They say that two's company but three's a crowd, but in the case of Age of Empires, three makes a remastered trilogy stuffed full of content spanning much of recorded history that has been improved by a raft of quality of life improvements. I've played and enjoyed the definitive editions of the first two games in this classic Ensemble Studios series, and now it's time to tell you about the third, which lands this week on PC, some 15 years after the original version of the game first arrived on PC.
AOE3 is a real-time strategy game with a big focus on economy, and it explores an era characterised by the exploration and exploitation of less developed parts of the world by the European superpowers of the time, and as such, its return required a delicate touch. World's Edge and its partner studios have provided that with updated native American civilizations and associated content that more respectfully depicts the people who lived during this period of conquest and colonisation, however, this change is just one of many.
Of course, the first thing you'll notice is the overhauled graphics. AOE3, like its predecessors, looks like your mind's eye remembers the originals, except of course we've come along way in the last decade-and-a-half. The 4K visual update is impressive thanks to wonderfully detailed assets and animations, and everything from the world map down to the individual worker units that scurry about and do your bidding has been realised with care and consideration. Buildings go up in stages, the explosions look great, and when you smash one giant army into another the results are nothing short of impressive (and chaotic). The soundtrack has been remastered too, theme music has been added to all the civs, and overall the presentation is really strong.
Because this edition comes with both major expansions, there are more than 50 campaign missions. I couldn't play them all but I did enjoy those I tried, and the objectives really focused my decision making and each scenario gives you purpose and drive in a way you don't get in the more freeform skirmishes. The downside of that is that there are often fairly prescriptive objectives to satisfy, and if you take your eye off the ball and fail a mission for whatever reason, you've got to replay the scenario and go through the motions from start to finish (unless you had the wit to save your progress at regular intervals - clearly I didn't or I wouldn't be complaining about it, no matter how gently).
The campaign missions bring genuine diversity to the gameplay, albeit within the framework of the wider game mechanics. Most of the time you start off with a small cohort and you must complete your objectives while also improving your home base. My experience is that it's nearly always best to go into any conflict ridiculously overpowered - it's not always clear how many troops you'll need and they rarely go as far as you think they will. That being the case, the surest route to victory is to build your economy and then use your accumulated wealth to power your militaristic expansion. It doesn't always work like that, but the bulk of the game is built around finding the right balance between economic power and military might.
There are three main campaigns, and the package has been further enhanced by all-new challenge missions and historical battles. Naturally, a lot of people will also gravitate towards the skirmish mode, and it was there that I got to grips with the two new civs that have been added to the game: Sweden and the Inca. Naturally, I couldn't resist the lure of the Swedes, and together we swept all aside in a match that revealed their more aggressive side. There are lots of options to explore in this part of the game, with 16 distinctive civs, a multitude of maps to battle over, and different starting points to choose from. There's even a scenario editor if you want even greater control over what happens in a game.
I didn't venture past the standard difficulty level, but I may have to in the future as the AI was a bit hit and miss at times and more than once I felt like I was let off the hook by a lack of aggression at key moments. Of course, the game is balanced for fun, but on the lower levels, the AI isn't anything to write home about. Then again, if all you're after is a gentle base-building experience followed by easily winnable battles, you'll find that here, especially if you stay away from the more challenging difficulty settings (including the new "Extreme" mode).
Underpinning the action is your Home City, but I found this part of the game to be a little too opaque and its function within the game could have been better explained. You can customise the Home City for each civ by spending points unlocked during play on cosmetic items, but the more interesting feature is the one that lets you unlock bonuses that are shipped to you in-game, and it certainly pays to think carefully about the bonuses you choose.
While Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a standalone game in its own right, it's inescapably the third game in a series and players will benefit from playing the first two entries. That said, I think it's a really interesting continuation that builds on what made 1 & 2 so good, yet it also changes things up with a bunch of gameplay-focused tweaks that reflect the new era. AOE3 is an interesting real-time strategy experience that arrives crammed full of content and it's being pitched at a very tempting price when you consider everything that it has to offer. My advice: play them in order and enjoy the ride through history. The series might be getting on a bit now, but thanks to some thoughtful refinements, the years have fallen off and these strategy classics have been given a new lease of life.
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