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One of the interesting threads last week was watching a wave of nostalgic excitement for Age of Empires break against the shoals of reality with the release of Age of Empires: Definitive Edition. For a lot of reviewers, the problem with getting a faithful, remastered edition of Age of Empires is that you then had to play Age of Empires. And nobody really wants that anymore.
Age of Empires is a classic in large part because it achieved great success and laid the groundwork for some of the best and most popular RTS games ever made. In other words, its an historically significant game and as such I’m glad to know that I can revisit it anytime I want, in a convenient modern format… just so long as everyone understands that I’m not probably not going to do that for very long.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that “does this hold up?” is the most useful yardstick for a re-release like the Definitive Edition—even if reviewers are obligated to consider the question. Because the answer is: of course not. Age of Empires was practically obsolete the moment Age of Empires II: Age of Kings came out. Even at the time, it felt like Age of Kings took every single element of Age of Empires considerably further, both in terms of strategic depth and user-friendliness—thank God for formations! Even if you preferred the ancient world to the medieval (and I very much did), there was simply nothing that Age of Empires did that Age of Kings did not do better. We’ve known that for 20 years.
What I want from a re-release like Age of Empires: Definitive Edition is exactly what I’ve got. A warts-and-all update that will let the game display on a 4K monitor without looking like a smear of pixels, and with all the multiplayer functionality I can ask for. I don’t care if it’s not really a great RTS anymore in the wider context of its genre, or if it’s filled with dated mechanics and clunky mission design. Because I like that faithfully recreating the original game in this format means that I can see the ways in which Age of Empires is both coming up with new ideas and directions for the RTS, yet creating new problems that it would take a sequel to solve.
It’s fascinating to me to go back and see how much of the single-player campaign feels like the RTS version of the Old Testament, because we have so few popular, well-known sources and stories for the pre-Classical western world. It’s striking how gingerly Age of Empire doled-out its new concepts and units over the course of those campaigns. With such a game, I’m far more interested in talking about what is worth preserving and exploring, rather than how it has been surpassed in the twenty years since it came out. The former question invites us to appreciate and interrogate our hobby’s past, the latter encourages either erasure from memory or modern revision.
What do you want from a re-release? Especially when you’re talking about a game that was significant, but has been so thoroughly imitated and surpassed that there is little that is novel or irreplaceable about it today?