainly, I do somewhat resent this game’s dependence on siege weapons. They’re a hassle as an attacker because they’re so slow and clunky and fragile, and they’re a hassle as a defender because they can tear through your defenses so fast if you don’t counter them.

All that does make for interesting micro and counter-play on both sides, but I just wish it wasn’t such a huge part of the game. Castles are so strong that you have pretty much no hope of winning against them without siege engines, so there’s no escaping that gameplay. Every match just turns into baby-sitting your trebuchets while they slowly tear down the enemy base.

It’s not an unenjoyable way to play; there just needs to be more variety.

A mission briefing from the Malian campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Other than that, it’s a blast. The Definitive Edition does a beautiful job of updating the game with needed quality of life changes without harming the spirit of the original in any way.

And of course the graphics are massively improved. Considering the age of the engine, this game is downright gorgeous, and yet they’ve done a truly amazing job of being faithful to the original art. Everything looks the same, just better.

This is the gold standard for how to execute a video game remaster.

What makes this even more of a treat is how much new content there is. The Definitive Edition includes all of the expansions from the previous “HD” edition, plus more new content on top of that. The number of civilizations and campaigns has roughly doubled compared to when I played as a kid. It’s staggering, almost overwhelming.

I’ve completed four new campaigns so far, plus some standalone missions and skirmishes, and it’s all pretty high quality.

I also dipped into some of the older campaigns briefly just for comparison’s sake. Doing the first Joan of Arc mission was a massive nostalgia trip, let me tell you. I was a bit jarred at first because they’ve replaced all of the original voice acting for the campaigns, but except for Jean de Metz, the new actors are all as good or better than the originals, and since this isn’t the most story-driven game anyway I learned to accept it pretty fast.

A mission briefing from the Joan of Arc campaign in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Any other changes to the campaigns are minor, and entirely the sort of thing it makes sense to change. For example, Joan the Maid now has a unique character model, rather than looking like a standard female villager.

My one disappointment so far is the new Indian civilization. They’re a bit wonky. They’re mainly a camel and gunpowder civilization, but their unique unit is an elephant archer, which is neither, and they don’t get gunpowder units during their campaign. Okay?

On a related note, I guess my other disappointment with the new civilizations is that despite the proliferation of elephant units, there still isn’t really a civilization that can go for a pure elephant army the way you could in other AoE games. Closest is Khmer with their ballista elephants, but you still at the very least need some regular archers and siege weapons to back up their elephants. It’s baffling that they didn’t give battle elephants to the Indians; then they could have had a proper elephant-focused build.

On the other hand, my favourite of the new options so far is the Inca. They’re possibly a little over-powered, but very fun. With the ability to eschew archers entirely in favour of skirmishers and slingers plus one of the game’s more unique unique units (a pikeman whose spear is long enough that their attack has range), their playstyle feels very different and fresh.

I’ve also enjoyed the Malians and the Bulgarians. It’s downright disgusting how cost effective the Bulgarian unique unit can be. In general, Indians and a few other minor complaints notwithstanding, the new civilizations feel like a good addition to the game.

A Bulgarian city in the Age of Empires II Definitive Edition.

Undoubtedly soon I will begin to lose steam. As excellent as it is, this game surely cannot keep me this addicted forever.

But for now, I need to go finish the Bulgarian campaign.

Age of Empires: Definitive Edition Thoughts

This week saw the long-awaited release of the Age of Empires Definitive Edition, a full HD remaster of one of the greatest classics of the real-time strategy genre. Age of Empires was one of the defining games of my childhood, so of course I jumped in immediately.

A Hittite town in Age of Empires: Definitive EditionIt’s a solid remake. Graphically, it’s a huge improvement. It may not exactly look top of the line, but it does look pretty damn good.

Unlike Blizzard’s bitterly disappointing StarCraft remaster, AoE:DE also polishes the clunkier aspects of the old game, as well. Attack-move is now an option, as are unit queues and an idle villager button.

The enemy AI seems slightly improved, too, though it can be a bit wonky at times. For the most part, it’s surprisingly smart and challenging — I’ve even seen the computer stutter-step ranged units — but it does have some hiccups. Enemy units have a tendency to freeze and wait to die when confronted with a wall.

To be honest, I would have liked a few more tweaks. The ability to re-seed farms automatically would have been nice, and unit pathing still leaves much to be desired. Still, I recognize it’s a difficult balance to strike. You don’t want to change too much.

Beyond those small changes, this is Age of Empires. If you played in the 90s, you’ll still recognize this as the game you know and love. All the civilizations, every campaign mission, every unit, every song on the soundtrack… it’s all there, almost exactly as you remember it.

Even the wololo.

in Age of Empires: Definitive Edition

Oh, my beloved elephant archers. How I missed you.

That said…

I feel kind of bad saying anything negative about the Definitive Edition, because it’s pretty much everything that a video game remaster should be, but I must admit it hasn’t stoked my passion as much as I expected it to.

Maybe it’s that I’m having a busy period in my life right now and can’t focus on video games as well as usual, but I think maybe it’s just hard to get too excited about what is still fundamentally a twenty year old game I’ve already sunk dozens — if not hundreds — of hours into.

Well, if nothing else, I got a few hours of fun out of it, and I don’t regret buying it. If anything I’d recommend it, especially if you never played AoE back in the day. Quality RTS games really need to be supported these days.