Lots of icing, not enough cake – Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition review

The first real-time strategy game I played was Age of Empires 2, and that was because it came as a free game in a cereal box. Yes, the amazing AOE 2 was basically a free game. As a result, strategy games have held a special place in my heart, and it’s a genre that I’ll always find time for. Six years after that game’s release, Age of Empires 3 was then released to PC in October of 2005. It’s since received a score of 81 on Metacritic. It’s a cherished title and has seen a devoted player base since its release. A whopping 15 years later and publisher Xbox Game Studios, alongside developers Tantalus Media and Forgotten Empires, has released Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition. The Age of Empires series has seen HD remakes and Definitive Editions in the past, but never for Age of Empires 3. Yet now, players have finally been graced with its presence.

So, I’ll instil a question at the start of this review; has AOE 3: DE seen worthwhile improvements to make it worthy of your digital library? Or is it merely a facelift without any major quality of life changes?

But first, let’s start at the beginning; what are these changes? Well, there’s a lot. Microsoft has determined four major areas requiring improvements, as well as a bunch of stuff that will provide an overall improved experience. AOE 3: DE comes with the main game as well as its previous two expansions, two new civilizations, 4K textures, new “The Art of War” challenge missions, three types of UI styles, extended zoom levels, improved graphical effects, an enhanced soundtrack, pre-made starter decks, mod support, and game modes. Phew. That’s a lot for a simple $20 price tag. And that doesn’t even touch on all the multiplayer, singleplayer, campaign, and UI improvements.

Just take a look at that HD Capybara!

Multiplayer now has server-based matchmaking, and is said to be similar to AOE 2: DE’s matchmaking system. There’s also integrated leaderboards, spectator modes, cross-play, new maps, and improved game balance. Do note, I wasn’t able to test out these changes as the servers weren’t online. I did, however, get to test out the other three areas. Singleplayer has reworked AI which will focus on well-rounded army compositions and retreat from losing battles, there’s a new Extreme difficulty setting, as well as Politicians and Revolutions for European civilizations. In the campaigns department, you’ll notice that all eight campaigns and expansions are available upon install, with revisited Native American storylines, a medal system to reward players, and a new Historical Battles mode. As for the UI improvements, there’s hotkey presets, a tech tree, extended and scalable UI, and viewable range and building progress indicators for buildings. Plus, there are legacy options available to recreate the classic AOE 3 experience.

Taking on the story mode, I jumped into the European storyline, began my quest as Morgan Black, and took on the Ottoman army. I’ll be honest, AOE 3: DE does an average job of teaching the player how to operate the game. When you’re given instructions like “defend the command post“, but are not instructed on what units are best against other units, it simply acts to waste the player’s time. The game would much better suit a more revised tutorial system that does plenty of hand-holding at the start, but once they’ve grasped the basics of the gameplay they should be given free rein. Hell, even just an option to turn on and off tips would be nice, as players like me who haven’t touched the Age of Empires games in a while are back at square one.

Still, I managed to hold them back enough from destroying my walls and buildings, and protected my townspeople in the process. But, the assault gets too much to bear, and my player character begs that we call some reinforcements. They show up, horses and all, and we’re able to hold back the Ottoman army. Then, cue victory screen.

Thanks for the backup, Alain Magnan!

At this point I was happy with my experience, and the memories of how to successfully operate combat came back to me. AOE 3: DE doesn’t tell you what strategies you should use to win battles; that’s all up to you. This part I don’t mind as much, since it’s a strategy game and it’s up to you to determine your own strategy. So, I’ll give some advice here where the game doesn’t; remember to split your forces when attacking enemy forces, don’t go in headstrong on one opponent or you’ll open yourself up to other attacks. Remembering this combat strategy, cleaving through my opponents wasn’t an issue.

But, as happy as I was, then came the first bug; a crash screen.

That’s not the only bug I experienced, but it was the one that stood out the most. That’s because as soon as I realised it crashed and I reloaded the game, I discovered that the game didn’t save. Being the first mission, that’s not that bad; it’s a simple battle with a straight forward goal that, after completing the first time, will only take you about 5 minutes to complete again. But, imagine this was the last mission in the storyline, and you’ve just battled for an hour trying to successfully beat the Ottoman army, and then you find out the game didn’t save and you’re right back at square one. Of course, the easiest way to beat this bug is to save regularly, but it’s just as easy to say that as it is to forget to do that in the heat of the battle.

