In the increasingly distant gaming past, the Age of Empires series was the be-all and end-all of PC real time strategy games me. In our 1997-flavoured family home, and its newly acquired PC (for school work obviously), the original Empires game was king. I didn’t realise it at the time, but everything it was teaching me about both history and real time strategy would serve me well throughout my life, even if it did get in the way of my homework. Hell, if the apocalypse happens – and we shouldn’t discount that – Age of Empires will have taught me all of things a working settlement needs. I have a nasty feeling it’s harder to mine gold than they make it look, though.
The third game in the series, Age of Empires III, originally appeared some fifteen years ago, taking all of that classic resource clicking to new heights, bringing in a multi-generational campaign, cutting edge graphics, and an array of new civilisations including Native Americans. The original release was followed by both The WarChiefs and The Asian Dynasties DLC, adding new campaigns to the package. Now, with the Definitive Edition, developers Forgotten Empires and Tantalus Media have pulled all of those elements together, while giving the whole thing a fresh scrub for modern eyes and modern monitors.
Your first steps back into the world of Age of Empires III will likely be punctuated by admiring glances and appreciative snorts at the lovely visual redesign that the Definitive Edition sports. It might not always have all the bells and whistles you would see in a modern RTS, but with an incredibly crisp 4K upgrade available for those of you with the right kit, it is certainly an attractive game to spend a large number of hours with. I did find the occasional stutter during cutscenes, or as the camera pans across the map at the start of an encounter, but those issues don’t seem to affect the central gameplay at all.
While the fundamental RTS action remains relatively unchanged from the very first game in the series, Age of Empires III saw improvements and enhancements that at the time kept it very much at the top of the RTS genre. Fifteen years have passed, and those enhancements are being enhanced themselves, and while it feels like a classic, or even typical example of the genre, there’s something so comfortable about sinking into the welcoming arms of an Age of Empires game. You know this is a well thought out Definitive Edition when you’re given an option of three different, era-specific UIs to choose from as you boot up the game. That’s the level of granular upgrades you can expect from this.
That said, you’re told about one of the most impressive features of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition the moment it loads up, and it’s far from granular. Serious changes have been made in regards to the game’s representation of indigenous civilisations and the depiction of events and people from American history. They collaborated with Native American and First Nations – in this case the Lakota and Haudenosaunee Nations – in an effort to set right what the original game got wrong. As an outsider it’s impossible for me to know first hand, but there’s a real sense of authenticity to the reworked Warchiefs scenario, and to the two nations’ altered speech and dialogue.
There’s an outstanding suite of modes for you to send all of your troops off to here. The three different Story Modes – the base game’s Blood, Ice and Steel, alongside the twin DLC of Fire and Shadow and The Asian Dynasties – all provide a deeply enjoyable narrative experience that feels suitably authentic, especially with the enhancements for the Native American tribes.
From there you’ve got Historical Battles that take place all over the world across an array of eras, Skirmishes where you can set the conditions for a single player battle to your heart’s content, and of course Multiplayer. Here you can take one of the roster of sixteen different tribes, including the newly added Swedes and Incans, and attempt to squash whichever upstart nation comes up against you. No matter what you’re playing, it retains all of the charm and enjoyment you’ll have experienced before over and over.
The Home City aspect of Age of Empires III has been reworked, unlocking all the cards from the start as an equaliser in multiplayer, but its deck building aspects are an element that you’re left to work out for yourself. I expect that newcomers might just try and ignore it, and you can certainly get by for an extended period of time without doing anything with it beyond the default settings, but as you advance you’re going to want a better handle on it, especially if you come up against a veteran when playing online.