Age of Empires III originally released in late 2005. Fifteen years later, the game’s definitive edition has arrived, completing the promised trio of modernized Age of Empires games. It sports 4K graphics, enhanced sound effects and music, improved particle effects, and several other quality of life improvements much like its predecessors.
The Definitive Edition also comes content-complete, with both previously released expansions and a new one designed specifically for this version. As the press release states, you get over 15 years of content for $20 — just $15 if you already own the game. But as I delved into this, the ultimate Age of Empires III experience, I couldn’t help but wonder: Did we really need this?
The first thing that caught me off guard (aside from a stab at anniversary nostalgia) was a notice that appears the first time you start the game. It addresses the fact that one of its campaigns, Act II: Shadow, was completely rewritten, alongside other content surrounding indigenous peoples, with the help of indigenous consultants from the Lakota and Haudenosaunee Nations.
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On the one hand, I do want to acknowledge that this is more than most other games have done. Civilization VI, for example, decided to simply omit the indigenous cultures of Australia, rather than make any attempt to contend with their complexities. On the other, the core conceit of this game is still conquering the Americas. Ultimately I’m kind of at a loss… It’s cool the developers tried to address past mistakes with how they handled these cultures, but I’m not sure a strategy game grounded in their colonization getting a fresh coat of paint is something I want — even to complete the set. Some things might be better left behind.
It’s pretty clear that’s the opposite of what the AoE team wanted. Aside from the graphical, audio, and UI improvements, a new set of missions called “Art of War” was also added as an extra way to practice and learn the ropes of the game. This mode provides tutorial missions on everything — from how to initially build out your economy, to different combat techniques, and even how treasures work.
I’m a proponent of games offering practice rooms or additional tutorial levels for anyone who wants or needs them. But I doubt newbies to the series will be enticed by what’s here. It’s just not that engaging to fight random animals for a cache of resources, or to watch units walk in circles weirdly before finally moving and/or attacking the way you want. The unit AI, and the options you’re given to control it, feel the most dated of all.
Despite the cleaner graphics and mechanical tuning, this is still a game from 2005 at its core, and it often shows. While there’s a relatively easy way to learn how to play, playing honestly isn’t all that new. Gameplay still feels plodding, and a bit obtuse. The systems still rely on PC gaming conventions from when Age of Empires III was originally developed, and continue to make the game feel dated. I very much enjoyed these games as a kid. While I’m not an RTS nerd by any stretch, I have a certain fondness for the genre. But after coming back and sinking the better part of a weekend into it, I don’t know how I’d sell this to someone without the pull of nostalgia.
The campaign stories may have been re-touched to better reflect the cultures they’re pulling from, but that doesn’t make them inherently worth revisiting in 2020. There are three you can choose from. Blood, Ice and Steel is about a Knight Order going to the New World to pursue their Turkish enemies; Fire and Shadow shows how indigenous tribes were brought into the conflict during the American Revolutionary War; and in The Asian Dynasties you can take on the role of Japan, China, or India in their respective imperial conflicts. While these campaigns seem fairly loaded on paper, their narratives are lukewarm at best in practice, and more interesting, if not better, options are out there.
If you’re looking for a strategy game that deals with Asian dynasties these days, Total War: Three Kingdoms is right there. By contrast, Shadow’s protagonist Nathaniel feels like a shoddier version of Connor from Assassin’s Creed III. RTS games aren’t usually bastions of narrative in gaming, but the stories offered here now have to contend with other games that came out since, and provide similar fare that’s more inherently modern and unique, if nothing else.
I want to be here for a game trying to reckon with its past mistakes. I think Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is just too late. I’m sure die hard fans of the series may find this cleaned up version appealing. However, I don’t know what the pitch to new and totally lapsed players (myself included) is when the genre has advanced beyond what this game has to offer. The devs may think this version is “ready to rock for another 20 years and beyond,” but personally, I think it could have stayed just a fond memory.