A couple missions down the line, and I’ve successfully repelled the first wave of the Ottoman army. Then, AOE 3: DE introduces us to the next enemy: Pirates. The pirates are a tough enemy, especially since it’s the first time players will fight on the seas and have to balance land and naval warfare. This section is the first time players will properly get a chance to test out their skills, and it’s easily my favorite level out of the first storyline. As always, the game starts you off with having minimal supplies and only a few units at your disposal. You’re also introduced to treasure guardians who refuse to let you have said treasure unless you kill them, or, in the case of animal treasure guardians, tame them. Like before, there are no instructions on how to tame these animals. Either you know how to tame them because you played AOE 3 in the past, or you stumble on the correct result due to blind luck.

Fantastic level design allows you to test out any strategy you can imagine, even if they fail… like this one

One of the reasons why I love the Age of Empires series is due to the level design. In every single level I played I could happily say each level was well crafted for the situation. This level was a highlight of that. Upon taking control of the first island and getting 2 out of 3 navigation charts (the main objective of this level), you’re tasked with leading an assault on the third and final island. This is the section where you get to test out your wits. At first, land warfare was a fickle thing to master, and I quickly realised how much time I was wasting leading failed assaults on land. Even by taking ownership of a portion of land, setting up a town centre and developing military units, as well as creating a series of defenses to protect my assets, it simply wasn’t enough; those Pirates are just as good on the seas as they were on the land. So, that’s where I figured to alter my strategy and focus on naval combat.

And that’s also where I found my next issue; naval combat is far too overpowered.

There’s little to no balance here. It’s too hard to destroy ships if you don’t have a navy, and it’s practically impossible to win naval battles unless you have, essentially, at least one more ship than your opponent. If you use the ships to assault land units and defenses, you’ll always win. And forget thinking that defensive structures will keep you safe from enemy ships; you’re better keeping them as a means of defending against land attacks. When I got to this section in this level, I maintained my control of the seas and turned what before was 30 minutes of failed land assaults into 5 minutes of a successful naval assault.

You’d think that once you’ve developed your civilization you should have more defenses at hand to take out your naval opponents, but that’s unfortunately not true. Again the only way to stay ahead of naval battles is to always have more naval units than your opponents. That’s a pain in itself, because you’re also wasting resources on building these ships rather than improving your resource economy or upgrading other units. In short, during the early game (and given that you’ll effectively be at this level throughout all the storylines) it’s far too easy to dominate your battles if you have total control over the sea.

Somehow it only took 6 ships to completely dominate this coastline.

So, as I said before, I altered my strategy and focused on boosting my navy. Taking out the defenses was easy; I kept all my ships in range of a single defensive structure at a time and took them out one by one. But, the goal here is to acquire the last navigation chart, so I disembarked my land units to collect it. I quickly realized how underpowered I was going to be should I attempt any land battles, so instead I retreated those units into the ships.

And that’s where I found the third issue; the AI is still really dumb.

You’d think the AI would high tail it back to the city centre, or even barricade themselves in a nearby building, but no; they stood completely still at the shoreline. They tried assaulting my navy, but that’s an even stupider feat because they effectively do no damage to ships. I made short work of them with my cannons, then disembarked my land units to finally collect that last navigation chart. But, my opponent sent more units after me, so I embarked them into a ship and repeated the process. I used this strategy against every single unit, both civilian and military, and by the time I got around to acquiring that last navigation chart there was no resistance. And sure, the AI definitely has gotten reworked; enemy units will retreat from losing battles and AI opponents will develop well-rounded army compositions, it’s just that the AI in other areas is still, unfortunately, dumb.

I would like to note that AOE 3: DE is still a great game, and you’ll absolutely have a fun experience with it. My issue is that it’s been 15 years since this game first released and there are some areas that absolutely needed reworking that didn’t receive it. That’s a bit disappointing.

