Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition ReviewOctober 18, 2020
Age of Empires 3 is the weirdest of the old-school RTS series – a game that, back in 2005, radically departed from the others for a different feel. Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition gives it new life, changing some things that begged to be changed and bringing the production values up to a much higher standard. It’s the Age of Empires update that will be least appreciated, but most needed, a remaster that adds new single-player missions and civilizations. It gives AoE 3’s unique twists on the RTS a new life. It also serves as a pretty sharp reminder that this is the most obtuse game in the series, because most of its clever tricks aren’t half as good as it thinks they are.
Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition edition upgrades graphics, colors, and textures across the board, all the way up to 4K resolutions. The remade Home City screens are characterful renditions of cities from Amsterdam to Tenochtitlan, with stops in Beijing and Berlin along the way. It ran pretty well on my AMD 8350 and GeForce GTX 1070 Ti, with occasional hitching on eight-player matches and a handful of isolated crashes. A surprising bonus is how the remastered soundtrack vastly improves the music, with richer bass filling out the horns and strings. In fact, after a few hours I realized that the Age of Empires 3 take on the main theme absolutely slaps. It’s my new favorite from the series soundtracks.
The other sound effects and voice acting are improved but not up to the level you’d expect from any given modern game. There are two notable exceptions to that: A pre-Mass Effect fame Jennifer Hale as Lizzie in the campaign, and the redone or entirely new voice acting in campaign and historical scenarios. (Everyone other than whoever did Gustavus Adolphus. All due respect to the greatest of the Swedes, but he’s horrible.)
Underneath that updated exterior, Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition remains as hardcore an economy-focused RTS as the others in the series. To be competitive in multiplayer you have to micromanage and and flawlessly execute economic plans, tasking and re-tasking your settlers to hunt game, chop trees, and mine silver with maximum efficiency. (There’s no Stone in AoE 3.) There’s a lot of plates to keep spinning as you build a sprawling base to take over the map, including fortifications like walls and guard towers, all while carefully timing big spends of resources to advance from one age to the next, unlocking new technologies, buildings, and units as you go.
Age of Empires 3’s early modern setting means there’s a lot more ranged combat than other Age games since guns are around from the jump. You still have the standard Melee/Ranged, Infantry/Cavalry, and Light/Heavy distinctions, but there are more complex unit types like skirmishers or stealthy ambushers, not to mention hero units in the mix as well. Plus the impact of mobile, area-of-effect field artillery really changes fights, requiring specific counter-units to take down. Castles and towers are less numerous, but those that do exist are more powerful: Fortresses bristle with guns and cannons.
The biggest twist in Age of Empires 3 is that your base doesn’t stand alone, but serves as a colony of some distant nation. A system of Home City Cards allows you to bring in shipments of troops, new technologies, and resources as you defeat enemy units and gain experience. You get to choose which 25 cards you have available by making decks before matches start. (Thankfully, the old Home City levelling system has changed. You have every card available to you at the start—no more getting stomped just because someone else has unlocked the good cards. Levelling up your home city is only for cosmetics now.)
Carefully timing your shipments allows you to coordinate and pull off weird strategies that aren’t feasible in other Age games’ tight economic constraints. You can access unique units you’d not be able to otherwise build, get booms of resources out of nowhere, and place down powerful buildings like factories and forts using cards. The cards combine with the resource-gathering primary economy in a neat way, letting you plan your build order ahead of time. It’s a unique implementation of two different RTS economies in one—something no game has really done since.
It’s extremely cool in theory. It’s extremely confusing in practice. Figuring out how to competitively use so many of the units, even basic units like cavalry Hussars, is a balance of upgrades in the tech tree against upgrades from the Home City Cards. It’s just far too difficult to parse the strategies available for each civilization, let alone devise new ones, as you sort through the pile of possible cards while referencing each nation’s tech tree. The only solution is pouring in hundreds of hours to find out if you enjoy the weird “real game” behind Age of Empires 3’s multiplayer.
Series and genre dabblers will probably be better suited with the more conventional Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, but the twists on the core Age formula are too compelling for RTS addicts to pass up. The ins and outs of more complex Age tactics are explained in a series of excellent Art of War tutorials that double as challenge missions for your micromanagement skills. You might have seen similar ones in Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, and the idea is refined for AoE 3 DE.
