Game Pass first impressions — Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (Win 10)

By Heidi Nicholas,
My town centre is burning. All my villagers have been killed except one, who, facing away from our enemies and furiously chopping wood, is in complete denial of our impending defeat. A massive army of elite soldiers and siege weapons is bearing down on me and all I’ve got to face it is one infantry soldier, a cavalry soldier, and two llamas — and I’m having the best time. If you’re deliberating on whether or not to start Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (spoiler alert: you should), this is how my first few hours with the game went.


Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is beautiful. That’s likely the first and strongest impression you’ll get when you start the game up, now that it’s arrived on Xbox Game Pass. Each glistening ocean wave, the berries on the fruit bushes, the clumps of leaves and vegetation, are all represented with vivid, vibrant colours. Marching my armies across the snow in Alaska leaves a fading trail of footprints, and the whole game seems so much more detailed that I can practically see each individual hair on Gentle Pete the Pet Bear, my friend and ally from the campaign.

I’m a loyal fan of Age of Mythology and have less experience in the Empires area, so after gazing in awe at the beauty of the starting menu, I began by double-checking what was what in the tutorial — and realised I had the volume up a tad too high. “Your explorer has just set foot in the new world,” the narrator bellowed, before shouting through the instructions. I’d definitely recommend just brushing through the tutorial if you’re newer to the series, as it covers the very basics of troop movement — “well done,” booms my omniscient narrator as I move my main guy to the next flag objective — and those are key to AoE III. However, it’s quite a jump moving from the tutorial straight into a campaign or skirmish map. There are so many features and mechanics to be aware of that it can be slightly overwhelming when you open up a new game. Everything has its own little “ding ding!” noise for completing tasks or to alert you to something, and the first hectic few minutes are made up of various chimes, fanfares or trumpets, making it a little difficult to tell whether you’re being attacked or have just finished building your new docks. This is especially the case since AoE marches ahead at its own pace, with skirmish maps beginning before you’ve had a chance to read the description, or the narrator constantly interrupting himself each time your explorer wanders past a point of interest.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (Win 10)

For this reason, if you’re a newer player or just want to brush up on things, I’d recommend heading into the Art of War challenge missions. These are new missions specifically for AoE III DE, and seem to perfectly plug the gap between tutorial and all-out war in the campaign. Each mission covers a key gameplay mechanic, such as gathering food or excavating treasure, and these are preceded by short intro videos to quickly fill you in on why each thing is important. It’s a good introduction to the Home City feature, for instance, which might otherwise seem a bit of a random addition to the game. The Home City provides you with supplies, troops, and units, furthering the idea that you’re on a mission to explore the new world — earning experience by finding treasure or winning victories in new lands rewards you with more support from home. These come in the form of cards, leading you to build a deck of sorts with the type of supplies you’d like to have available when you start a new game. The Art of War missions also point out tips you might otherwise have missed: for example, that your explorer can sometimes use a one-shot kill ability. Each map has treasure scattered across it in the form of gold, units, or other supplies, and your explorer is one of the only units able to recover it. This means it’s important to keep him alive, and waiting until that one-shot kill power has recharged is a much better way of defeating treasure guardians, preventing your explorer from losing too much health.

As we mentioned in our Crusader Kings III first impressions, this is the type of game where you also learn as you go, picking up lessons from each defeat or slip-up. For instance, AoM requires storage pits for the resources harvested by your villagers — not so in AoE III, where they apparently just shove raw meat, timber, and gold in their pockets. This led me, anxious about not getting resources while my enemy was busy building his empire, to send one villager back to the town centre to drop off any resources he might have — or so I thought, since that was one way of collecting resources in AoM. Again, not so in AoE III, where my villager just happily barricaded himself in my town centre, and I couldn’t figure out how to get him back out. However, that lure of starting from scratch and building an empire is so irresistible, and AoE III executes it so well, that any resounding defeats are just as much fun as when you manage to crush your enemies.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (Win 10)

AoE III DE allows for a wonderful level of control and micro-management, letting you channel your inner god-complex as you hunch over the keyboard, clicking away and cackling maniacally as you go. No? Just me? Well, anyway, you can control every unit in the game, and the ‘Age of’ games tend to provide you with quite a range of soldiers. In Age of Mythology, I collected the animals of Set and sent an army of hyenas, giraffes, and crocodiles at my enemies. In AoE III DE, I liked to keep my six Pete the Pet Bears as my elite exploration unit. Being able to control nearly every unit means you need to keep an eye on things when you’re selecting whole armies — my forces were seconds away from attacking an enemy fortress when I noticed my village’s two sheep were lined up in formation, charging along with them into the attack.

There’s a range of content to suit your fancy for however you want to play. The campaigns — the maps in the Asian Dynasty campaign are particularly beautiful — let you follow a progressing narrative, in more specific conditions, while the Historical Battles set you up with particular troops and objectives. If you want to start from scratch and build up to an all-out war against opponents, the Skirmish option is your best bet. Aside from the gorgeous visuals and better destruction animations, and enhanced music, AoE III DE has made a huge effort to improve content across the game. As soon as you start it up, there’s a notification from World’s Edge to explain how the studio has partnered with Native American and First Nations consultants to correct stereotypes or inaccuracies in the depiction of Indigenous civilisations, leading to a new version of Act II — Shadow in the campaign.

Summary

I’m still not sold on the Home City (nor have I yet figured out how to customise it) as it doesn’t really feel like a necessary feature, and it seems as though the game would work just as well without it. And if you’re looking for something to really build on or add something new to the Age of Empires brilliance, you’ll probably need to wait for Age of Empires IV. However, just based on my first few hours with it, AoE III DE is a FREE PASS if ever there was one. There’s hours of content and the replayability factor is especially high. Since it includes the original expansions, a new expansion, two new civilisations (making 16 in total), new The Art of War challenge missions, and new Historical Battles, this will definitely keep you busy for a long time. The game looks gorgeous and I did run into a few glitches, but not any major bugs as yet.

We just picked up the Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition (Win 10) achievement list, and you’ll need to do a pretty comprehensive playthrough of the campaigns, Skirmishes, and Multiplayer to complete the list, as well as to try for some trickier achievements, such as the Old Fashioned achievement which needs you to win a game on the hardest difficulty — without upgrading your Town Centre. If you’re looking for something to pick up on Xbox Game Pass, start with Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition — but be prepared to lose some serious time to it.

Heidi spent several hours trying to build an empire and being soundly defeated at almost every turn. She earned two achievements on our Steam review copy, and will be returning to do battle as soon as possible.
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Heidi Nicholas
Written by Heidi Nicholas
Hey, I'm Heidi! I've just finished studying a Masters in English Literature, but I've been obsessed with gaming since long before then. I began on the PS2 with Spyro, before graduating to the Xbox 360 and disappearing into Skyrim. I'm now a loyal RPG fan, but I still like to explore other genres — when I'm not playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, or being lured back into Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3!