There are a couple more issues I’d like to mention. Firstly, the UI could have seen more meaningful improvements. Players will have to rely on hotkeys to get through the game. If there were extra buttons on the UI that allowed for easy navigation (take note of the Civilisation games) like find idle military units or find buildings with no current production then it’d make the game a lot more straightforward. Having to constantly navigate around the map, or remember the many, many hotkeys available, detracts from what could have been a truly positive experience here.

My next issue is frame rate optimization. I’m running a stock GTX 1070, 16 GB of RAM, and a stock Intel Core i7-6700 CPU, with this game installed on a WD Black SN750. Like I always say, this PC is a great middle range benchmarking tool, and it needs to run games comfortably so I can safely say anything less than these specs should be able to shoot for at least 30 FPS. The good news is that the framerate never dropped below 60 FPS, the bad news is that it never went above 75 FPS. Sure, I was running the graphics on ultra, but this is a 15-year-old game. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be getting at least 120 FPS. Hell, even Rainbow Six Siege nets the same frame rate on ultra graphics and those textures look amazing. That’s not to downplay the work of the art department for AOE 3: DE. My point is that a middle-range PC should be getting a significantly higher frame rate for a game that, when released in 2005, required at least 1.4 Ghz CPU, 256 MB of Ram, and a 64 MB video card to run.

I’ve messed with these settings for quite some time and I’m still only getting around 60 FPS.

But, I don’t want to crap on a great game. There’s a bunch of changes that this game has made that are great. One of the things returning players of AOE 3 will find is the new Home City system. Instead of having to grind to unlock all cities or acquire some starter cards, the game has had this removed and ships with a set of pre-made card decks so it’s easy to jump into the battle. If you’re also a returning player (or you might simply be a masochist) then you’ll also love the new Expert difficulty. Although that’s a little too hard for the likes of me, it’s a perfect way to test out your skills. It’s definitely some I recommend you should try after you complete a storyline and are fluent with the game.

Touching on that last bit, this game really does show its colours once you’re settled and are confident with the game. Think the Crusader Kings games, which have arguably the steepest learning curves out of any strategy games ever. With the CK games, once you’re comfortable with the mechanics, you’ll love your experience with it. Just like AOE 3: DE, once you know how to play, your enjoyment will increase tenfold. There’s something truly rewarding about studying your opponent’s building and unit layouts, determining what units you need, and leading successful assaults on them. And this game provides that feeling in abundance.

There’s nothing better than a plan coming together

There’s another reason why AOE 3 has been such a successful game and has a special place in the hearts of players; the level design. This might be something that goes under the radar for most, but AOE 3: DE showcases this amazing level design throughout the whole game. For example, at the start of each level, you’re placed in the most optimal location to begin your quest and are provided with enough terrain cover and building resources to build a successful city in that area. If it wasn’t crafted as well as it is, then levels would be too hard to get through. This isn’t limited to the campaign either, exploring the multiplayer maps shows the meticulous level design in abundance. It’s great to see that AOE 3: DE has done wonderfully to keep in the tradition of its first iteration and provides players subconsciously with a fantastic experience from the get-go.

So, to answer my question set out at the start of this review; I’m on both ends. I do think that Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition is largely a graphical facelift, but I also think that there’s some important quality of life changes that have been addressed. Stuff like server-based matchmaking, added difficulty for veteran AOE players, (slightly) improved AI, mod support, and the new Historical Battles game mode is great, but has there really been enough new content to say that Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition is definitively a game that can compete with other RTS games of the current generation? I don’t think so. In fact, I think returning players will find that the level of content available in this edition is nearly the same as it was 15 years ago, just viewable in 4K. More likely than not, all the other changes that players will likely desire in this game will come from mods.



Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition

Review Guidelines

Microsoft has finally brought Age of Empires 3 out of the dark ages and fans are able to return to the game that they know and love. There’s a lot of quality of life changes to be found within the Definitive Edition, but at the same time there’s essentially the same amount of content to be experienced. Returning players may find that they’re effectively paying for a 15 year old game, but are now able to view it in 4K.

With a deep interest in writing, Ben followed that into a Journalism degree. As an avid lover for gaming, he is constantly expanding his library with console, PC, and VR games. He's obsessed with stealth games and loves hunting down the smallest of details inserted by devs.
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