Age of Empires 3 was always a black sheep—the unloved mercenary of its series who'd never be accepted by the other troops no matter its achievements. It suffered by being the sequel to a genre-defining game that would turn out to be the best of a dying breed of real-time strategy.
Then there was the fact that Age of Empires 2 was a masterclass in isometric pixel art—a lost aesthetic that, like a sturdy antique, shines beautifully with a bit of polish. Age of Empires 3, on the other hand, was from an era of 3D graphics where everything in this genre looked kind of stiff and lumpy, but you didn't notice because much of it was hidden amongst the big pixels and monitor scan-lines.
A remastered Age of Empires 3 is kind of akin to watching historical battle reenactments on a 4K screen only to find that they're performed by creaky animatronic soldiers. The increased frame-rates and resolutions highlight the half-baked animations and seemingly unimproved textures of this 15-year-old game. There's an updated physics engine, but the only time it felt tangible was when a cubic chunk from a collapsing building bounced off a neighbouring building like a weightless block of polystyrene.
The game follows much the same freeform base-building flow as the rest of the series: plonk down a town centre anywhere you like on a map, build villagers, and scurry around extracting food, wood and coin from the land that you use to build armies, improve your technologies, and wipe out your enemies.
Age of Empires 3 requires cohesive strategy, fast clicking, and the mental motivation to learn a thousand hotkeys. It doesn't suffer fools or the fumble-fingered, and even prologue missions can be gruelling without a refresher on the hotkeys for jumping to the town centre, queueing up villager production, and jumping between hero units. In this sense, even the campaign missions feel like warmups for online play rather than strong stories to immerse yourself in.
It may be demanding and intense, but Age of Empires 3 is also deceptively simple, and a whole lot less fiddly than its predecessor thanks to a mix of modernisations it made back in 2005 and now with the definitive edition.
Nostalgics can opt for a cleaner version of the original UI minus the excess of wooden veneer that boxed in the action in the 2005 version (I, for one, would like to have had the original UI in all its screen-hogging glory). For most, though, the 'Definitive' UI is probably the way to go, making those precious resource counters displayed large and clear at the top of your screen. Whatever your preference, the options are there, and you can resize the initially oversized UI too.
One of the most joyous things about Age of Empires has always been the faction variety and the tradition continues here. You have 16 civilisations to choose from, and each has a host of unique units and quirks that make them distinctive. India has Sacred Fields that heal and buff units, the British get free workers for building houses, while the Russians can't shake their Soviet stereotype as a ruthless people-factory-cum-meat-grinder by producing infantry at an alarming rate.
All this makes for a fast-flowing game that condenses centuries worth of military and technological progress into battles that last between 10 minutes and an hour. The fact that it squeezes five technological ages into just the colonial era means you don't see the same dramatic evolution as you do across the eras in Age of Empires 2 (which stretches from the Dark Ages to the Colonial era), but it's still a satisfying journey punctuated by flashy new units that reflect your progres.