REVIEWS

Review: Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

Back in 2017 Microsoft announced they were returning to Age of Empires. At E3 they announced the remaster of the original Age of Empires game from 1997 and only a few months later at Gamescom they announced remasters for the second and third installment too. And the big news that day? Microsoft is making a fourth game. It seems there is still life in Microsoft’s real time strategy franchise.

This week the last of the three remasters will release. And it’s not the most beloved game of the trilogy, but it’s part of the family.

Age of Empires 3 has always been the weird child of the trilogy. Ensemble Studios, the original creators of the game, have truly innovated the franchise with this entry. Bringing in new features such as a card system, hero units and most importantly a very diverse set of civilizations.

The game is set in the age of discovery. It features native American, European and Asian factions. The concept of the game is that you’re not an empire by yourself, unlike in the previous Age of Empires games, but that you are a small part of an empire. You have a home base which can send you equipment and resources. Basebuilding in Age of Empires 3 can be better described as building a colony or outpost.

With the remaster World’s Edge, Tantalus Media and Forgotten Empires have brought 2020 to this 2005 game. With Xbox Live integration, 4K assets, a new UI, server-based matchmaking in multiplayer and a new soundtrack with additional music. But, there’s also new content to enjoy.

The full package

The Art of War, Historical Battles and the campaigns

So, what’s the ‘full package’ of Age of Empire III: Definitive Edition? It includes the 2005 main game and the expansions The WarChiefs and The Asian Dynasties. On top of that, the developers have added new content to the game.

To help you out on your first path to strategy excellence, a new tutorial has been added to the game. These are called The Art of War and teach you everything you need to know about playing Age of Empires III. From early economies, build orders to naval battles. You can earn bronze, silver or gold medals in them, depending on how well you manage to complete these tutorials. All these are explained to you by the fine Von Clausewitz who, for the historical geeks among us, was a Prussian general and military theorist. Overall I enjoyed them and I think they are beneficial for players who want to compete online.

Besides that, the developers have added something fresh to the game. Historical battles.

These are exactly what you think they are. A series of scripted skirmish missions built to simulate famous historic battles set in the age in which Age of Empires 3 takes place. They are a fun addition and will deliver you a couple hours of content.

Where the developers haven’t added much is in the campaign. There is no extra content here, besides the remastered cutscenes and some changes to the The War Chiefs campaign. But, I can imagine it has been a long while for many people since they’ve played these. And it’s still a fun campaign to play.

Multiplayer & Skirmish

The multiplayer has been revamped entirely. It is now operating on Microsoft’s Xbox Live services and has server based hosting. For me, in The Netherlands, the hosting was fine. I expect it to be the same as the other two remasters in this regard.

Age of Empires 3 still has an active community who play the game, which will probably become even bigger after the launch of this remaster. So, for everyone looking to take their skirmish skills to the world, there are ample opportunities to do this.

The skirmish mode is where I put myself to the test without embarassing myself to other people. Playing against two or three hard AI is a fun way to keep the game engaging.

New factions

The new factions added to the game are the Swedes and the Inca. The Swedes are a pure Age of Empires 3 civilization, with an emphasis on gunpowder and mercenaries. Meanwhile the Inca are more relatable for Age of Empires 2 players. With the Inca you’ll be building your city and fortifications and playing a more defensive strategy. Those stone walls will be hard to tear down.

Still a looker

Age of Empires 3 was a really good looking game back in 2005. The water was stunning and the units were very detailed back then. And to be fair, even today the game looks fine.

This leads to me questioning if a full remaster of this game was even necessary. Sure, the new units look a lot better. Those 4K assets do the trick. But, it now feels like the beautiful assets don’t come to life as much due to animations which are sometimes stuck in 2005.

Unit comparison

The environments of the game are stunning. The remaster has done those justice for sure. The water is beautiful as ever. Most importantly, which sometimes goes horribly wrong in remasters, the game has not changed artstyle. You feel like you are playing the same game as you did 15 years ago. I’m sure some people wouldn’t even notice the difference if they hadn’t played the non-definitive version for a while. And that’s a good thing. Recently, Warcraft III reforged has shown the opposite can turn out badly.

Even though the new assets look great, they don’t solve an issue I’ve had with Age of Empires 3 in the past. Fights look messy. When engaging in a big fight it’s sometimes hard to see what’s actually happening.

A big plus is the ability to zoom further out. This was added to the other remasters too and it’s a godsend.

Pimped user interface

One of the bigger improvements is the new user interface. It looks clean and modern while keeping that Age of Empires 3 style.

The Definitive style user interface in-game

A neat feature is the ability to change your UI. There is a Classic, Definitive and default user interface. The classic and default one are fairly similar, while the definitive UI will be a pleasant addition for people who’ve played more real time strategy games in recent years. With resources at the top and the map on the bottom left corner.

Rock paper scissors and a cardgame

Gameplay is where all discussion surrounding the third installment of Age begins. It’s here where Ensemble Studios has taken the most risks in the original release. The addition of hometowns and cards is, even today, a refreshing aspect in the strategy genre. When playing you can call in help, upgrades, resources or reinforcements from your hometown. This works via a card system. Players can build a deck before the game starts. Experience points are needed to use the cards.

Before these decks led to some discussion, as they weren’t properly balanced for new players. Luckily the developers have fixed this. You can still do deckbuilding, but all players will be able to play on a level playing field.

