October 15, 2020
Xbox Game Studios
Ensemble Studios, Forgotten Empires, Tantalus Media, Glu Mobile, Macsoft
Age of Empires became an instant classic upon its initial release in the late 90s, and the franchise has only continued to garner this reputation in the following years. There just doesn’t seem to be anything else quite like it. And while Ensemble Studios is sadly no more, a coalition of developers have taken the series reigns and have seemingly delivered a faithful remastering of a modern classic. Microsoft’s dedication to breathing new life into its somewhat forgotten franchises continues with Age of Empires III; the last entry in the classic trilogy of real-time strategy.
While the last entry in the fabled series doesn’t hold the number one spot in peoples heart – that belongs to Age of Empires II – there are still many things to say and be appreciated of what AOE 3 was able to achieve back in its day. Real-time destruction of buildings, shadow maps for on-screen units, increased geometric detail and cannonball physics are just a few elements the original game introduced all the way back in 2005. These innovations still persist in the Definitive Edition of the game, only now with much visual clarity as well as support for higher resolutions beyond 480p.
Visuals were not the only thing to be given a make-over however, the game’s narrative concerning native tribes and indigenous cultures sadly lacked authenticity and veered towards the reinforcing of preconceived stereotypes and racist iconography. Thankfully the developers of the Definitive Edition saw to rectify these errors and, rather than simply leave them as is, decided to thoughtfully and actively address these issues by making corrections/removing elements where necessary. While not integral to the game’s overall experience, this decision speaks volumes to the level of care and attention to detail this revitalisation has received and it only adds to the overall experience of playing this classic RTS.
Obviously, the first thing long-time fans of the series will notice in terms of major differences from the original are the visuals. What might have looked great and damn near impressive for 2005 sadly didn’t last very long. In the fifteen years since the original’s release, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition has revitalised what used to be a great looking game into a fantastic looking game! Every model, texture and effect has been either redone or remade and the game looks and feels better for it.
The added detail and reimagined art for higher resolutions truly makes this game gorgeous and a standout. Whether it be increased unit detail or the increased intricacies of structures, the updated models feel restorative in nature; almost as if this was the games original artwork all along but was simply limited by the technology of the time. Further compounding these positive changes is the remastered soundscape. Sound effects, voice acting and music have all been treated to sound much better and it further complements the overall aesthetic of each time period featured in the game.
While overall the changes made are for the better, there is an argument to be made that in some areas (mainly concerning the game’s water) the original art has been changed that unfortunately loses the original vision. The water, for instance, is a coin-flip as to which version players would prefer. The originals water detail was one of its outstanding highlights in its day, but from my experience playing, I didn’t notice enough of a difference to really say one was better than the other. At the end of the day, this game looks a lot better when comparing both versions side by side.
What hasn’t changed much is the game’s numerous campaigns. Each provides a glimpse into different historical eras, ranging from pre-colonial times in the Americas to pre-Shogunate era Japan. Each of the campaigns (including the expansions) provide unique settings with just as unique unit rosters and building types.
While the overall narrative relies perhaps too heavily on McGuffin chasing globe-trotting adventures, that’s exactly what these types of games thrive on; allowing for added diversity of stages as well as offering unique win conditions that mix up the traditional gameplay loops. Overall the voice-acting is serviceable, with a few standout characters but nothing akin to the colourful cast of characters to be found in the likes of Age of Mythology.
The games various systems overall are big enough draws for both fans of the original games as well as newcomers to play within the sandbox that only real-time strategy games can provide. You’re free to design your colonies and bases to your liking, and with the game offering fun side objectives, there is enough variety to make each stage not feel like a repeat of the last. There’s also little quality of life improvements made to the base game as well. Healers now automatically heal injured units and no longer require using a special ability. Gatherers no longer need to return to resource point in order to turn in a collected resource. Instead, they can just focus on gathering without having to make the trip back to the town centre. The games user interface, while a product of its time, did see some small improvements made. While still retaining the overall visual style, less screen real estate is taken up when compared to the older version, while still relaying all the information players will need in order to succeed.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is what it claims itself to be. It offers the definitive version of this game, making improvements where necessary as well as updating it for modern hardware. The game is able to truly shine because of these improvements, while for the most part retaining the original aesthetic of the game. For returning players, this is the perfect package if you’ve somehow lost your original copy and for newcomers, this version is easily accessible and provides the smoothest onboarding for you RTS beginners out there. While its common knowledge that Age of Empires III is often looked on as the black sheep of the family, I had a great time playing an Ensemble Studios game again. It brought me back to those early years of PC gaming, where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and how it was possible. Even though I never played the original, I’m saddened that I never did as younger me would’ve had an absolute blast!
- Accessible, fun and engaging RTS experience
- Greatly updated textures and remastered audio
- Quality of life improvements
- Performance can be variable
- A few cutscene bugs
While Age of Empires III might not be the crowd favourite amongst fans; it still manages to offer a fun and engaging RTS experience that still manages to rival its competitors. The better-looking visuals and increased overall clarity manages to re-energise this entry in the series, making it the perfect version to play for both returning fans as well as eager newcomers to series. While it visually looks like new, some core elements of its design are a product of the era in which it was released. And while fans like me can easily slip back into this more rudimentary style of play, it can also be seen as finicky or unintuitive to play for newer players.
However, this wasn’t enough to distract from the joys of playing this classic RTS. In fact, this combined with the other entries in the series makes for a great solution in preserving these games for more modern PC hardware as well as making them more accessible for a new generation. A few bugs here and there and some weird performance ticks aside, this remastered version of Age of Empires III, certainly qualifies to receive the ‘Definitive Edition’ moniker. The updated visuals and compatibility with today’s PCs, combined with the entire package of expansions and newly added content, creates for a wholistic RTS experience that should not be missed by those who are fans of the genre.