The marquee event of the Age of Empires series is Skirmish and Multiplayer fights, and AoE3 DE is no different. Battles are all about play and counter-play between the units: Spears take down cavalry, cavalry charges wipe out muskets, and muskets shoot spears. Nothing about that core gameplay has truly changed in the Definitive Edition: the unit movements and pathfinding feel just as jerky and physics-defying as I remember them, for better and for worse. Boats especially still slip, spin, and slide around like soap in a bathtub rather than huge sailing ships.
There are a bare handful of minor gameplay changes in AoE3: DE, and a ton of balance changes, but nothing too radical. The AI is notably improved, but it’s still prone to doing stuff like marching unarmed villagers right into your army or base. At its highest levels, however, I was surprised at the challenge. The original had nothing like it.
As for story missions, there’s a ton of content here, including over 60 single-player missions across three campaigns and a handful of newly added historical scenarios. They’re generally all fun but forgettable classic RTS missions that hand you a scenario and give you some objectives, not really ever reaching past that. Even for its time, it didn’t innovate in its campaign design. The main story is as goofy as ever, a bland pseudo-historical thriller involving the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, a magical bloodline, some stuff that was probably blatantly stolen from The Da Vinci Code, and more historical errors and outright historical fiction than you can shake an arquebus at. There are also some absurd moments of pointedly ignoring the real-world horrors that happened during colonization and contact between cultures, and students of history today aren’t going to react very well to that.
Major changes have been made to the Native American-themed WarChiefs expansion campaign, and the story has a bit more pathos than it used to as a result. The Asian Dynasties expansion campaigns try harder, and the Indian campaign is interesting, but the Chinese campaign in particular is pure fantasy. The campaigns are a fun enough way to spend some time, 30 to 40 hours depending on difficulty setting, but still aren’t exactly compelling.
It’s doubly frustrating because there was potential for a great historical campaign here. That’s a decision long past criticism, but the remaster does address some of the worst historical mistakes. On first start, a message from the developers talks about fixes that center around the Lakota and Haudenosaunee civilizations, and to a lesser extent the Aztecs, correcting names, adding their real language and more authentic artwork, as well as removing historical inaccuracies (such as mining by the two North American nations).
The in-game note does call this kind of mistake-fixing a “process,” and removing everything historically wrong from a game the size of AoE 3 surely isn’t feasible in a mere remaster, but that said, there are some glaring examples that I’d have liked to have seen cleaned up. The Asian civilizations are still led by “Monk” heros who have confusingly out of place mystical powers. The new Incan faction speaks a language that sounds a lot like proper Quechua, but the Aztecs speak the same gibberish they spoke 14 years ago—it certainly doesn’t sound like Nahuatl.
The saving grace in this are the new Historical Battles, which cram some of the best gameplay ideas of the last 15 years into the Age of Empires 3 mold. They’re based on proper historical events, and include some truly choice, weird, deep cuts from the battles of the early modern era. Here’s an example: My favorite was a MOBA-like battle in east Africa based on an ill-fated yet heroic attempt by Portugese warriors to help the Ethiopian emperor fight off the Somalian Adal Sultanate. If there were more like this I’d have been much more enthusiastic about this Definitive Edition, but they end up as more of a taste of what might have been.
(For the lone Age of Empires 3 fanatic that gasped and cheered at the mention of Africa: I see you. No, there’s not more than that. I’m sorry—but someone is sure to take the unit models and use them for a mod.)
All of that said, it’s inevitable that this Definitive Edition won’t age as well as the others in the series. Sprites tend to look good forever, but the character models in Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition barely reach a par with Company of Heroes 2, released some seven years ago now. (Some, I swear, are worse: The model for the panda bear is truly awful. It’s like a painted balloon.) The destruction physics and environmental effects are improved, no doubt, and cannonballs still send soldiers flying. It just can’t compete with a scratch-built modern engine—like this year’s Iron Harvest.
The old interface is nigh-unplayable compared to a modern RTS, but the new one both works and comes in three versions. The UI overhaul probably does the most to bring Age of Empires 3 up to modern standards, floating on top of things rather than obscuring half the action. It’s nothing fancy, but it works… and it includes some egregiously awful color choices. Brilliant pure yellow and white text on a faux-wood brown background is the biggest and most consistent offender. It’s eye strain-inducing.
However, accessibility features are here to save the day: You can simply remap all identifying player and text colors to any other color. I’m glad someone was paying attention to StarCraft 2’s way of doing things.