Let me preface this review by saying that the first computer game I ever owned was the original Age of Empires . I bought it a full month before my first Windows machine and I read the entire manual cover-to-cover. I practically memorized the tech tree before I even slipped the CD into the drive. When I did install the game, on a Saturday morning seconds after I had plugged the computer in for the fist time, I was absolutely infatuated with it. To this day I credit Ensemble's pioneering work with single-handedly igniting my interest in both computer games and history, whether that history is ancient, medieval, or modern.
What a long way we've come.
Age of Empires III is the latest entry in Ensemble's string historical RTS games, dealing with the time period from the colonization of the New World to the beginning of the American Civil War and spanning the width and breadth of the Americas: from the frozen Alaskan tundra to the Argentinean pampas. The eight civilizations include series staples such as the English, Spanish, and French, and even some lesser colonial powers like Russia , the Dutch, and the out-of-place Ottomans. An ‘epic' single-player campaign spanning three hundred years of history, robust multiplayer support, a wide variety of gameplay tweaks, and new features round out the changes for this edition of the franchise.
What seems to have been left out of the equation is compelling gameplay or even a cursory attention to historical detail, two flaws that make this one of the most disappointing games I've ever played.
"...two flaws that make this one of the most disappointing games I've ever played."
By “disappointing,” I don't mean “horrible.” If Age of Empires III did not immediately beg comparison with the original Age of Empires and its sequel, the Age of Kings , it would be a fine game--but since Ensemble had such a pedigree to live up to and since they dropped the ball so resoundingly, I feel I have a right to be a bit despondent.
|The gameplay is fundamentally the same as what was offered in the original Age of Empires: gather resources, build bases, research technologies and advance through the ages--and perhaps stomp your opponents into the dust via a wide variety of military units. However, there are several additions worth mentioning including several new civilizations; the ‘home city' system; the new approach to trade; the Native American settlements; the story-based single-player campaign; and the new approach to combat.|
There are only eight civilizations in this game- Dutch, English, Spanish, Russian, French, German, Ottoman and the Portuguese. At first this number is misleadingly small, but every civilization has some major differences from the rest. The Dutch buy their villagers with gold instead of food, the Russians train infantry and villagers in groups, the Ottomans can only produce one infantry unit, and the Spanish have priests that ride on donkeys. Some of the differences can be crippling- for instance, the Dutch have a chronic economic problem in that they must gather large amounts of gold in order to build lots of villagers, and gold is hard to come by. The Ottomans suffer from lack of diversity among the infantry, and if attacked with the right units, can be easily defeated. The Russians also are hobbled because of their weak infantry (which--even though it is cheap--can be sliced to ribbons by even a moderately powerful force). All in all, the civilizations are balanced, but only barely so, and I found that I could only really enjoy playing with either one or two of them. Because the others were so radically different--or extremely crippled--I found it hard to adjust or draw level with my opponents.
The ‘ Home City ' system is perhaps the most comprehensive and influential change made to the gameplay in AOE III . The first time the player boots up the game, he is forced to create a new ‘home city' with a specific civilization. Thereafter, every game he plays on that account, against the AI or against other players online, gains his home city experience points. Using these experience points, players can purchase cards and build decks of cards to use during gameplay. These cards consist of things like ‘500 extra food' or ‘ten swordsmen' and they bear resemblance to the god powers from Age of Mythology . At the beginning of each game, then, players choose which deck they want to use out of the ones they have assembled. It's an interesting system, to say the least, and it does inject a measure of strategy into skirmish and multiplayer battles. But if I wanted to play a customizable card game I would have bought some Magic cards. I would much rather make my strategic decisions during the game itself, not before by choosing which set of wildly unrealistic power-ups to use.
Trade has been made more competitive in this new installment of the game. Markets can still be built, but they no longer produce trade carts. Instead, there is a single ‘trade route' that weaves its' way down the center of the map, with several trading posts adjacent. Whomever controls those trading posts receives a resource (or experience point) bonus every time the cart/stagecoach/train comes down the path. This is another interesting change to the gameplay that doesn't exactly pan out the way it should. In the previous games trade was a way to make (and keep) allies and to enrich yourself without having to fight a whole lot. This system basically forces you to constantly battle with your opponent over trading posts, and it also removes an element of interaction that was present in the previous games when your trading carts made long journeys to allied markets.
|The Native Americans in Age of Empires III are not treated as separate nations but as NPC settlements scattered around the map. By building a trading post in their settlement, players gain a few extra technologies and the ability to recruit limited amounts of native warriors--blowgunners, cavalry, javelin-throwers, and even some nifty Aztec warriors--depending on the tribe. These mercenaries make combat a bit more lively and the technologies can definitely give players an edge, but I was disappointed to find that the Native Americans would be little more than a static backdrop to the action, instead of a major player as they historically were.|
The single player campaign is probably the biggest disappointment in this entire game. I was expecting to fight the French & Indian Wars or the Revolutionary War, or perhaps relive the trials and tribulations of the Jamestown colony. Instead I was surprised to find a single story-based campaign like the one that was made for Age of Mythology . It follows the non-existent Black family through three generations- an explorer that leads an expedition to America , his grandson, who fights in the Revolutionary War, and the grandsons' granddaughter, who leads a railroad company. The campaign pays only cursory attention to history and--in some cases--callously flips it the bird. For instance, in the early scenarios, Morgan Black is racing against the Turks to find the fountain of youth, located somewhere in Florida, despite the fact that the Turks never set foot on the New World--never mind that the Fountain of Youth doesn't really exist. Later on, Amelia Black leads the workers of her railroad company to kill the workers and burn the buildings of an opposing railroad company to secure a contract. Cutthroat competition at it's best.
