Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition Lives Up to Its Name at E3 2019

LOS ANGELES – When Microsoft claims that its latest version of Age of Empires II is “definitive,” it isn’t kidding.

At E3 2019, the company revealed Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, which will remaster the 1999 real-time strategy classic.

Credit: Microsoft

(Image credit: Microsoft)

At first, I assumed this meant that it would receive the same treatment as the original Age of Empires: Definitive Edition: the original game and its expansion, along with some graphical and sound upgrades. However, AOEII: DE will also include all three Forgotten Empires expansions, plus a brand-new campaign called The Last of the Khans.

I spoke with two members of the Age of Empires dev team in a private meeting at E3, and was excited to learn about the sheer scope of the game. All told, AOEII: DE will feature 35 playable civilizations and more than 200 hours of single-player content, spread across 27 campaigns. That’s in addition to the game’s signature random map mode, and its thriving multiplayer community.

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For those of you who have never played it, Age of Empires is an RTS series that retells the history of the world, from the Stone Age up through the 19th century. AOEII begins shortly after the fall of Rome, and goes up to the very beginning of the gunpowder era. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings debuted in 1999, and an official Microsoft expansion, The Conquerors, followed in 2000. Over the past few years, a dev team called Forgotten Empires has released three more semi-official expansions: The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms and Rise of the Rajas.

Between the core game and its four expansions, Age of Empires II now covers just about every civilization on Earth at the time: the Britons, the Huns, the Slavs, the Ethiopians, the Mongols, the Koreans, the Aztecs and more. The Last Khans will actually introduce four brand-new civilizations: the Bulgarians, the Lithuanians, the Tatars and the Cumans.

According to the AOE team, The Last Khans will tell the story of Genghis Khan’s empire, which began to crumble shortly after his death. Rather than taking control of the Chinese and Mongol civilizations that tried to defend the doomed regime, you’ll play as the Eastern European and Central Asian races that carved up the region for themselves. If you’ve ever dreamed of leading the army of Tamburlaine the Great (all seven or eight of you), this is your chance.

Concatenating all of the campaigns is a good start, but AOEII: DE will also add a number of small mechanical upgrades. The core gameplay won’t change at all, since fans seem to like it just fine the way it is. But now, they’ll be able to monitor ongoing research and unit production through notifications at the top of the screen, automatically reseed farms without having to set up queues, see which buildings are actively creating units, zoom out to see the whole battlefield and assign villagers to return to gathering resources after constructing buildings. Of course, these features are optional, so purists need not despair.

A new campaign isn’t the only thing that solo players have to look forward to. The devs have also added a new series of challenge maps, which will introduce new players to the game’s strategies instead of just its mechanics. For example: These missions deal with everything from traversing hostile territory with non-combat units, to putting up defensive castles in record time. These techniques can help you succeed in the game’s difficult campaigns – or dip a toe into its competitive multiplayer scene.

Speaking of multiplayer, you’ll have plenty of foes to face, as AOEII: DE will come out for the Microsoft Store, Xbox Game Pass for PC and even Steam. (The first AOE: DE will also make its way to Steam later this year.) All three player bases will be able to mix and match freely, whether you want to work your way up the competitive ladder or play more relaxed games with friends.

If you prefer to train a little first, you can also do battle against the game’s completely revamped AI. The devs told me that they’ve pitted seven AIs from the original AOEII against one AI from the Definitive Edition, and the latter has won every single time. What’s more – the new AI won’t “cheat,” like the old one did. The enemy won’t know about your base or your forces unless it scouts you, and it won’t have access to any resources it doesn’t collect with its own villagers. This will provide much more realistic opponents, in both random map and campaign play.

If you’re already looking to the future, the remasters won’t end with AOEII: DE. The developers confirmed that they are already working on an Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, although it probably won’t launch until sometime next year. Age of Empires IV is also in the works, and Microsoft will reveal more information about it later this year. For the moment, it wants to focus its attention on AOEII: DE.

The game will come out this fall for the platforms mentioned above, but you can sign up for a closed Age of Emprires II: Definitive Edition beta now, if you just can’t wait to start conquering the medieval world.

Be sure to follow our E3 2019 news hub all week long for the biggest reveals and impressions out of Los Angeles.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.