Remasters have become a good way for a publisher to make a fast buck. Take an old game, do the bare minimum of work necessary to get it working on modern hardware, throw in some old expansions and away you go. Back in 2013, Microsoft did that with Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, releasing a "HD Edition" which was serviceable but no more. Unhappy with the remake, Forgotten Empires Studios got permission from Microsoft to continue developing new content for the game in the form of new expansions and updates. Three expansions later, Microsoft gave Forgotten Empires the green light to undertake a much more comprehensive remake of the original game.
The result is Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, one of the most comprehensive and impressive remakes of a video game ever released. The game fully retains the original look and feel, but the graphics have been sharpened up to a hugely impressive degree. An intuitive UI has been implemented, allowing for villagers to re-seed farms automatically (rather than waiting for you to tell them to do it) and for units to undertake queued-up tasks. AI has been sharpened up, with a more impressive, reactive enemy on campaigns and in skirmish games.
At the core, though, the game is the same as before. Like the original Age of Empires, the sequel takes you through a period of history, this time starting after the fall of Rome and extending to the Renaissance. In this thousand-year period, you take control of a civilisation and guide it to victory. This can be done in skirmish, multiplayer or various story-driven campaigns. Those used to the intricate storytelling and even characterisation of RTS campaigns in games like StarCraft II or Homeworld will find these campaigns to be somewhat stand-offish, with less focus on hero units and more of a focus on how to achieve objectives corresponding to historical events. However, there is a linking narrator between each mission of each campaign, which adds some nice historical flavour.
On each map you start with a Town Centre and can build villagers, who are your basic resource-gathering units. Resources are divided between four types: food, wood, gold and stone. As with the original game, a nice twist is that resources can be gained from multiple sources: for food you can send villagers hunting, you can search the map for herd animals to send back to base for slaughter, you can find berry bushes, you can build farms or you can send out fishing boats. Gold can be found in mines or gained by trading with an allied power. However, an immediate, monumental improvement over the original game is that you can now build a Market which can exchange one type of resource for another. Relying too much on this can be problematic (a resource's value drops the more you sell it, and another's increases the more you buy it), but it immediately solves the problem of losing a battle because you've run out of resources, which was frustrating in the original game.
The other big chance from Age of Empires is the addition of formations. Your military units will now automatically organise themselves in blocks with heavy infantry in front, archers behind and cavalry at the rear (ready to sweep out and flank the enemy). This a vast improvement on the original game, where units just hurled themselves into battle randomly in a disorganised fashion. It's still a long way from Total War - and units have an odd tendency to drop out of formation the second combat starts - but it's a big improvement for the franchise.
The gameplay loop of a slow buildup followed by huge amounts of carnage is extremely compelling, and arguably better-handled then any other game of its type. A lot of this is down to the robust way the game has of handling defence, allowing you build fortified walls to seal off areas of the map, forcing enemies into chokepoints and otherwise controlling the battlefield. Constructing the perfect defensive fortification with guard towers, cannon emplacements, fortresses and defensive artillery positioned just right is an unmatched pleasure. With the more comprehensive new UI (allowing you to queue villager construction phases) and better AI, meaning both enemy and allied players are less likely to get stuck on scenery or take weird routes to their destinations, the game's controls are now smooth and easy to parse, and it is almost gleefully fun to watch your cities and defensive redoubts take shape before your eyes. And, of course, immensely frustrating if the enemy AI or a rival player gets the upper hand and burns your achievements to the ground.
Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition may also redefine the meaning of the phrase "generous content." The package contains:
- All of the campaigns in the original Age of Empires II: Age of Kings release from 1999, including five campaigns totalling 31 missions. Between singleplayer and multiplayer, thirteen distinct civilisations are available to play.
- All of the campaigns in the original Age of Empires II: The Conquerors expansion, including three campaigns totalling 18 missions. Five new civilisations are added.
- All of the campaigns in the expansions to Age of Empires II: HD Edition. These total three expansions (The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms and Rise of the Rajas) containing thirteen campaigns and 66 (!) missions. Thirteen new civilisations are added.
- Definitive Edition also contains its own expansion, The Last Khans, and a new campaign for the Forgotten expansion. The new material constitutes four campaigns and 21 missions, as well as adding four new civilisations.
- The game also has a "Historical Battles" campaign with one-off missions from a variety of campaigns. There are 16 missions in this mode, including some for civilisations which don't have a full campaign.
- For those keeping score, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition thus ships with 27 campaigns totalling 152 missions, and 35 civilisations.
- However! Since release, the creators have released two new expansions: Lords of the West and Dawn of the Dukes. These expansions have added a further six campaigns, 33 missions and four new civilisations. So with the expansions, the game now totals 33 campaigns, 185 missions and 39 civilisations.
For this review I decided to complete every single-player campaign mission in the game, which took a massive 231 hours. I also sampled the multiplayer and skirmish modes, and some of the co-op campaign features. Let there be no doubt that Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition offers more bang for your buck then any other real-time strategy game ever released. It's a monumental package that will keep you playing for months.
It's hard to really think of any negatives here. Most maps have several times as much gold than stone, which feels strange and probably a result of balance issues, where building a line of castles bristling with archers right into the enemy base was a viable tactic in the original release. The many newer maps having less stone makes this less viable and increasing the production cost of castles would have been a controversial alternative choice, but it still seems odd. There's also the old problem of the "aggro areas" around units feeling not particularly generous, sometimes leaving units being slaughtered whilst the rest of your huge army stands idly by a few feet away, not getting involved. Improve AI has made that less of an issue than it was in the original game, though.
Those extremely minor niggles aside, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition (*****) now stands as a towering achievement for the traditional real-time strategy game. It's well-judged quality of life improvements elevate it past the mildly disappointing StarCraft Remastered of four years ago to become the definitive 2D RTS game. It is available now on PC via Steam and PC GamePass.