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Age of Empires 3: Definitive Edition doesn't feel very definitive

(Image credit: Forgotten Empires)

As an army of invading Ottomans wheel their massive cannons up the beach towards my Maltese fortress, I'm transported back to the first time I played Age of Empires 3. It might not be the best in the series, but its bombastic take on the new world means that it remains resolutely my favourite. On that basis, its definitive edition should be a welcome update, but based on what's present in the new version, I'm left wondering whether it even needed changing.

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Age of Empires 3 is the most recent mainline game in the series, but in many ways it's also the one that's aged most poorly, its central narrative an unfortunately-romanticised take on European colonialism and Manifest Destiny. As the Definitive Edition's opening cutscene rolled by, scenes of British redcoats backed by lines like 'Destined to Conquer' had me squirming uncomfortably, but developer Forgotten Empires has at least addressed the game's subject matter. The first time you open the game, a message states that the team has worked with Native American and First Nation representatives to combat some of its harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. I'm not equipped to break down the effectiveness of those changes, but I'm glad that the issue hasn't been entirely glossed over. 

Beyond narrative changes embedded in the main questline, the Definitive Edition's biggest update is its new look. HD graphics that immediately makes it feel fresher, brighter and more colourful. That certainly plays into its romanticised history of the New World—zoom out and you can watch the grass get crushed beneath the feet of your advancing armies, focus in and you're closer to the action than ever, almost level with every cutlass swing or puff of musket-smoke.

But here the changes don't seem as impactful as they do in the remasters of Age of Empires 1 or 2. The definitive editions of those games scaled them up for modern displays in a way that was almost transformative. But with AoE 3, the effect is far more limited.

The new version is pretty, but it can't hold a candle to modern RTS games or rely on the charm of an old, now-classic style. Changes to the UI, too, are uneven. Some are genuine quality-of-life improvements, like timers that illustrate the progress of your unit queues or building upgrades. But other times, I regularly found myself glancing frantically around the screen, looking for information I thought I knew the location of. The HUD might look more modern, but I found it far less intuitive than the original.

As well as the eurocentric base game, the Definitive Edition includes the Native American and Asian-focused expansions. It also introduces two new game modes. Historical Battles, which are one-shot attempts to capture real-life conflicts, offer story mission-level complexity in their scenarios, but strip back much of the linearity of the game's campaigns. The second new mode, The Art of War, is a series of little more than tutorial skits that explain a few of the RTS' more complex ideas in more detail, but are likely to already be familiar to anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the genre.

There are also two new civilisations, the Swedish and the Inca. The Swedish benefit from slow, patient play. Early on, they have little to set them apart from many other European civs, but with plenty of food provided through their houses, they're able to expand across the map relatively quickly, using their wealth to call on mercenaries and bolster their armies.

Initially, the Inca are much more suited to a scrappy, skirmish-heavy playstyle at the start of the game, with hit-and-run attacks facilitated by warrior priests. Later on, however, they can turtle up with the best of them, eking out victories from behind sprawling, walled cities.

But as interesting as the new arrivals are, none feel particularly transformative, and the result is that this Definitive Edition doesn't actually feel very definitive. This update feels like the least necessary of the trilogy, and while it feels cynical to suggest it, I can't help but feel like Age of Empires 3 has only been granted a definitive edition to maintain parity with the rest of the series.

The updates to Age of Empires and Age of Empires 2 revitalised those games. They brought Age 2's five expansions under one roof and solidified the original's multiplayer scene. By contrast, a couple of new civs and game modes don't exactly stack up—especially when Age 3's only expansions are easy to find and its multiplayer scene is still active and accessible.

Perhaps the Definitive Edition will help a few more people come to love the most underappreciated Age of Empires game, but it seems a little too barebones to overhaul its reputation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that the Swedish civilisation utilised an annex system. This was incorrect.