After covering Europe and North America, Big Huge Games tackles Asia with the latest expansion to Age of Empires III, Asian Dynasties. As with the original and first expansion, the series is eschewing the historical pretensions for a more fantastical take on mankindís past. This newer approach, of blatantly merely dabbling history in with fantasy instead of the other way around, actually helps the series to allow for its more creative moments without seeming too outlandish. While I would have preferred the original to have a dash of Cossacks, as its art and description implies, this altered direction is proving to be surprisingly enjoyable.
Comprised of three campaigns, Asian Dynasties will have players fight to unify Japan, traverse the seas and North America as a Chinese captain, and fight the British East India Company in India. The campaigns played in the order of Japan, China, and then India, followed by a very weak ending. They manage to have average structures within fairly unique environments and with similar units, but they are also very short and incredibly easy.
Each civilization has their own unique units and features, but they all share an interesting building known as the consulate. Once constructed, the consulates offer alliances with European countries, with more countries being available the higher the Home City, which trade exports for unique goods from the allied country. Similar to choosing which wonder to build when advancing in ages, European countries offer advantages that range from access to defense structures to access to economic-based units. Resource gathering can also be sacrificed for export gains, in the event that the allyís goods prove particularly useful. This is actually a really interesting addition, and Iím a big fan of how well it fits within the game world.
All of the chosen civilizationís technologies and allies will be needed in skirmish and multiplayer modes. I would have liked for the single-player campaigns to have been a bit more substantial, but having so many civilizations, especially if Age of Empires III: War Chiefs is installed, means that there is a lot going on in multiplayer. Aside from wonders specific to this expansion, there are those aspects that are unique to the civilizations to contend with. Japan cannot harvest animals for food, but their housing units, shrines, can automatically gather either gold or food. Their Daimyo units not only boost nearby troops but can train them as well. The Chinese have villages that can garrison villagers and train livestock, as well as access to siege equipment earlier on, but more interestingly is their ability to train banner armies: military units train in mixed groups, with melee, long-range, and cavalry being mixed and matched for maximum effectiveness against other unit types. India is unique in several ways, not only do villagers cost wood instead of food but livestock produce experience and can be created at Sacred Fields. India also gets elephants that act as badass cavalry and portable artillery. There are all kinds of unique units throughout as well, including flamethrowers and mercenary cowboys for hire. The new additions can make for some pretty wild matches.
The best way to describe Asian Dynasties to someone Ė the general feel of its approach Ė is for me to tell the story of when I used a Chinese hero to uppercut (re: dragon punch) an elephant. If that sounds too silly, then this isnít the expansion for you. If, on the other hand, the only thing that keeps running through your mind is how awesome that scenario sounds, then there is plenty here for you to like. I was a little disappointed with the original, but I was far less so when I was playing as an up-and-coming Japanese warlord that had to unleash some ninja on an unsuspecting rival. The game isnít hiding its over-the-top nature, and it certainly delivers.
I did, however, encounter several technical problems. I experienced several problems with the audio, including sound effects becoming mute and the gameís music actually continuing to play after I had closed the program. The music isnít bad, but a guy can only take so much.
Overall: 7.5/10Age of Empires III: Asian Dynasties is a surprisingly varied expansion. The special abilities and units of the civilizations might be predictable but they provide enough variety to inject a good deal of new life into the series; yeah, ninjas are associated with Japan, but that doesnít make sneaking up and ambushing a hero is any less fun. The weak single-player campaign was a disappointment though, as Iím one of those that doesnít view the campaigns as trainers for multiplayer, even if they are designed as such, because I like a good solo adventure before jumping into the more mechanical routines of multiplayer. Despite having three separate campaigns, the game is too short and too easy. Bummer. Those not minding a focus on multiplayer and rounding out their Age of Empires III experience with a bit of quirk will find a lot to like in Asian Dynasties.