Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition Review — Revolutionizing for a solid new experience

As this game nears its 15th anniversary, some clever reworks bring it up as a fitting end to the Age of Empires remaster trilogy.

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

Going through the "Age" real-time strategy games years ago, I found Age of Empires III the weakest offering. The Home City system with unlockable cards, the focus on colonial expansion, and eschewing of the historical campaigns in favor of a secret society plot just didn't come together or feel as strong as past titles. While still well-received, Age of Empires III was far from the universal acclaim of its predecessor, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

Age of Empires III went on to receive two DLC packs, The WarChiefs, and The Asian Dynasties. Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition takes all the prior content that was released and bundles it with strong graphical enhancements, two new civilizations, heavy reworks for the Native American civilizations, challenge missions in The Art of War, and Historical Battles.

Forgotten Empires has already proven itself in remastering Age of Empires: Definitive Edition and Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and the team is aided here by Tantalus Media. While the changes aren't as numerous as the sheer volume of content found in the prior remaster, they're arguably more important.

Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Microsoft. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition What I liked

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TitleAge of Empires III: Definitive Edition
DeveloperTantalus Media, Forgotten Empires
PublisherXbox Game Studios
GenreReal-Time Strategy
Game Size42GB
Xbox Game PassYes
Launch Price$20

My coworker Cale Hunt already shared some thoughts on the game when he got to play a preview build, and I'm happy to echo his opinion on just about everything. While of Age of Empires III already looked the best of the original trilogy, it looks even better here with 4K graphics and a warm palette that fits the American setting.

There's plenty of customization options for the UI, with different placement options depending on your particular preferences. Using keyboard shortcuts to up your strategic game isn't difficult either. Managing different army groups with hotkeys was a breeze, and figuring out the right macros for keeping an economic pipeline booming wasn't difficult.

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

The entire Home City mechanic has mercifully been reworked outside of the singleplayer campaigns. All cards are unlocked from the start for everyone. Now, if you're beginning to explore multiplayer, you won't be at a disadvantage playing against somehow who has hundreds of hours under their belt. Just being able to focus on choosing shipments during a match felt like a huge relief. When combined with the addition of dedicated servers, I expect players will be a lot happier with the multiplayer scene.

The entire Home City mechanic has mercifully been reworked.

With the addition of the Swedes and the Incas, there are now 16 civilizations to play. I specifically focused a lot of my time in custom matches with these two newcomers, and both feel like solid, balanced additions. The Incas feel suited to midgame rushes, with the ability to quickly speed unit production, while the Incan Priestess can convert enemy units (Wololo!). Meanwhile, the Swedes take a while to get going but become a downright frightening force in the endgame, cranking out artillery and hiring mercenaries with mechanized perfection.

The game has been well-optimized, too. On my Samsung 850 EVO solid-state drive, the different story missions, custom multiplayer battles, and other modes never took more than about six or seven seconds to load, which meant flowing from one engagement to the next could be done with ease. With every setting to max at 1080p, a GTX 780 Ti and I7-4930k easily averaged 60 FPS, with some drops into the mid-40s when multiple large armies clashed.

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

The Art of War challenge missions from Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition make a welcome return here. Meanwhile, Historical Battles provide fully-narrated and voiced scenarios with nice production values. It's not the same as dedicated campaigns but being able to take on the Spanish at Algiers and undergo other fights meant the mainline campaign's focus is no longer as jarring and is actually fairly enjoyable.

One of the most meaningful changes comes in how the Native American tribes are represented.

One of the most meaningful changes comes in how the Native American tribes are represented. Names have been changed to match authentic historical civilizations, with stereotypical material like the Fire Pit removed. Act II of The WarChiefs campaign has also been altered to remove Crazy Horse and has been written as a more personal, fitting story. For more information, I encourage you to read the World's Edge interview with Anthony Brave, a Sicangu Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) and Chippewa-Cree descendant who helped to develop the new content and recommended different changes.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition What I disliked

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

My performance was solid overall, though I did repeatedly get framerate stutter in cinematics, especially when trying Historical Battles. These would play out quite choppy despite little happening on the screen, only to resolve immediately upon assuming direct control of my units. These issues never cropped up in gameplay, so I'm willing to chalk it up to an odd bug, but it's still something to keep in mind.

While the AI's pathfinding has certainly been improved from 2005, I still noticed some odd movement choices.

This isn't exactly a complaint, but you should also be aware this title is far more physically demanding than Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition. A modern gaming PC shouldn't have any issues. Still, if you're planning to game on the go, you'll want to look into one of the best laptops for Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition to have a smooth experience.

While the AI's pathfinding has certainly been improved from 2005, I still noticed some odd movement choices that raised my eyebrows on multiple occasions. Cliffs, in particular, continue to provoke odd pathfinding behavior as artillery and infantry would split up, head in different directions, then reconvene for seemingly no purpose.

It's a minor gripe, but it's also far too easy to accidentally select every unit in the area, which can make sorting villagers and combat units early on tedious; you'll want to set up custom groups quickly.

Should you buy Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition?

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

While the prior remasters provided beautiful new graphics and chunks of new content, the changes here been more subtle yet arguably even more important. Age of Empires and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings didn't need remasters to feel like incredible games, but here, it feels like Age of Empires III's potential has finally been realized.

Everything on offer here will provide dozens of hours of playtime before you ever touch multiplayer, and if the low price of $20 somehow isn't enough, it's included with Xbox Game Pass for PC.

If you're looking for some classic strategy with a modern polish, it's well worth your time to check out this impressive effort, especially as it appears to be the final remaster before Age of Empires IV eventually arrives — unless World's Edge decides to grace us with an Age of Mythology: Definitive Edition. I'd really, really, really like that.

Samuel Tolbert
Freelance Writer

Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.