I’ll get something off my chest before I continue with this impressions piece: until I played the “Definitive Edition” I had never actually played the third Age of Empires game. At the time, I had moved out of my folks’ place and was learning how much fun it is to pay your own bills, so PC gaming took a (what would turn out to be a decade+) backseat for me. Age of Empires III, on the other hand, will always have a special place in my heart and I play the recently released definitive edition of that title on the regular — and it’s excellent. Having said all that, I’ve always wanted to play Age of Empires III because A. It looked friggin gorgeous and B. Playing with Indigenous tribes and muskets in the new world looked like an awesome setting.
The great thing about these definitive editions is that the studios have had 15-20 years of player feedback to draw from and implement. There’s also the obvious increase in graphical capability and technology, allowing for totally revamped graphics in glorious 4K. There are two new game modes: Historical Battles and The Art of War. The former is exactly what you’d expect, having been featured in previous games, and allows you to enjoy famous and legendary…historical battles. The Art of War is essentially a mini-mission based series of tutorials that allow fresh players (like me) to get a grasp on the mechanics of the game. Any veteran Age of Empires III player will likely skip this entirely, but it was awesome for someone like myself who, despite being pretty familiar with the base mechanics of an Age of Empires game, definitely needed a bit of explanation with things like Home Cities, cards, and mercenaries. Lastly, as it is 2020 and we’re finally making steps towards better representation in video games, there have been changes made to more accurately reflect some of the Indigenous tribes featured in the game and included actual Native American voice actors. So that’s pretty rad and deserves mention. There are also several new factions, bringing the grand total up to 16. A much smaller number than Age of Empires III, but with the home cities etc. they end up feeling much more distinct than the “palette swap” factions of Age of Empires III.
As is to be expected with sequels, Age of Empires III was a big step up from its predecessor in terms of graphics, and the definitive edition takes this a step further. This game is gorgeous. The character models and physics have all been totally overhauled and man oh man it looks good. The environments and biomes in the New World look lush and detailed, whether it be the jungles of South America or the wintery forests of New England, trees, plants, water…it’s lovely. The home cities, being mostly static, look extra fantastic, and the step-up in visuals from the original feels a lot more distinct than previous Definitive Editions — perhaps because they had more to work with from the get-go. The physics are especially noticeable, and particularly important for the time period in which the game takes place because there are a lot of projectiles flying around and a lot of destruction. Cannonballs smashing apart groups of infantry and smashing buildings to bits and pieces look fabulous, with particle effects and lighting adding much more immersion to the experience.
How Does it Hold Up?
This is definitely the best version of the game you’ll find — obviously — so if Age of Empires III was your jam it’s kind of a no-brainer to pick this up. It’s the most complete, up-to-date, and beautifully packaged edition…one might even call it “definitive”. Looks great, plays well, and I have to give props to the devs for making those changes to more accurately represent the Indigenous people the game features. On the other hand, as far as the Age of Empires series goes, this one is definitely the…weakest might be too strong a word, but it’s the red-headed stepchild of the franchise. So at the end of the day, whether or not you like it really depends on whether or not you liked the original version and are after that same experience but dialed up for modern hardware. Personally, I’ll be playing Age of Empires III probably for the rest of my life, whereas AoEIII was a fun little experiment that I will likely move on from after a few weeks when it launches later this month.