Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition Review
A fun RTS remake with a lot of content
I must confess that even though I am a fan of strategy games, especially RTS games, I have never played an Age of Empires game. While I feel like I have missed out on a great series with locations and characters that would be enough to suck me in to any other game, it is only now that I have actually tried the series with Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition. So, this review will be from the perspective of a newcomer to the franchise.
Age of Empires III was a classic RTS released back in 2005 and had two expansions, with those being The War Chiefs and The Asian Dynasties. As is expected in re-released games, this Definitive Edition comes with those expansions added as part of the core experience along with other brand-new additions and quality of life improvements.
Due to the 15-year gap between the original release and the Definitive Edition, there is a lot of room for graphical improvement. It now supports 4K resolution and is by no means a bad looking game. Some of the unit models lack detail but they are a small part of the whole package and the world maps are varied and utilise a wide colour palette; the primary colours of the factions do stand out against the terrain. The game isn't technically demanding and I was able to run the game on max settings with little to no frame rate issues or any other graphical glitches. Special mention has to go to the physics-based destruction which was revolutionary back in 2005. Watching a town centre or an outpost being blown to pieces by artillery is made just that bit more fun when it is unique every time. I always got a little kick out of watching an enemy's flag fall off or seeing chunks of the building missing after being bombarded. It is a little detail that gave me a sense of enjoyment that never faded.
Age of Empires also gives you a choice of UI to use with a classic version for returning players or a brand-new interface for the Definitive Edition which was the one I selected. I found the interface to be incredibly easy to use in game and it was never bulky or in the way. Tantalus Media / Forgotten Empires have done their best to cater for every possible type of player and it goes a long way with making the game accessible.
If you've played any RTS games the basic set up would be familiar to you. You have a settlement which you need to look after as well as settlers who work as your resource gatherers. These resources are vital to your survival as they can be used for buildings which can gather more resources, house more of a population or build military units. You will also need to use those resources to advance to a new age which gives you access to more advanced buildings, technologies and units. On top of the economy and settlement management, you have the military side of things. You will have to defend yourself from enemy attacks and even go out yourself and try and setback your neighbours by destroying key buildings or attacking their settlers. There is a lot to keep track of and it does get a bit messy the further into a game you go.
In addition to your settlement you also have a home city. Each city is visually distinct for each faction, so if you play as the UK then the home city will have the Tower of London for example. The function of the home city is to send shipments to your settlement. These shipments can be anything from buildings and technology to soldiers and resources. All of these shipments are tied to cards which you can use to create a deck. Every faction has a unique deck tied to their technology tree and more cards can be unlocked when you level up the faction. It should be borne in mind that the cards are tied to what age the faction is in. With the Industrial age, there are cards for things like artillery units which are not available at the Commercial age.
The home city can be customised with cosmetic upgrades to make it seem more alive but there is no benefit to attaching banners to a building and giving citizens voice lines. Your card and level progress also don't carry over to each faction, so for every act of the campaign you will start anew with the decks and you have to level up every faction one at a time. Bear in mind there are 16 factions in this game. Unless you have the time or the inclination, I can't see many people spending all the time necessary to level up every faction.
Another issue presents itself with controlling the actual units. In my time with the game I found them to be infuriatingly stupid. This frustration stemmed from the path finding for the AI. If you control more than 5 units then they will always bump into each other and take a lifetime to reach their destination, if they reach it at all. I've had plenty of units who managed to find themselves in otherwise inaccessible locations by glitching there. Once stuck, there was no getting them back into the action so I had to disband them and recruit more units. It wouldn't be so annoying if it happened occasionally but I had units stuck multiple times in nearly every game I played. The naval units are also a pain to control as they look like Bambi on ice as soon as you order them to target a unit or building on land.
The tactical side of gameplay, for the most part, relates more to the settlement building and not so much to the battles. While the main units are cavalry, ranged, and skirmish are each strong against one type of unit and weak against another, it was never something I really took into account. While I was busy collecting resources, I usually had such a large group of soldiers it was pointless trying to separate them and my only real tactic was overwhelming force which never failed. Other RTS games seem to do the unit balancing better than Age of Empires III DE. The game also has a limit with how many units you can select at once. While this was a staple of older RTS games, it feels outdated and an ability to select all available units should have been added. This led to some of my troops being left behind. All too often you'll attack one target and move on to the next but when you look back at your last position, you'll see a group of soldiers standing around not doing very much. The game does not alert you to idle soldiers, only settlers, which means you can miss some units who can really help in the fight.
