Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and the Dangers of Nostalgia

By Marcello Perricone 20 Feb 2018 0

Remastering a classic can be a dangerous proposition. On one hand, you allow new and old generations to re-experience a fantastic product, but on the other, you risk devaluing the legacy that has been created. How can one update a game that captivated millions without endangering what made it special in the first place?

The answer is: you can’t. Games, unlike other forms of art such as movies and music, are especially vulnerable to the clutches of time; if the fundamental design can’t hold up years later, then it doesn't matter how pretty you make it look, it still won't feel right at a basic level.


When Age of Empires originally came out in 1997, it was a great real time strategy. While the mythical success of the franchise wouldn’t be achieved until the release of the revolutionary sequel, Age of Empires I was the origin and foundation of the RTS genre for years to come. Since then, real-time strategy and gaming as a whole has come a long way, and 20 years later we’re getting the remastered treatment that Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology already received.

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So how good is nostalgia, really? Microsoft did a fantastic job with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition. The game looks and feels exactly as I remember playing it 20 years prior, which in itself is a major accomplishment -- our memories always taint facts, creating remembrances that do not always align with the truth. In this case, the game feels now as it did then, indicating a respectable amount of graphic and technical work went on behind the scenes.

While small additions like a building queue are certainly welcome, the game is by and large the same Age of Empires we all remember -- which is both a good thing and a bad thing.Good, because every one of your nostalgia buttons are getting pushed… and bad; because nostalgia can only carry you so far.

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While Age of Empires was great in the 1990’s, the design hasn't aged well. The narration manages to be both horrible and annoying at the same time, the restrictive camera stops you from seeing much of the map, and the relative simplicity of the mission design and underlying mechanics hinge dangerously close to boring. This was understandable back then, but nowadays, it falls a bit short.

Compared to today’s standards, AoE struggles to hold its own. I’m sure fans of the original will be utterly ecstatic to be playing it again in full HD, but all the bells and whistles in the world don’t make up for a dated 20-year-old design. Truth is, nostalgia only goes so far -- when you compare a 1920’s Ford to today’s automobiles, it’s not going to end well no matter how great you thought that car was back in the day.

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That’s not to say Age of Empires: DE is in any way bad -- It is the origin of several tropes still in use today, and a lot of real time strategy titles are merely refined or expanded versions of what this franchise first did. Micromanagement, rush strategies, generalist units with counters -- these are all things made famous because of this iconic franchise.

I played all of them at the time of the release, and they certainly affected me as a person. More than anything, the logistics necessary to accurately distribute the workers between resources and tasks built into me a sense of efficiency and pragmatism that has never been surpassed. I became who I am in part because of this game.

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Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is, definitively, an exercise in nostalgia. Some of its mechanics -- like making the player micromanage resource gathering instead of just placing a building which overflows with the thing -- are paradoxically novel in today’s scene, but I am not sure they are enough to convert anyone not already in love with the legend. The game is just too bare and too simple to really make a dent on anyone that spent the last two decades immersed in what the strategy became post AoE.

Despite all this, Age of Empires is a fantastic franchise that deserves every ounce of respect it gets. The team at Microsoft wonderfully remastered this 20-year-old title, and therefore allowed generations past and present to enjoy one of the cornerstones of modern RTS. While I’m not convinced this remaster needed to exist, if you’re part of the group who’s happy to play it again or one of those who’s just now experiencing the original, rest assured you are getting the best possible version of an iconic title.

Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is available now via the Microsoft Store for £14.99/$19.99.



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