Hail Germany! Victor and supreme power over the lands known as Skirmish and LAN; ruled by the benevolent Ryan ‘Hendrick’ Newman; home of the awe-inspiring Home City of Berlin; and keeper of the almighty military deck, ‘Deck I’.
It has been a long time coming, but Age of Empires III is finally here. Taking the epoch-spanning strategy style into a real-time realm, the original Age of Empires was a rocky but fun romp covering the ancient world. The stellar follow-up, Age of Empires II, covered the medieval era and thoroughly improved upon the original. Now, the third in the series takes us to the age of discovery, a time of empire and expansion, and one that is strikingly similar to a few hundred years before.
It is a bit of a shock when first playing Age of Empires III. When comparing the jump from Warcraft II to Warcraft III, Command & Conquer: Tiberiun Sun to Command & Conquer: Generals, the closest contemporary titles to Age of Empires, it seems almost a farce of a release. To be sure, AoE III isn’t the most convenient or impressive game out of the box. To get the most out of it, I had to spend quite a bit of time in the options menu, enabling the camera to zoom farther back, turning on advance military options to let me utilize intricate maneuvers like ‘defend’, allowing myself to set peasant rally points to resources for auto gathering, and making the interface take up less than half the screen. Even after tailoring the game, there is still something slightly off. And that would be that the core gameplay itself really doesn’t feel as though it has changed much.
Instead of adding, Ensemble took away, streamlining the title by making it so that peasants gather resources on the spot, not having to return to the town center; making expansion independent of the town center – no build radius confining building; and auto formations, having troops get into column formation when told to travel long distances and they automatically forming up when coming to a stop. This makes the game much faster, more kinetic, but it all also mutes the sense of time.
Indeed, a true epoch-jumping feeling, prevalent in Empire Earth and Civilization, isn’t what the title is going for; instead it focuses on periods within a time period and has us work within those bounds. That doesn’t mean that such a sensation isn’t wanted, though; when reaching the Imperial Age, it’s slightly offsetting to have pike-men going up against redcoats. The feeling of progression isn’t as strong as the sense of stagnation is, and that is something that is hard to swallow since the previous titles in the series presented it so well.
A sensation that is surprisingly prevalent is that of discovery. With a variety of well-designed maps, explorers are sent out to set up trading posts (gathers experience first, and once upgraded any of the harvestable resources can be dropped off) and posts within Indian villages to allow for special abilities and troops to be trained other hills, through woods, and over creeks. Wildlife populates the area, like the edible wild turkeys roaming near villages and the frogs and ducks wading through ponds, causing ripples with their movement. There are also deposits of treasure scattered about that require gathering and freeing, as most are protected by guardian units (animals, bandits, etc.). Since the pace is faster, combat will come quicker, meaning that portions of the map will be unexplored even well into a match, and sending a small detachment of riflemen over a hill to see what might lie on the other side elicits a sense of wonder that doesn’t seem like it should.
That isn’t entirely new to the series, though. What is new is the Home City, as well as the shipments and cards that it utilizes. Since the starting town is a colony, resources will be needed to set it up to be an adequate center of commerce and a proper extension of the home country’s military. To help out, the motherland sends supplies whenever a certain amount of experience is reached. What is sent is dependent on what cards are within the deck at the time, and these can be exchanged out for newer cards that are unlocked by leveling up the Home City, and this done by gaining experience from doing pretty much every action in the game – building units and structures, killing units and destroying structures, gathering treasure, etc. Once a level has been gained, you are allowed to select a new card from one of five categories, Cathedral (building improvements), Trading Company (economic improvements), Military Academy (military improvements), Manufacturing Plant (advanced economic improvements), and Harbor (naval improvements and mercenaries). Each Home City can hold up to 120 cards total, but only 20 can be in a deck at a time. Some of the cards are also unique to the nation being played (Spain, Britain, France, Portugal, Russia, Germany, Netherlands and the Ottoman Turks) so that it can take some time to feel out which nation’s style fits you the most. The ability to create multiple decks also means that you can have a variety, some focusing on economic while another military, incase you develop particular approaches to individual players or nations. Another strategic consideration is which leadership style to be adopt when furthering in age, with additional goods and units arriving depending on which is chosen.