I would have much preferred a few campaigns based on historical events, similar to how things were structured in Age of Kings . Before Age of Mythology , the series was always known for its historical focus. If it wasn't completely accurate, at least it made sense and abstracted history. But in this game--especially in the campaign but also in other areas--history is kicked to the curb. In my mind, no aspect of the game is more disappointing and frustrating than this.
"But in this game--especially in the campaign but also in other areas--history is kicked to the curb."
Unfortunately, we're not finished. Combat is the final thing that received a major overhaul. It is now much more fluid, colorful, and explosive. Ensemble purchased the rights to the Havok physics engine, the same engine that powers Half-Life 2 . When cannonballs smack into formations of soldiers they go flying in all directions, and buildings crumble under the assault of mortars. Soldiers that have been shot crumple to the ground in rag-doll style and even the cannonballs, after they've slowed down, roll around a bit as realistically as possible. The addition of gunpowder on a large scale makes hand-to-hand infantry a bit useless after a certain point, though they can still manage to do damage if they outflank enemy formations or are protected by their own complement of musketeers. Also, anti-infantry artillery is a big part of battles now, and musketeers and pikemen alike can be laid waste by a group of culverins or a single lucky mortar. The same rock-paper-scissors relationships found in the earlier games--pikemen beat cavalry, cavalry beat artillery and ranged units, et cetera--are present, just with a lot more pyrotechnics and a lot more speed. The fact that the maps are smaller in this version (and cannot be resized manually; the computer automatically selects the optimal size based on the number of players) makes combat even more cramped, frantic, and explosive.
|In the end the gameplay remains almost the same as the Age of Kings , except quite a bit worse. The Home City system along with its decks of power-ups detract significantly from any element of strategy in-game, because players can simply call up reserves of troops and stockpiles of resources at a moment's notice, without any consideration given to how the game is unfolding on the map. The new approach to trade is pretty lackluster, because trade has been reduced to an excuse to fight, instead as a means to make money and a reason to seek out allies. Also, as I said before, the Native American settlements are nifty, but I would have much preferred to see them as actual civilizations, instead of a static backdrop. The single-player campaign is complete trash, and even the new combat approach is unrealistic and detrimental to serious strategy.|
For a strategy game, Age of Empires III looks extremely good. The water reflects, the trees sway in the breeze, and everything, of course, is rendered in glorious 3d. The physics engine also contributes to the graphical splendor, as ship masts crash to the deck after taking cannon hits and chopped-down trees thump into the grass. The ship battles merit special mention, simply because I found myself staring at them for a lot longer than I should have. Ship-to-ship combat just didn't have the same appeal in Age of Kings , when arrows were the most common armament and only during the last age did primitive cannon artillery become available. In Age of Empires III , the ship-to-ship battles are filled with cracking wood, booming cannons, billows of smoke, and raging fires. It's quite exhilarating to watch. It makes one wonder what would have happened if only Ensemble gave the same painstaking consideration to the gameplay that they gave to the graphics.
As it always has been for an Ensemble title, the sound is good. The effects are nice enough and the music is fairly well-done. The score reminds me quite a bit of Age of Mythology --recorded with a full orchestra and ranging from sweeping, grand classical movements to soft ambience. There are even some choral pieces and one track that sounds like it could have been recorded by Mozart. This is, overall, another smart performance by Ensemble's music department.
"...another smart performance by Ensemble's music department."
"...another smart performance by Ensemble's music department."
Ensemble went to the trouble to create an entirely new online interface for playing Age of Empires III against other aspiring conquerors, and it works well for the most part. The game browser is clean and fast, and joining games or starting them is extremely easy. Customization, such as changing avatars and tweaking decks, is easy and relatively painless. The actual matches are pleasantly lag-free and speedy, even if the same gameplay flaws that I mentioned above are still as glaring as ever.
Replay Value: 8
|The Home City system, along with the random map games, scenario editor, and multiplayer, means that Age of Empires III is quite replayable. The fact that there are only 8 civilizations and that the map choices are limited (i.e., they cannot be scaled manually) complicates thing somewhat, but if you enjoy the gameplay this will sit on your hard drive for a long time. If the future of Age of Empires III pans out as its predecessors have, it is almost a given that Ensemble will be planning an expansion, allowing more gameplay to look forward to. The sad thing is that, if the mod community fails to take to Age of Empires III as it did with Age of Mythology , there won't be many user generated content worth the download.|
In the end Ensemble's latest effort is technically splendid, but lacks the soul and the focus that made its previous games such powerful experiences. The historical element has been all but ripped out; the single-player campaign is a pathetic substitute for the campaigns of the previous games; and the developers seem to have focused more on physics and graphics than creating compelling gameplay. I've rated Age of Empires III on its own merits, however, and it is still a fun time for those either not concerned with history or not familiar with Ensemble's previous efforts.
But for someone like me, who grew up with Age of Empires and is now watching a once-great game series slip into mediocrity, it is the sad parting of an old friend.
"...Ensemble's latest effort is technically splendid, but lacks the soul and the focus that made its previous games such powerful experiences."