Players can also upgrade their hometown, which gives them the option to use new cards in single player. Personally I think the card and hometown system is an interesting and fun mechanic in Age of Empires 3 not deserving of all the negative feedback it has gotten over the years.

An aspect of the game of which I do understand the negative feedback is the lack of balance. Some civilizations are still stronger than others. Which can hopefully be fixed in later patches.

Something that has turned many strategy fans off Age of Empires 3 is the lack of accessible rock paper scissor mechanics. Or rather, the perception of the lack thereof. People started playing Age of Empires 3 coming of the very accessible and easy to understand second installment and expected something similar. But, Age of Empires 3 isn’t as easy to understand due to the time period. Many strategy game players have grown up with the idea of swordmen, pikemen and knights. The guns introduced in Age of Empires 3 turned many of them off. Which is probably the reason why Relic and Microsoft are opting for returning to the middle ages for Age of Empires 4.

Another change in the formula is the diversty of factions. After the first two games in the series became popular things changed in the world of strategy games. Games such as Warcraft III and Red Alert 2 introduced more unique and diverse factions. The change in the industry is reflected by Age of Empires 3. Factions have different playstyles and feel different to play. For example, the Dutch have banks which guarantees them of decent late game income, but their settlers cost gold instead of food. Making them weak in the early game.

The Japanese use shrines for a guaranteed income, which they preferably place nearby herding animals for extra income. This means the Japanese base is much bigger than that of other factions.

Age of Empires 3 has always been a faster paced game than the first two installments. Some people may like it, others may be turned off by it. It’s no Starcraft by any means, but you’ll notice the difference in pace when coming off Age of Empires 2.

Bugs and annoyances

The game has some bugs, sadly enough. Sometimes your worker will refuse to build something and in some occasions some of my units became stuck on top of a mountain or inside an inaccessible valley.

A bigger annoyance than the small bugs are the snare effect and formations. The snare effect means that units will slow down when being hit. When you expect your army to run, because surprsingly enough you are losing a battle, you want them to flee from the battlefield. In Age of Empires 3 it feels like they’re crawling away from the battlefield.

Same with the formations. As units make clusters, they also slow down units and often times completely ruin the run animations. It’s those kind of things you’d like to see fixed or adjusted in a remaster. But as the team has been updating Age of Empires 2 since release, there is some hope they’ll work on this part too.

Changes to American native factions

Besides adding two new nations to the game, Microsoft and the developers have gone out of their way to improve the historical accuracy of the native American factions in the game. They’ve worked with tribal consultants to make changes to two factions. The Iroquois are now named the Haudenosaunee and the Sioux are now named the Lakota.

Lakota hometown

Besides that they’ve also changed a core component of their gameplay. Gold has been removed from their economy, as these tribes didn’t use gold but fur as a means for trading. Oh, and they’ve redone the voice acting for these two native American tribes too. Overall, a good improvement which should be applauded.

Soundtrack

The soundtrack of the original Age of Empires 3 was fantastic and it didn’t suddenly become less fantastic because of the time that has passed. The new songs for each faction are a nice addition.

Cheat codes

With BigAndy the monster truck

Last but not least – and we don’t want to you to miss out on this information – are the cheat codes. Age of Empires has always had some funny cheat codes. In Age of Empires 2 you could summon a cobra car, or turn all birds into flying dogs. In Age of Empires 3 you can spawn monster trucks, a pig flying on a rainbow or George Crushington, a hopping statue crushing everything in his path. Yeah, that’s right.

Summary

With Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition you’re getting a full package of strategy fun, just hampered by design decisions made 15 years ago which haven’t been fixed yet.

It may sound like I’m being too harsh towards this third installment in the franchise. It is often seen as the bastard of the family, the failed or even the unwanted child. But Age of Empires 3 has brought the strategy genre forward like not many games in the genre have done since. The introduction of the home towns and the card system were great steps and the diverse playstyles and mechanics of all the different civilizations has elevated Age of Empires into a deeper and more interesting franchise. It just chose the wrong time period for innovation of the franchise.

The things developers of real time strategy games have learned from Age of Empires 3 has inspired and will inspire every new installment in the genre. And I’m sure Relic and World’s Edge have been taking a close look at Age of Empires 3 for the development of the fourth game. As we can already see some similarities with the different mechanics per faction and amount of factions.

An amazing soundtrack, beautiful landscapes, great quality of life improvements and a more modern UI have enhanced Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition enough to justify its existence. Even though it wasn’t really needed graphics wise.

While maybe a slightly unneccesary remaster, it has been a very pleasant one to play. With this remaster Age of Empires III can proudly stand next to the other games in the franchise.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition will release on 15/10/2020 and will be available on Steam, the Microsoft Store and Xbox Game Pass for PC.

A review code for this game was provided by Microsoft.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

$19.99
8.2

8.2/10

Pros

  • The game is even more stunning than before
  • New civilizations are a fun addition
  • The unique card system is still great
  • Civilizations are well thought out and interesting
  • The new user interface is a bullseye

Cons

  • No new campaigns
  • Guns are less interesting than swords
  • Some slight bugs
  • Balancing problems

Pieter "SuikerBrood" Jasper

27 year old gamer who grew up with Commander Keen and Jazz Jackrabbit. A PC Gamer. (Sorry, not sorry). Dutch, but actually Frisian. Loves Age of Empires, Sea of Thieves and wishes for a new Viva Piñata.

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