Age of Empires III DE has multiple modes, with the main ones being the campaigns and Skirmish as well as two new modes Art of War and Historical battles. With the campaign, there are 3 to choose from such as: the original campaign and the 3 acts revolving around a secret society and the Black family, the War Chiefs campaign which again involves the Black family, the American Revolutionary War and the Wild West as well as The Asian Dynasties three-act campaign with an act focusing on Japanese, Indian and Chinese factions. The campaigns themselves are generally quite fun and I enjoyed playing through them but for the most part they're not too memorable. The stand out campaign is Act 1: Fire of the War Chiefs which details the 1776 American Revolutionary War and the exploits of Nathaniel Black and the Native Americans. It was the campaign I had the most fun with and the last few missions where you deal with the Hessians and the British were great.
However, my main gripe with the campaigns is that, for the most part, they feel like glorified tutorial sections. At no point are you really left to use all elements of the game as you may be locked to a certain age such as Commerce or Industrial so there is no room for any real expansion or creative solutions. It is also unlikely that you'll use all the buildings as most of them are redundant. It is actually quite jarring when in one level you're decked out with artillery, gold mining estates and the best units from the Industrial age to only be relegated back to the Commerce age for the rest of the next level. The Art of War mode is just a tutorial mode where you get to try out land and naval battles as well as everything you need to know about settlements and gathering resources with the ability to win medals if you perform well enough. The only two single player modes that really feel like you're playing the game as intended are the Historical Battles and Skirmish mode. The Skirmish mode includes a deathmatch mode, King of the Hill and a Treaty mode where fighting is banned for an allotted amount of time. This mode is definitely best experienced with friends and while there is not a whole lot of variety in the match types, a lot of fun can be had.
A standout addition is the Historical Battles mode. These feel like long campaign missions centred around real historical conflicts. These missions focus on lesser known battles in history but they are also great fun to play. The first mission involves the Capture of Algiers in 1516 during which the Spanish lost their foothold on Algiers through Ottoman corsair brothers Oruç and Hayreddin with Ottoman support. In the mission, once you complete a secondary objective you will also receive Ottoman aid. Unlike the campaign, you get to use all the units and buildings and skills in a scripted scenario and it makes the campaign seem lacklustre by comparison. If there was no campaign and only the historical battles, I wouldn't have felt that there was anything missing.
Of course, with depictions of history there is the potential for insensitivity which was an argument levelled at the original Age of Empires III, that developers admit in a message as soon as you start the game up for the first time. This potential is doubled when you are dealing with an imperial mindset and colonisation. However, Age of Empires III DE has made attempts to make sure it doesn't stray into offensive territory. The game opens with a notice about the depictions of Native Americans and the steps developers have taken to ensure a balanced and fair representation is made. The dialogue for Native American characters has been rewritten and performed by actual Natives. They have also changed the name of the Native American tribes present to their indigenous names of Lakota and Haudenosaunee. Native American settlers are also incapable of mining as it is against their values. It is a relief to see the developers take these depictions seriously and address these issues.
The multiplayer fares well as the skirmish mode is perfect to play with real people. The same game types such as Classic and King of the Hill are present, as well as options to run a private game with friends or play with a clan. You can also join other player's servers if you just want to drop in or even play a ranked match if you fancy yourself an elite player. The matchmaking is not up to scratch currently and the spectator mode appears to be buggy. Upon attempting to spectate a match the game froze and promptly crashed. The skirmish mode itself is best when it is played with friends or online with strangers and it is where Age of Empires really comes together. It is just a shame that there isn't much variation in the game modes and I can see the games getting old quite quickly unless you're a dedicated fan.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a fun RTS, no doubt about it. It is clear that new players to the franchise were a focus as it is a relatively easy game to grasp with the tutorials, Art of War and the campaign. With all three campaigns available as well as a Historical Battles mode, there is a lot for fans and newcomers alike to play through. However, all of this content does bog down the game as the card and home city systems have to be individually leveled up for every single faction. It doesn't really add much incentive for replayability either and the only game modes that you will go back for, those being skirmish and Historical battles, don't offer enough variety for serious longevity.