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Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition is trying to walk the line between old and new

(Image credit: Microsoft)

We might be in the most interesting period of Age of Empire's history. At last there's a new game in development, Age of Empires 4, while the older games are being given significant remasters. Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition is next on the docket, releasing next week, complete with the expansion-sized addition of three new campaigns and four more civilisations. Ahead of its launch, I got a first look at the new civilisations and talked to the developers about the series' second wind. 

There are a lot of studios working on Age of Empires right now, all spread out across the world and working on different projects. That's why, earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it had formed a new studio dedicated to all things Age of Empires, established to work with each of the teams.

"Age is a 22-year-old IP, and there are several of us at the Microsoft Games Studios organisation who have been here since before the original Age came out—a hardcore group of fans," studio head Shannon Loftis tells me. "So, last spring we announced we were forming a new studio dedicated to revitalising Age, bringing the legacy Age products together and up to speed in a definitive edition form, and then advancing the IP with Age 4, moving it into the future.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

"Here in Redmond, we've build effectively a fourth game development team. Currently we're focused on driving Age quality into all the different SKUs that we've got going. We're working on uniting the fanbase and creating a common location and common set of channels to communicate with fans and bring their voices into the development process. It is truly a giant global virtual team working on all things Age."

There's some collaboration, then, and the occasional borrowing of features. All the games will let you have a single meta profile, with the goal being to foster one big online community across the series, and RelicLink has been adopted to carry this out in every game, not just the Relic-designed Age of Empires 4.

Forgotten Empires started out as an international group of Age of Empires fans hacking away at the old games, but since 2013 it's been designing new expansions and remasters. For Age of Empires 2, it's throwing the Bulgarians, Cumans, Lithuanians and Tatars into the mix, leaving the game with a whopping 35 civilisations, but it's also gone back through the entire game, including the more recent expansions, tweaking and updating.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

"The Forgotten Empires team went back and audited and edited all 25 campaigns, so they've actually tightened up a lot of things," says Age of Empires creative director Adam Isgreen. "When these campaigns were made, especially the early ones, these were the days where you didn't even know if people knew how to use a mouse. There were a lot of campaign missions that were pretty tedious, like go collect 500 food or kill every single thing, and there were objectives and goals that were really pretty outdated for the way people like to enjoy games today."

Objectives have been reworked and the missions have more momentum. There are plenty of cosmetic changes, too, with more than 1,000 new pieces of art in the campaigns and new audio, including dialogue from speakers of the languages of the cultures you'll find in the game. It's a point that Isgreen stresses, and he sees historical authenticity as a key feature of the series.

"One of our goals is to be a good steward of history," he says. "To do that, we wanted to make sure that we could make it as authentic as we possibly could when were going back to crack it open—really make it a definitive edition … History is only as interesting as the person who taught it to you. We want to be a passionate, engaging history teacher with all of our products, even with Mythology we still want to have a fun time and get people excited about history because it's such a great thing when people can engage with it."

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The brand new civilisations will be showcased across a trio of campaigns, and each campaign designer at Forgotten Empires has a background in history, so they're able to apply to some historical context to the stories and missions you'll be marching your armies through.

"This is especially helpful for the stories covered in the Last Khans, since they are rather unknown stories compared to, for example, William Wallace or Joan of Arc that a lot of people have heard of through movies, books or other video games," says Bert Beeckman, co-founder of Forgotten Empires and lead designer. "We noticed from previous expansions that our fans love it when we get into these lesser-known stories, which also makes it harder for our team to get information on the stories we want to tell. In the end, we always find the information we need, be it through books, historical articles or sometimes even reaching out to universities for additional information. Additionally, we try to read stories from multiple angles. A story always has multiple perspectives, especially where there is a winning and a losing side. Each side has their own perspective on the conflict and we want to make sure we paint a complete picture in the end."

Despite striving for authenticity, it's probably not a good idea to use Age of Empires to revise for an exam. Forgotten Empires is more interested in stories around people rather than individual historical events, and for its subjects it tries to find stories of relatable characters, who also happen to lead armies and get into lots of fights.

"Tamerlane [Tatars] is a tale all about conquest from a powerful ruler, while Ivaylo [Bulgarians] is more about the rise to power of a common man," Beeckman says. "Kotyan Khan [Cumans], on the other hand, is a less common story about a Khan trying to save his people. Because the stories are so different, it allows us to create different objectives in the campaigns, which is also helped by the fact that each campaign had its own 'main' designer to guarantee uniqueness between campaigns."

The common thread between the campaigns and the civilisations themselves are the Mongols, and each of the new civilisations is derived from them. That means they've got a cavalry focus. Mobility is a theme, and aggression, but defensive players will still find their playstyle supported, and some of them lean more to heavy units, though still on horseback. You'll see their connection to the Mongols in how they fight, but as they progress, they'll unlock cannons and other things, representing their assimilation of other cultures and technology.

You can see them in action in some exclusive gameplay footage from one of the campaign missions below. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Despite their quirks, once again there's a consistency among the civilisations, making balancing and learning the gargantuan roster a more manageable challenge.

"Age 2 is fascinating because a lot of the pro players will play random," Isgreen says. "They don't even pick a civ to stick with it. It speaks to this interesting mix of symmetry and asymmetry that all the civs in Age 2 have. It's a fascinating game; it's unique to any other RTS game that I've played or even worked on, in that you have this core set of rock paper scissors that remains the same across all the civilisations, but then you have fringe modifiers. As different as the civs are, we don't want to make them too radically different because it would break that interesting symmetry and accessibility across all the civilisations. At 35 civs, the cognitive load of holding them all in your head, if they were all StarCraft-level different... I don't know what you would do."

The new civilisations aren't set in stone, however. "As we have with every civ that we added with Age 2 HD, we'll put it out in the marketplace and then we'll start talking to people who are playing, and if anyone is OP we'll address that," adds Loftis. It's unlikely that even more civilisations will be added, but the existing ones will be updated as necessary, and new modes and campaigns are also possible.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Actually figuring out what to change is a challenge in itself. When the community was asked about its thoughts on what could be improved for the new edition, they made it pretty clear that it wasn't combat. "Don't touch the combat at all—it's sacred," was the message the team received.

"We had to figure out what to do around it," Isgreen says. "Part of it was identifying what was so special about Age in the first place. It's the pacing of the game, the amount of units you have to work with, the feel of it, the time to kill, how long things take to die so you have time to make decisions. It's very different from other RTS games. So it was starting with that core and building around it, like how can we modernise the UI? Can we? Do people want us to? And running all these interactions with our community to feel out what we can change."

With Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition out next week and Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition already in the works, that just leaves one game left: Age of Mythology. Like the others, it received an HD remaster, but so far there's been no word on adding it to the roster of definitive editions. Its fate is undecided, but the good news is that it seems likely it will reappear in some form.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

"I don't know what we're going to do with Mythology yet, to be completely honest with you," Isgreen says. "Mythology occupies this really interesting space. Do we just do a definitive version of it, or do we do something grander with it, rebooting it or taking it in a new direction? There are so many opportunities that I see with Mythology, I just don't know what we're going to do yet. We're going to think it through. We want to make our fans happy, and if the fans want us to do a definitive version, we'll heavily consider going in that direction."

In the meantime, you'll be able to play Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition when it launches on November 14.

Fraser is the sole inhabitant of PC Gamer's mythical Scottish office, conveniently located in his flat. He spends most of his time wrangling the news, but sometimes he sneaks off to write lots of words about strategy games.