Replaying Age of Empires III in 2020 feels rather strange.
Reviewing Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, a game that was originally released in 2005, creates a dilemma; do I review the game on its original merits, or do I review the remaster on its improvements? In truth, I need to do a little of both – and that means giving some context to Age of Empires III’s original release, and why it has always felt like the runt of the litter to me.
Age of Empires III suffered from being developed in a time when real-time strategy games were in a bit of a decline. It was the early 2000s and, as the console market was booming, the PC gaming market was in a downturn. The problem with real-time strategy games is that they generally don’t work well on console; for the most part, they are uniquely configured to require a mouse and keyboard.
Both Age of Empires I and especially II have a thriving multiplayer scene that has endured to this day thanks to their focus on the core mechanics. With both games’ Definitive Edition releases, that core multiplayer gameplay shines, and their playerbases have evolved to reach a new generation. Age of Empires III, on the other hand, focused instead on a heftier single-player campaign. It made sense at the time of release – single player games were more popular in 2005, so it may have helped draw new players in at a time where PC games were struggling to sell.
Even though some work has gone into improving the multiplayer in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition – there are new maps, integrated leaderboards and crossplay is available between the Steam and Microsoft Store versions of the game – it still suffers from not being the focus. Rather, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition‘s focus is very much on the single-player scenarios rather than faction and gameplay balance. And while the single-player mode has some interesting features, I don’t think it has enough to make the game truly stand out in 2020.
The single-player campaign is something that many people simply ignored in Age of Empires and Age of Empires II. For context, I’ve put in hundreds of hours into Age of Empires II and its Definitive Edition, and I’ve never finished a single-player campaign. But to be fair to Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, its single-player campaign is much more well-rounded compared to the previous entries. There’s a decent story arc, and its use of less-recognisable names means it gets away with being a bit looser with historical fact, making things that bit more exciting.
This time around, the campaigns are focused on people as well as history, allowing you to get more invested in a campaign than before; it feels like a shift from a straightforward history lesson to seeing a historical drama play out. Add to that the work you get to do on your home city between missions, and it allows you to feel even more immersed into the game’s narrative. The challenges and alternative scenarios especially are a welcome challenge.
For the most part, the developer has done an excellent job of bringing Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition into the modern day. Graphically speaking, it looks fantastic. It’s got new art, new lighting and shadow effects, and it’s playable in 4K. It makes for an excellent visual experience; the units and people look better than ever. Changes to the UI make for a more pleasant experience, too. You can choose to keep the classic Age of Empires III UI, play with a new default, or use the Definitive UI, one that’s in keeping with the rest of the series. Having a choice is great, and the changes made here go a long way in helping you understand what’s going on with your empire.
Positive changes have also been made to the gameplay. AI has been improved, unit names are more historically accurate, and the game’s ‘revolution’ mechanic has been updated to work with every civilisation. No longer do you just turn Britain into America; if you choose to revolutionise, you’ll get to pick from several different countries, all with their own upgrades. I still tend to ignore revolution, though, and get the Age Five upgrades instead – but maybe that’s just the proud Briton in me.
It’s not all so positive, however. There have been some choices made in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition that I’m struggling to understand. A major bugbear with the game has always been its limited zoom capabilities. You still can’t zoom out very far; it means your units are too large, making them difficult to easily control. It’s a problem with naval vessels especially – they’re colossal in size, and would benefit massively from the option to zoom out further. Yes, it’s lovely to see the awe-inspiring size of a Man O’ War, but I would like to see something else on my screen too.
I am also surprised that there are certain caps on the amount of buildings you can make, or how close you can build to enemy starting locations. While it sort of makes sense in a single-player context, it limits the amount of strategic options available to you at any one time and in turn, really limits your tactical options when playing against others online.
It’s here I can’t help but draw comparison to the superior Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. It has such a thriving multiplayer scene because it has a constantly evolving meta, allowing players to react quickly to different strategies in a myriad of ways. I believe the limit that Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition puts on players’ potential tactical options will really dampen its multiplayer experience.
Let me give an example. In Age of Empires II, there’s a strategy called the ‘Persian Douche’, where you place the Persian superior health town centre on someone else’s town centre, forcing them to either move or die. But this was quickly found to be easily countered, with people developing new and adaptive ways to play the game.
But Age of Empires III‘s restrictions on building placements, and its caps on settlers and the amount of forts that can be built, all work together to strangle the strategic options given to players. It feels like the antithesis of a strong RTS game. There are less viable options for players to make, leading to much more static gameplay with not much room to evolve.
It comes down to the fact that Age of Empires III has never been the best at fundamental RTS gameplay. The Definitive Edition has done a great job of bringing the title into the modern age with beautiful visuals and a new UI – but that core gameplay remains, and it falls flat especially compared to the standard set by last year’s Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition‘s intriguing campaigns are worth a look, but if you value adaptive and fluid multiplayer gameplay, stick with Age of Empires II.