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Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition Preview — Upscaling in the Colonies

The historical RTS franchise ditches its swords for muskets. Age of Empires 3 has always looked good, but never as great as this.

September 29, 2020

If Age of Empires 2 was the overachieving poster child of the series, Age of Empires 3 was the troubled but brilliant younger sibling living in its shadow. Its launch was hampered by performance issues due to it being an incredibly demanding game. The shift to a more modern era of history left some fans uninterested. Most notably, there was a massive grind involved in order to be fully competitive thanks to the Home City system. Even if you did complete the grind (or wait for it to be patched out), there remained some serious balance issues in the multiplayer to contend with.

All of these factors were really a shame, because there’s a really great RTS at the core of Age of Empires 3. Playing the preview build of the upcoming Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition only reminded me of such.

Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition is a smaller improvement compared to Age of Empires 2 DE, but that’s to be expected. The games were released six years apart, and the advancements in hardware and graphics were significant. Those aforementioned performance issues were almost entirely due to how gorgeous Age of Empires 3 looked on release, and they still hold up to this day. As such, very little honestly needed to be done for this version. This is probably the least necessary of the series updates, but even with that in mind, this is still a gorgeous rendition.

“There’s a really great RTS at the core of Age of Empires 3. Playing the preview build of the upcoming Definitive Edition only reminded me of such.”

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The Definitive Edition includes all the content from previous versions and expansions of Age of Empires 3. There are three full campaigns, so solo players will have plenty to sink their teeth into. The campaigns are far less historical than previous iterations of the series, mind you; stopping secret society conspiracies from taking root in the New World, and such. Cutscenes and dialogue are functional, and the story isn’t anything brilliant, but the mission design is varied and entertaining. There’s a good time to be had here with gameplay, if nothing else. Just don’t go in expecting a gripping historical re-enactment.

New to the Definitive Edition are the Historical Battles and Art of War modes. Historical Battles are exactly as described on the box, being a selection of individual scenarios. The preview build only had access to one: Algiers, which was effectively a defensive mission where you survive a siege within the city. It was an interesting enough battle, so I’m curious what further scenarios will arrive with the full version.

Art of War Challenges are much simpler affairs. These are short challenges that double as tutorials, not unlike the Challenge Mission equivalents in Starcraft 2. They award medals based on your performance, so it’s helpful for newcomers or returning players to polish up their skills. Nothing too significant, but it’s a nice inclusion.

Age of Empires 3 DE also includes two new civilizations, bringing the total playable factions to 16. Admittedly, my prior experience with the game is not enough to know the full intricacies of how they compare to existing civs. That said, I dabbled with both and found them to be fairly interesting play styles. The Inca have the ability to assign villagers to performing ceremonies, buffing an aspect of their choice for a time. Swedish houses, on the other hand, passively grow and gather berry bushes for a lot of food generation, freeing up some villagers for other resources.

More than any new content then, the Definitive Edition is about the graphical updates. Running the game on modern resolutions and watching your artillery lines tear into fortifications is a serious spectacle. The sounds of battle and musket fire are strong, and the entire experience is a real treat to behold. Even if the original game still holds up graphically, it’s impressive to see it all pushed natively to modern standards.

“Even if the original game still holds up graphically, it’s impressive to see it all pushed natively to modern standards.”

That said, many of the older cutscenes keep their older aspect ratios and resolutions, even if the models have been updated. It’s a little odd to conclude a campaign mission and then have the screen shrink into black borders, but it’s a mild concern. Moments later, you’ll be back in the action and forgetting all about it. Besides, that won’t affect the multiplayer experience, which is what many will be coming back to Age of Empires 3 for.

I didn’t get the chance to try out a multiplayer match myself due to time constraints, but I strongly suspect there’ll be players come launch. Age of Empires 3 still gets thousands of players to this day, so I doubt it’ll be a ghost town. The Definitive Edition adds official spectator and mod support, amidst other cross-network updates. Two major hurdles stood in the way of the game’s multiplayer success previously, though: the Home City, and faction balance.

The Home City is effectively a deck-building system that allows you to tailor-make a selection of shipments per civilization. Accomplishing actions in a match gives experience, and experience thresholds let you dispatch these shipments. These can be anything from resources, unique upgrades, or a squad of units. Setting up a good Home City arrangement for the right map and opponent can net you a serious edge if used correctly.

While this may not seem like a bad system, the original release of Age of Empires 3 needed you to grind out unlocks to best utilise this. Given that these were individually unlocked for each civilization? That’s a huge amount of grind for what’s supposed to be a competitive multiplayer experience. Mercifully, this was later adjusted, and that carries over to the Definitive Edition. There’s no need to grind or unlock options; you have everything for your Home City from the get go, allowing you to build your decks as you see fit. Anything now unlockable is just minor customisation options that you can see whenever you check your Home City screen. Or at least, that’s how things were in the preview build; fingers crossed that they haven’t done anything stupid like reintroduce the grind in the final release.

The other big hurdle is civilization balance, then. There’s a lot more diversity in units and factions compared in Age of Empires 3 compared to previous entries, so this leads to a lot of imbalances if not handled correctly. Adding two more civilizations is likely to shake things up somewhat, but it’s unclear how many balance adjustments have been made, if any. It’s also uncertain if further adjustments will be made after the release period. Buyer beware if this matters to you.

One final adjustment made for the Definitive Edition is a more political one. Upon loading the game, I was met with a dialogue box that detailed how adjustments have been made to fairly narrow and problematic depictions of Native Americans in the original. Iroquois and Sioux tribes have been renamed to Haudenosaunee and Lakota respectively, and consultants from both were worked with to make for better representation in Age of Empires 3 through new voiceover and other updates. Now, this probably won’t mean much to most people, but it’s nonetheless a good gesture.


Age of Empires 3 may not have been as beloved as the darling Age of Empires 2, but it is nonetheless a great RTS.”

The latest numbered entry in the franchise may not have been as beloved as the darling Age of Empires 2, but it is nonetheless a great RTS. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, and the Definitive Edition looks and sounds better than ever. But, for all that praise and the shiny coat of paint, it’s hard to say if there’s enough new content here to justify a second purchase. This is the smallest iterative improvement for the Age of Empires definitive updates so far. Given the sheer dearth of new RTS games in the last decade or so, this is still one of the more entertaining experiences in the genre. It’s worth giving a shot if you’ve never played it previously, but don’t expect quite the suite of improvements that its predecessors got.

Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition launches on Steam and the Microsoft Store on October 16, and will be available on Game Pass. Hopefully, this will tide us over until we know more about Age of Empires 4.

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