EDITOR'S NOTE: Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition won a "highly recommended" honor for best PC game at the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for gaming.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a robust, ambitious game that’s buoyed by strong gameplay and held back by a few strange design decisions. In a way, it’s a nearly perfect remaster, since you could have said exactly the same thing about Age of Empires III when it debuted 15 years ago. This real-time strategy sequel for the PC is brimming with style and atmosphere, but doesn’t feel as beautifully balanced as its predecessor, the almost-incomparable Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.
To be clear, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition can still be a rollicking good time, whether you’re playing through improbable random map matchups, proving your worth in multiplayer or even enjoying the delightfully campy campaigns. And at only $20, it's an incredibly good deal, too. At the same time, there’s not nearly as much new stuff as there was for AOEII’s remaster — just two new civilizations and a handful of standalone historical battles.
AOEIII: Definitive is, at best, a ton of fun — and at worst, a distraction before you go back to climbing the AOEII multiplayer rankings. But either way, it’s a faithful and satisfying remaster for one of the more uneven entries in the series. It’s also our last stop before we get the highly anticipated Age of Empires IV. Read our full Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition review for more information.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition gameplay
For those who have never played Age of Empires III before, it’s an historical RTS set in the Early Modern era, roughly the 17th century through the 19th century. (This picks up roughly where Age of Empires II left off, although there’s a little overlap in early Ages.) You choose a major civilization from that time period, like the British, the Dutch, the Ottomans, the Sioux or the Japanese, then build up a mighty gunpowder empire.
In most scenarios, you’ll start with just a Town Center and a few resource-gathering villagers. From there, you can invest your resources into building up a military, researching new technologies and even moving from one historical “Age” to the next, which increases the variety of buildings and units that you have at your disposal. Like most RTS games, the whole game is a delicate balancing act between spending resources on stuff you can use right now, and saving it for more powerful units and technologies down the line.
As in previous Age of Empires games, each civilization offers unique advantages and disadvantages. The Russians, for example, can field a huge military early on, but it’s tough to build up their economy. The Dutch can produce massive amounts of gold, but fielding a good army can be very expensive. The Sioux’s cavalry is unparalleled, but they have no siege weapons to speak of. For the most part, the game balances these civilizations well, although we’ll have to wait and see what the multiplayer community figures out, now that each civ has been rebalanced slightly for the Definitive Edition.
The biggest difference between AOEIII and its predecessors is that the game is based on exploration in addition to city-building. As such, when each match begins, you get an “explorer” unit, who can uncover big swaths of the map and collect small treasures along the way. Every action you take in-game also earns you experience, which you can use to collect “shipments” from your civilization’s Home City. Each civilization has different cards that you can mix and match for different Home City shipments, which adds another layer of strategy to a game where there’s already a lot to do.
In fact, if there’s a criticism of AOEIII’s core gameplay, it’s that the exploration and Home City mechanics take away the laser focus that the first two games had on building and fighting. I personally like the variety, but the pacing and strategy are both quite different. Fans are still arguing about whether that’s a good or bad thing, but the Definitive Edition doesn’t make any changes to the formula.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition new features
Age of Empires III has three big new features, plus a handful of smaller quality-of-life adjustments. All of the additions are good, although it doesn’t feel quite as generous as what we got for Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.
The big changes for AOEIII: Definitive are the two new civilizations, and the Historical Battles and Art of War modes. The two new races are the Swedes and the Inca, both of which fit in well with the existing civilizations. The Swedes are an aggressive military civilization with some excellent early-game gunners and artillery. The Inca can build up vast stores of food early-game, and spend it on diverse, affordable armies later on. I can’t say how either one will fit into the multiplayer structure, but neither one seems vastly over- or underpowered after a few sessions.
The two new modes are also good additions. The Historical Battles are what they sound like: standalone scenarios that depict early modern military campaigns in Algiers, Ethiopia, Russia and more. These scenarios are generally longer and more difficult than what the campaigns provide, and should satisfy experienced AOE fans. Likewise, the Art of War missions are helpful for getting up to speed with common multiplayer strategies.
My only issue here is that it’s not quite on a par with what AOEII: Definitive offered: four new campaigns and four new playable races. Additionally, Age of Empires II had many more expansions, meaning that its Definitive Edition had dozens of civilizations and hundreds of campaign missions. AOEIII is not stingy with content by any means, but it’s a much smaller experience overall, and a new proper campaign would not have gone amiss.
Quality-of-life adjustments include features like auto-scouting for your explorer and action queues, which are welcome additions. The Iroquois and Sioux civilizations have also received massive overhauls to make them more historically accurate and respectful portrayals. The changes take some getting used to, if you invested a lot of time in the original WarChiefs expansion, but better accuracy in a historical simulation is always a good thing.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition campaigns
While it’s not worth belaboring the point, the campaigns in the original Age of Empires III had their issues, and they’re more or less the same in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition. Instead of historical narratives based on real military campaigns, as in the first two games, AOEIII focuses on a fictional family that squares off against a secret society throughout the ages. The campaigns do intersect with some real events, like the American Revolution and the Transcontinental Railroad construction, but for the most part, the campaigns are campy, over-the-top, and more invested in a made-up story than real-world history.
This isn’t to say the campaigns are bad, granted. The mission structures offer a lot of variety, and the characters and situations can be charming, in a B-movie kind of way. Two of the Asian Dynasties campaigns also hew a little closer to real life, making them feel more like traditional Age of Empires scenarios. The campaigns are worth playing, but don’t expect them to give you a satisfying feel for the rest of the game — particularly since you play as made-up civilizations specifically created for the campaigns, rather than learning the ropes as regular civs.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition multiplayer
Since Tom’s Guide reviewed Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition before its wide release, there wasn’t much going on in the multiplayer servers. We can say that the game offers both casual and ranked multiplayer options, as well as a spectator mode, making it suitable for esports. If the netcode runs as well as the first two AOE: Definitive Editions, then it should provide a satisfying multiplayer experience; if not, players may flock back to AOEII before too long.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition graphics and sound
Two big selling points for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition are its graphical overhaul and its remastered soundtrack. The graphics now are considerably better than they were back in 2005, with redone character models and resolutions up to 4K. No matter how far you zoom in, characters look sharp and well-defined, and the physics effects — particularly buildings falling apart as siege weapons demolish them — are even more impressive now.
Likewise, the soundtrack sounded gorgeous before, but it’s even more refined now, with a perfect mix of easygoing strings for exploration and brassy horns for battle. However, most of the bugs I encountered in AOEIII: Definitive had to do with its soundtrack. It would very often cut out completely, especially when loading saved games, and wouldn’t reactivate until I went into battle. Other times, the volume was wildly inconsistent, as other sound effects and voicework seemed to make the music quieter. I hope the devs can address this issue soon, as an AOEIII game without music feels only half-complete.
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition bottom line
Our Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition review discussed how it’s an ambitious, imperfect remaster of an ambitious, imperfect game. The new races and modes are worthwhile additions, and the core gameplay is as solid as ever. On the other hand, it could have used a new campaign or two, especially since the original ones aren’t up to usual series standards.
If nothing else, I hope that AOEIII: Definitive prompts fans to take another look at this underappreciated installment. Like the time period it represents, it’s often chaotic and unpredictable — but there’s a lot of historical richness, if you know where to look.