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Game review: Age of Empires III Definitive Edition (PC)

23 Oct 2020

Ensemble Studios’ classic real-time strategy (RTS) game returns with fresh visuals as Age of Empires III Definitive Edition.

The last of the series, Age of Empires III wasn’t a game that I played much back in the day. For me, it was Age of Empires II that was my particular favourite. 

This third outing, taking the series into the colonial period, whilst a leap forward visually, seemed overly contrived compared to its forebears.

With this remaster, would I still feel the same some fifteen years later? 

Microsoft’s Age of Empires games had a sense of purity that is somewhat lost in more modern real-time strategy games. While the gameplay depth was there, the games were easy to pick up. For me, they represent the archetypal definition of a real-time strategy game. 

Age of Empires III retained much of the gameplay from the previous games. The original game made the jump from isometric 2D sprites to 3D graphics, something that we expect these days. The other significant change is the ability to ship goods and personnel from your home city.

Age of Empires III Definitive Edition takes the original game, the pinnacle of the series, and the two expansions, The Warchiefs and The Asian Dynasty, and gives it a 4K graphical makeover. This polish is just what it needs for introduction to a new audience, with higher visual expectations, as well as veterans that remember the game through the haze of nostalgia. The result is a game that feels fresh and new, whilst ever so slightly retro. 

The gameplay is almost simplistic by modern standards. This likely because every other RTS borrows and builds upon mechanics introduced by Age of Empires.

The basic idea is that players start with a town centre from which they train settlers. The settlers then gather three materials: wood, food, coins (via mining). The settlers can then build barracks, marketplaces, fortifications etc.

Barracks and stables can be used to train soldiers and cavalry. Everything costs in materials. The population is limited by the number of houses that have been built.

When a player meets the required quantities of material, the town centre can be upgraded to a new era, unlocking new technology. The game requires a good balance of resource collection, defence, upgrading and diplomacy with the neighbours.

There are quite a few ways to play Age of Empires III Definitive Edition. Players can enjoy one of the campaigns, partake in a multiplayer match, fight in a historical battle, set up a custom skirmish or try their hands at one of the Art of War challenges. Players can even use the editor to create their own scenarios.

The game has three campaigns. The original campaign - Blood, Ice and Steel - has players journeying to the new world. The campaign from the first expansion - Warchiefs, Fire and Shadow - focuses on native American. The third campaign - The Asian Dynasties - is from the second expansion and takes the action to Asia. 

All the campaigns feature exciting stories and unique mission-based objectives on top of the resource management and warfare elements. 

There are also a series of historical battles, new for the definitive edition. They are unlocked sequentially offering objective-based scenarios.

The skirmish mode allows players to engage in a free-for-all match with other factions across a multitude of maps for small areas to massive areas and even maps focusing on naval activities. Whilst this is single-player, there is a multiplayer mode that allows the same thing either online or via LAN.

The game is very easy to pick up, but it does help new players get to grips with the gameplay. There are dedicated tutorials, but I found the Art of War mode with its short challenge the most fun way to get my head back around the mechanics.

Age of Empires III is packed with content. And, if you think you’ve done it all, there’s even an editor to create your own scenarios. 

Age of Empires II Definitive Edition allows players to visit (or revisit) a time when gameplay was more important than flashy visuals. As an RTS, many may find it a bit simplistic. But that is part of its charm. The polished, well-balanced gameplay is fun from the very start, and watching your settlements grow is rewarding. 

With modern graphics and tried and tested gameplay, this is a game that should be on the list of every fan of historical real-time strategy games.

Verdict: 9/10