Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition preview — Hands-on with the third remake in the Age trilogy

Age Of Empires III: Definitive Edition
Age Of Empires III: Definitive Edition (Image credit: Microsoft)

The original Age of Empires trilogy — soon to be followed up by Age of Empires IV — has been remastered in Definitive Edition versions, with Age of Empires III being the final game to receive the treatment. It's sort of an outsider, the third sibling that took chances and did things a bit differently while still definitely being from the same real-time strategy (RTS) family. Despite it not necessarily being as popular as the first two Age installments, it has still garnered a lot of heat thanks to the remake, and we're eagerly anticipating the expected October 15, 2020 launch.

In the meantime, we were able to play a preview build of Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition for a limited time to see how the game is coming along. Here's a bit of what you can expect heading into the official launch.

This is still the game you love

I admit that I did not play nearly as much Age of Empires III as I did Age of Empires II. I have memories of trying to run the game on a PC with much lower specs than required, and I remember battling through anyway, just to get a taste of something a bit different from the medieval setting with which I was familiar.

And different it was; a new time period, new game mechanics, new 3D models, and new civilizations. This was still Age of Empires at its core, but it branched out in new ways, not always to the liking of veteran Age players. A customizable home city with deck-building functions? A need to grind home city levels in both singleplayer and multiplayer? Different politicians to choose from when researching the next age? This was a new take on the Age formula. To note concerning the deck building grind that was in the original version of Age III, it seems to have been removed. I was able to customize a new civilization's deck with all the cards in both singleplayer and multiplayer from the very start of my playtime.

Another reason it seemed so different was the massive graphical jump. Original Age of Empires III was breathtaking when it was released, and many PCs that could easily handle Age II had no chance of keeping up. That's probably why the visual updates don't look as impressive with Age III as they do with the first two remasters.

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Don't get me wrong; the game looks far better than the original thanks to updated 3D models, animations, and lighting. It's just not as big of a change as you might expect if you played the first two Definitive Edition games. The game can now also be played at 4K if your PC has the right hardware, but it'll undoubtedly take some power. Running a Ryzen 5 2600 and NVIDIA RTX 2070, Super landed me somewhere between 60 and 100 FPS at 1440p. If you need a new PC, be sure to have a look at our roundup of the best laptops for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition.

Some of the game's content has been changed to better represent the civilizations included in the game. A splash screen upon loading the game mentions how World's Edge (the development team) went to lengths to correct inaccuracies involving Indigenous depiction. It explains that consultants from the Lakota and Haudenosaunee Nations helped in the process, which was actually quite far-reaching in terms of the game. New voices, new mechanics, and new plots have been added. Whether or not these aims were realized is not up to me to decide, but this was not something the developers decided to ignore.

New ways to play

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Ultimately, at its core, the Definitive Edition version is the same game you either love or hate. You get all the same vanilla and expansion content, with three complete campaigns (Blood, Ice, and Steel; Fire and Shadow; The Asian Dynasties), plus two new civilizations — Inca and Swedes — for a total of 16 playable civs.

The Art of War game mode has been added, a 10-part blessing for Age III newcomers who want to learn the game's mechanics quickly.

A new game mode called Historical Battles has been added, with one sampling set in 1516 Algiers available in the preview build. It'll be padded out in the full release, and it provides some extra singleplayer content for those who have already mastered the campaigns and don't feel like redoing them after the overhaul. I look forward to these missions, as it gives the developers a new way to implement their touch on map and mission design rather than just redoing the existing campaigns.

The Art of War has also been included here after being a welcome addition to Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. As someone who spent limited time with the original game more than a decade ago, it's a great way to get up to speed with the game's mechanics. It consists of 10 separate missions, each with a separate focus but building toward the game's full expanse. Each mission has a cutscene that explains what you will be tasked with doing, and the missions themselves are closely directed and narrated. Even a beginner like me felt exponentially more confident after even the first few missions. For a bit of incentive, medals can be earned in the game mode.

Discovering new civilizations

Age of Empires III: DE's two new civilizations are no doubt some of the most enticing additions to the game. New strategies, new models, and new voice lines are always welcome in an RTS. I gave both a shot in skirmish mode, and if I didn't know better, I'd assume they were always included. It remains to be seen how they're balanced in multiplayer, which is where real imbalances are revealed. It's worth noting for those who like to customize their home cities that neither of the new civs have the feature available.

The new Inca civilization features some mechanics that the Age of Empires II veterans will immediately recognize.

The Swedes seem to have a focus on infantry and gunpowder, receiving strong, unique pikemen and musketeers, as well as unique heavy hand cavalry and light artillery. If you're one for mercenary work, Swedes also receive cheaper mercenary shipments faster. Considering torps (houses) pull in nearby resources, this could lead to some interesting playstyles.

As for playing Inca, fans of previous Age of Empires games are going to love that Priestesses can convert enemy units. Inca trade game is strong thanks to a unique trading post that can shelter villagers, plus the unique Stronghold building can produce military units and garrison them for extra defense and attack. Sort of like a weaker Portuguese Feitoria from Age of Empires II: DE, Inca Kancha houses continuously produce food.

Waiting on the real thing

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The preview build I was able to test has a lot of the content expected to be in the full release, and it's clear the update to graphics, models, and animations has gone smoothly. Despite not being as much of a fan of Age of Empires III as I am of the second game in the series, I look forward to delving into the extra features once the game is fully released. New mechanics, new civilizations, and a whole new timeline are waiting for those who haven't yet enjoyed Age of Empires III. Veterans of the game will be able to re-experience the title they love, albeit with a whole new look.

Cale Hunt

Cale Hunt brings to Windows Central more than eight years of experience writing about laptops, PCs, accessories, games, and beyond. If it runs Windows or in some way complements the hardware, there’s a good chance he knows about it, has written about it, or is already busy testing it.