If you're relatively new to strategy gaming and you’re a history buff, Age of Empires III is a no-brainer: It’s just about the most gorgeous period RTS you’re going to find, and its rock-solid gameplay will haunt your waking hours. If you’ve been around the RTS block a few times, however—specifically Ensemble Studios’ block, with AOE I and II—you’re likely to be a bit disappointed with this latest installment.
The game tracks the exploits of the Black family as it explores the New World over a period of 200 years. It begins with Maltese knight Morgan Black in the 17th century, picks up 100 years later with Black’s explorer grandson, and wraps up with the spotlight on Black’s great-great granddaughter in the Industrial Age. Essentially, you trade in the swords and pageantry of Age of Kings for muskets, cannons, and mortars.
The story, told Warcraft III-style, features in-game cinematics before and after missions. Hero characters lead troops in battle and gain experience points that can be spent on valuable resources down the road. The gameplay is of the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” variety: little has changed since AOE II. Heck, even the AI feels the same. It’s challenging at times, but a bit anemic overall: The AI tends to churn out a few units at a time to harass you, rather than mustering its forces for concentrated, tactical strikes.
There are some surface-level tweaks, such as caches of loot that are scattered about maps that you can “liberate” from their guardians for the good of the home team. And stone has been eliminated as a resource, leaving just wood, gold, and food to gather. (The need to construct resource drop-off points has also been axed, thankfully.)
By far the most prominent addition is the somewhat over-hyped Home City, which acts as a support network throughout the entire campaign.
Your success in a given mission translates into power for your Home City, which in turn translates into upgrades and resources you can call in during the next mission. These boons come in the form of playing cards you can use for a quick boost to a vital resource, such as wood, a squad of musketeers, or a cannon. And you can upgrade the looks of your Home City, changing the appearance of buildings and the types of people who inhabit it.
While the introduction of Magic the Gathering-style mechanics into an RTS is novel, it doesn’t feel like the Home City element has a major impact on the core single-player game. Typically, you still need to build up your army and bases between missions, and you can’t carry your units over from one map to the next. The Home City does have an impact on multiplayer, however, as it introduces a major wild card into the mix.
Graphically, there are no nits to pick: AOE III is easily the most resplendent and detailed RTS we’ve seen yet. Zoom in on the action and you’ll continually see new animations and unit interactions that amaze. AOE III is also the first RTS to implement the Havoc physics engine, which translates into eye-popping building explosions and units getting tossed about like rag dolls by cannonball explosions. Glorious—particularly if you’ve got a widescreen monitor and the PC muscle to push the pixels.
Backed by one of the best pedigrees in the genre, AOE III features ultra-refined gameplay, balanced units, impressive use of rag-doll physics, and an interesting narrative. Unfortunately, other than the extraordinary graphical makeover, AOE III plays like a rewarmed AOE II, or any other top RTS these days. We would have liked to see as much attention focused on implementing new, innovative gameplay features as was obviously focused on technical bells and whistles.
Month Reviewed: January 2006
+ BOSTON TEA PARTY: Awesome visuals, strong story, deep single-player campaing.
- ENGLISH TEA PARTY: Core gameplay is very similar to AoE II, repetitive missions, and ho-hum AI.