Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and we're not the only ones who, from time to time, get swept up in the notion of "the good ol' days". Experience has taught us that we're nearly always looking back at the past with rose-tinted goggles, but that didn't stop us from picking up the 2013 edition of Age of Empires II, nor has it stopped us from being enthused about Forgotten Empires' attempts to restore Ensemble Studios' historical RTS to its former glory.
First of all, the Definitive Edition is a marked improvement over the 2013 HD re-release. That version of the game looks fairly rough by modern standards, although it is supported by a huge selection of player-generated content. That content is obviously missing from the Definitive Edition, although Forgotten Empires has tried to make up the shortfall by cramming in a dizzying array of things to do (including editing tools - bring on the community-made content), and there are literally hundreds of hours of strategising awaiting players.
For starters, there's the standard sandbox mode where you can either tackle AI-controlled factions or head online for more cerebral competition. Each civilisation starts with limited units and resources and then expands and evolves, moving through the ages to research new and potentially game-changing technology. There's a lot going on, and that starts when clicking through the menu to reveal an extraordinary range of options, from maps based on real-world locations through to options that let you tweak the kind of challenge you're after.
Age of Empires II has been well-supported over the years, and Forgotten Empires has collected this content together to create an edition of the game that is truly "definitive". On top of the campaigns that were included at launch, the studio has also bundled in missions from subsequent DLC drops, as well as some new ones. Whether you want to wage war in Africa, Central America, Europe, or Asia, there are scenarios to suit all tastes and moods.
These missions stray away from the more standard base building found in the sandbox mode, and instead of the old formula of building and upgrading your economy while attempting to dominate your rivals, you're instead tasked with completing more subtle objectives, such as recruiting new followers to your army while keeping key characters alive. Even the tutorial is themed around historical events (in that instance you're battling the English with Willam Wallace), which is a nice way of bringing new players into the fold. There's even an advanced tutorial of sorts, based around the teachings of Sun Tzu.
Each mission is preceded by a fully-voiced introduction that sets the scene and gives you your objectives, and this voiced dialogue extends in-game, with named characters discussing events and developing the story. In our experience, these objectives aren't all that nuanced, however, they do offer a change of pace and push you into playing out specific scenarios. Mission restrictions, such as a limited ability to recruit new units, further challenge the player into exploring new tactics, and these more authored scenarios certainly represent a wealth of content for players to dive into.
On top of the many campaigns, there are also historical battles, with famous events condensed into scenarios that loosely mimic reality, like a time where we played as Henry V and battled the French in and around Agincourt. These aren't grand real-time battles like you might find in Total War, but rather stylised scenarios that borrow elements from history, exploring them through AoE's signature gameplay style.
We've got this far without mentioning the visuals, which are surprisingly lovely. The 2013 HD edition looked like a dog's dinner in comparison, and everything here has been rebuilt from the ground up. On the one hand, it looks retro, like your mind's eye remembers it from 1999, but on the other, the pixel count has vastly increased, the lighting is decent, and the backgrounds pleasingly detailed. Even the units look fantastic, although it can be hard to differentiate them during battle.
Combat is one area where the game still feels distinctly last-millennium, although that's not necessarily meant as a negative. It feels like pathfinding has been tweaked, but when a battle ensues things can still get very messy. We found it hard to keep track of who was fighting who at times, and we lost plenty of archers in melee combat when really they should have been kept out of harm's way. Our lack of tactical nous shouldn't be blamed on Forgotten Empires, but it's clear that the crush of battle is one area where the upcoming Age of Empires IV needs to innovate if it's going to push the series forward.
According to the developer, AI has been tweaked considerably, although it's hard to really put a finger on exactly what is different. One thing we didn't notice was any unfairness, and that's a good sign if nothing else. There have been other changes made under the hood, such as improvements to worker management, which makes the base building side of the game simpler to navigate, but the fact that we have to drag our scouts across the map manually is a bit of a chore that we would have liked to have seen automated. Another minor complaint is the bugs, which were noticeable but, luckily, not terminal (we had one unit moonwalk across an entire map, and another group of soldiers got stuck in a river and thus were rendered useless for a full campaign mission).
Overall, the niggles are relatively minor and for the most part, we are pleased with how this little nostalgia trip has come together. For dedicated players, there's an almost overwhelming amount of content to play through, from custom matches where anything is possible, through to authored campaigns that explore history from a variety of angles. The high def textures work wonders and Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition is a pleasingly retro reimagining. Having returned to a series that we remember so fondly from our teens, we're more eager than ever for the series to return with a fourth number game, as well as any restorative work being done for Age of Empires III and (fingers crossed) Age of Mythology.