The Home City created in single player Skirmish Mode also carries over to multiplayer LAN. However, logging onto ESO, Ensemble’s own servers, requires that a new Home City be chosen and created. I really like the Home City aspect, but I do wish more would’ve been done, possibly a player losing their Home City after so many defeats or it taking damage to represent losses. As you unlock additional cards, superficial city improvements are also unlocked, like waving banners on buildings and jugglers walking around bars (and my insatiable Collect Everything appetite made leveling up extra exciting since it allowed me to spruce up Berlin some more), so the opposite might have been interesting, or anything to really emphasize the importance of the Home City over simply what it sends.
So far the review has mostly pertained to the online experience, which is enjoyable but prone to pretty serious bouts of lag (over ESO as well as LAN), but the single player campaigns are also similar, just structured differently. Played out over three acts, the story in Age of Empires III revolves around a family that goes back to the Knights of Malta and beyond the American Revolution, as descendents of a knight struggle against a secret society that is bent on gaining wealth and discovering the fountain of youth. To be honest, I wasn’t all that thrilled with any of the acts. They’re there if you want to play them, but they’re pretty mundane (though not lacking in production value, with excellent voiceovers, music, and graphics, the game does a great job of keeping combat exciting – cannon balls flying through structures, trees being knocked down during combat, etc. – and the characters lively) and utterly secondary to skirmish and multiplayer.
Age of Empires III is a difficult beast. On the one hand, you have a single player campaign that sounds cool but is pretty pedestrian, and often way too easy; an absurd amount of tweaking required to make it playable as it should’ve been from the get-go; the lack of such simple commands as patrol; the lack of particular stances, like having troops walk to a distance but stop to defend themselves or continue to walk, instead of they being stuck on continuing to walk as it is stands now; the inability to have troops rally to another troop or explorer; and a balance issue with some weapons being insanely powerful, particularly the mortar naval ships, Monitors, and their long-range bombarding abilities (the limit of two doesn’t matter much when they start pounding a town); and a build time so quick that you will be racing the enemy’s peasants to destroy what they’re about to rebuild in a few seconds. On the other hand, the Home City feature is a blast; collecting cards, creating decks, and timing when and how to use them in the game requires spending a good deal of time with a nation (which I enjoy, since it’s like sinking your teeth into something); streamlined, if limited, formations; and the series is still strong from its previous incarnations doing so much right.
Despite being impressed with many of the additions, I can’t help but feel a little hoodwinked. On the cover of the manual and box, as well as the images in the manual itself, show lines of British soldiers firing at lines of other troops (possibly French). When I play the game, though, I simply don’t experience that. I want to experience that. I thought going in, seeing these images, that this would be the refinement of what Cossacks II was hitting and missing – a real-time strategy title with solid line-formation combat. Instead of timing volleys or grouping units into three-lined formations, I ended up just tossing clumps of men against other clumps of men. The lack of formations was especially surprising seeing as how vital they should’ve been once a higher aged is reached and everyone is utilizing riflemen and cannon. If I was to simply look at screenshots and the box, I would think that I would be getting such an experience, one that is pretty unique due to its tricky implementation, but I wouldn’t get it. I would get an enjoyable game, but I wouldn’t get what looks to be presented. Beyond that, it has been roughly five years since the expansion pack of Age of Empires II, and what’s given here does not represent the progress that the real-time strategy genre, much less the strategy genre in general, has made, nor does it seem to represent much of a forward movement in for the series itself – Age of Mythology notwithstanding, though if this has actually been improved or tarnished what was done in the AoM series is arguable.
What I wanted was a game that took the aspects of the day, particularly combat, and formed and adjusted to fit the progress in time. That’s not really the case here, particularly with combat. Instead, it’s like a few static moments that are presented as changes, but only mildly so. It’s telling of Ensemble that I can find so much about Age of Empires III to frustrate and disappoint me, yet I continue to play it. The Home City feature is a fine addition, that could’ve been expounded on to be something great, and the cards represent more than a superficial way of adding strategy to the series by making each experience so unique, going beyond immediate nation and player differences. Just try not to think of Age of Empires II, the time that has passed since and the advancements in the genre, and you’ll have yourself a grand time.