Earlier in the year I wrote an article looking at Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and my experience getting back into it after it was remastered. I had a lot of fun with that game, and I’ve even gone back and played a few matches here and there over the summer. I played the first two Age of Empires titles to death in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but when Age of Empires III was released in 2005 I was less than impressed. While the core gameplay was similar, the addition of features like “home cities” and “cards” complicated things and, in my opinion at the time, detracted from the real-time strategy experience that I hoped to have. This also coincided with a period where I was particularly busy with my professional and personal life, and as such there were a number of factors involved in me putting down the game and not picking it up again.
Until now, that is! Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition was released a few days ago and follows on from last year’s Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and 2018’s Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, completing the trilogy. The remastering process has brought all three titles in line with one another, at least from a visual standpoint, and were it not for differences in building and unit styles, it would be hard to tell them apart. Age of Empires III, being a more recent title, was visually better than the first two titles to begin with, and in that sense perhaps the upgrade doesn’t feel quite so dramatic. However, the game looks great and a lot of work has been put into that side of things.
I wouldn’t have necessarily rushed out to buy Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, especially not this close to its release. But as you may recall, I recently became a subscriber to Microsoft’s Game Pass for PC service, and in line with the company’s policy of bringing every new first-party release straight to Game Pass, it was available to me. So I downloaded it! Game Pass for PC is still not a seamless experience, and frustratingly logs me out every time I so much as minimise the Xbox app. Also, for some reason the download progress bar wasn’t working right; although the title did download, it told me it was stuck at having downloaded 14 megabytes the whole time. These are pretty basic things that Microsoft will need to work on if they want Game Pass for PC to be taken seriously, and now that the service is about to exit its “beta” phase, I hope to see such problems fixed. However, this isn’t meant to be another review of Game Pass!
The first thing players see upon booting up Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a note from the developers explaining that some changes have been made to the game compared to its 2005 iteration. While there are gameplay changes (quite a lot of them, though many are minor) this message focuses on the way Age of Empires III treated indigenous peoples. The names of the game’s two Native American tribes have been changed – in the 2005 version of the game they were called the Sioux and the Iroquois; in 2020 they use the more accurate native names of Lakota and Haudenosaunee respectively. There have also been some changes to the way Native Americans are portrayed within the game, and Microsoft worked with Native American advisors in order to help shape the remaster.
This speaks to a much broader point, one which a single article can’t sufficiently cover. How can developers make history-based games that accurately depict the vast range of cultures and civilisations that existed? And how can a game like Age of Empires III possibly be made “fair” to all players when there are major differences between cultures and their levels of technology? This is an issue present in a lot of strategy games in particular, and the way developers have tended to handle it has been to “westernise” non-western civilisations, giving them technologies and resources they didn’t historically have in order to keep them competitive from a gameplay perspective. Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition does this too, and we see it prominently in other games, such as Civilization VI.
I don’t have a good answer when it comes to depicting history in media. On the one hand there will be people who say “it’s just a game,” as if to shut down the argument and just focus on whether or not the gameplay itself is good. And there will be others who practically want a boycott of titles that even try to deal with colonialism and the like. In a title like Age of Empires III, the entire aim of the game is to build and maintain a colony. Colonialism is the absolute core of the game, and that can’t be removed without fundamentally changing it into an altogether different experience. However, I like to think that we’re getting better with the way we treat history and different cultures in 2020, and the way that Native Americans are depicted in the game is not particularly historically accurate, despite attempts to make it better.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition brings in several changes to the original experience in order to make the game more accessible to new players. One change that I particularly appreciated was to the user interface; there are now options to either retain the original 2005 UI, to use a new UI developed for the remaster, or to use a UI that’s almost identical to the one seen in the first two games. This definitely helps move much more smoothly from one game to the next, and when remastering a title there’s no excuse for things like radically different UI or controls. One thing that I found extremely annoying in the 2018 re-release of Shenmue I & II was that on PC, the main action button (used to interact with the environment) changed from one game to the next. That’s the kind of annoyance that should be fixed in any remaster, and Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition has certainly made changes with players in mind.
As someone who isn’t all that familiar with the original version of Age of Empires III I’m not well-qualified to speak on gameplay changes between the two editions. That said, there are some that seem quite major, such as a big expansion of the “revolution” system, the changing of resource gathering rates, changes to resources on certain map types, and many more besides. For players used to the original version of the game who may have well-established ways to play, it’s worth reading through the entire list of changes on the Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition website. Even having done so, however, it will no doubt take time to get used to the new way everything works!
There are two new civilisations in the game – the Inca and Sweden – bringing the total number of civilisations to 16. Compared to the 35 playable civilisations in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition this may seem paltry, but unlike in the other two games, each civilisation has more unique features. For example, in Age of Empires II each civilisation would use one of a handful of architectural styles, meaning no civilisation looked unique. In Age of Empires III, each civilisation has its own distinct look.
The addition of home cities (which also look unique for each civilisation) which I disliked back in 2005 also adds further distinctiveness to each civilisation, as do the cards which are used to set up each game. In a way I stand by what I would have said about the game fifteen years ago – these factors complicate gameplay. But at the same time that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and after getting used to the way the game works and figuring out each of the systems, their value to gameplay cannot be understated.
Overall, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition lives up to its name, at least based on the short amount of time I’ve spent with it so far. It is undeniably the definitive version of the game, having not only been given a visual overhaul, but with the development team having worked hard to rebalance the game to address player feedback. After fifteen years of a dedicated playerbase enjoying the original version, the developers had plenty of information to go on! It has been pointed out by those who know more about the game than I do that many of the changes made for Definitive Edition reflect changes and rebalances in some of the original version’s most popular fan-made mods. That says a lot – the developers have listened and tried to make the game as fair and fun as possible while still retaining some of its original quirks.
For me, as a Game Pass subscriber, getting Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition was a no-brainer. On Steam it sells for £15/$20, and for that price I think you’re getting a good strategy game with visuals comparable to any of today’s better games, and gameplay that has been improved based on fifteen years’ worth of player data and feedback. That seems like a pretty good deal, and for that matter all three of the remastered Age of Empires titles have been good value. Though I have heard from others that there are bugs and even crashes, I didn’t experience any of that during my time with the game. I would also add that if there are issues of that nature, they will almost certainly be patched out soon as the team behind Age of Empires are continuously working on updates. Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has received regular updates since it was released last year, and I see no reason why the same won’t happen here. That said, I found nothing game-breaking in my time playing.
Some of the changes made will be controversial with fans of the original version of the game, but that’s to be expected with any major overhaul. In the case of the first two titles in the Age of Empires series, the remastered versions are widely acclaimed and even considered superior in many ways to the original versions by fans. Whether that will be the case here is uncertain, and some of the more contentious issues – like those surrounding the nature of colonialism itself – will take time to settle down. However, for my two cents I think Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is fun, and gives me a second chance with a game I mostly overlooked first time around.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is out now for PC. The game is the copyright of Microsoft, Xbox Game Studios, Tantalus Media, and Forgotten Empires. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.