“Remaster, Remaster, Remaster. O, how I love a remaster”.
Botched Shakespearean quote aside, remasters have been a mixed bag over the past decade or so in videogames. They can vary wildly in quality from near-complete remakes - à la 'Spyro Reignited Trilogy' - to shoddily up-resed farces in the vein of 'Silent Hill HD Collection'.
Developers and publishers must thread a fine line of maintaining nostalgia and implementing notable improvements in remade games. Remasters and remakes should bring to fruition the original creative vision using new technologies without tarnishing the core essence of the game. Somewhere in the middle of it all lies 'Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition'.
The game isn’t merely a copy and paste of 'Age of Empires III'. It’s not just a rerelease with higher resolution and all of the extra content bundled in. Yes, it can be played in 4K provided you have a monitor and graphics card capable of such. But beyond that, 3D assets have been rebuilt to include more detail, providing a palpable difference, even while running at 1080p.
In a game criticised before for not being able to distinguish between units as quickly as its peers, this is a welcomed improvement. There are also new particle, lighting and shadow effects adding to the depth and feel of the game, without outright altering what it originally was.
'Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition' does also contain all of the previously released content in the 15 years since its release. And along with it, the development team has gone one step further to include two new game modes; Historical Battles and Art of War Challenges. These add more ways to play in an already diverse selection of game modes. Furthermore, both the Incas and The Swedes have been introduced to the mix as new civilisations for 'Age of Empires III' veterans to master.
Historical Battles are a welcomed inclusion here due to the campaign being set in a fictional storyline. Part of the attraction for the 'Age of Empires' series has always been rooted in taking control of key historical figures like Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Joan of Arc during crucial times in their saga. Campaigns would place you in moments of time where you could replay the winning strategies of the day, or develop your own to overcome opponents and create your own narrative.
'Age of Empires III', on the other hand, lacked these compelling experiences. Instead, offering up a campaign fixed on the fictional Black family spanning across multiple generations. While enjoyable, it lacked the perceived historical accuracy and gravitas associated with scenarios past. Now, with Historical Battles included in this edition, you get similar experiences from battles and sieges rooted in history, often learning of those histories upon victory.
With all of these additions, there are certainly enough reasons for previous players to return to and repurchase the game. As for new players, there are other reasons to join in on the fun, even if you’re not used to playing RTS style games. Evident at first is the low price point - $19.99 on the Microsoft Store - in relation to the sheer length of time you can sink into 'Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition' and still enjoy it.
There has been some quality of life improvements made to the UI, with three to select from suiting different playstyles. Also included are streamlined preset decks, and while the deck feature isn’t a new one for the Definitive Edition, the addition of cards unlocked for all Civs and the preset decks are. These additions make it less complicated for a new player to jump into a game without tarnishing the experience for a knowledgeable player base that’s been around for 15 years.
Another addition exclusive to this new edition is that of Art of War Challenges. Fancy naming convention aside, this game mode acts as a tutorial for new players, and as a slight challenge for experts to show off their mettle. The section guides you through the basic mechanics of the early economy, right up to artillery tactics throughout ten situations.
At face value, that’s all the Art of War challenges are - a tutorial - yet experienced players may be lured in by the time challenge aspect. Here, you must complete the objectives within a time constraint, requiring skill to do so and advanced knowledge of tactics to earn gold medals. Beginners may find that upon completion of these challenges, they’re more familiar with the mechanics. By completing the time trials, they’ll be much more proficient players than someone who’s jumped straight into the campaign or skirmishes. Something that will stand to them in multiplayer matches (which is cross-platform between Steam and Game Pass for PC, by the way).
While it won’t help you catch up on all of the meta’s of 'Age of Empires III', both of these elements help in getting used to the mechanics of the game. At the hardest of times, those cards delivering supplies, villagers, and troops are a godsend in situations when you’re on the brink of failure, or if you’re seeking rapid growth of your forces.
Alas, no game is perfect, and 'Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition' is no exception. There are some pathfinding issues with the AI when setting villagers on tasks. Other issues appear when sending an army to battle. Formations are wonderfully structured automatically for the initial march. But, once engaged in combat, troops clump together in a mesh of musket fire and sword clashes with little to be done to position troops more strategically without heavy casualties. While distracting, it does inherit this problem from its ancestor, thereby remaining true to its source.
'Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition' is a combination of nostalgia, new improvements and content. There’s enough of a balance between new and old to entice previous players to return. There’s enough difficulty to be challenged without alienating new players from enjoying the game and being introduced to the genre. In terms of where it lands on the remake quality spectrum, 'Age of Empires III: Definitve Edition' is much closer to the good than the bad or ugly.
'Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition' will be available with Xbox Game Pass for PC alongside the game’s worldwide availability from tomorrow 15th of October 2020