After having played Warhammer 40k and Rome: Total War, AoE III feels like a gigantic step backwards to me.
But how did Ensemble capitalize on current PC technology? By adding realistic water. That's about it; that's the only remotely groundbreaking thing that AoE III brings to bear. And after having played fresh new takes on the age-old RTS formula like Dawn of War and approaches so radically different that they nearly transcend the genre like Rome: Total War, that leaves me thoroughly unimpressed.
There are only 3 major ways in which AoE III breaks from Age of Kings, and one of them was the aforementioned graphics, which although nice, as we all know do not make the game. The second one is the new over-arching card game which you use as a supplement to the main game, and each card can be exchanged for things like extra food, villagers, towers, and a fort, which is the AoE III equivalent of a castle from AoK. All these things are provided by your "home city," which is actually just the personification of your deck of cards; your home city is not actually a strategic target for the enemy that, if lost, deprives you of your cards. This is all well and good, but it feels more intentionally tacked on to make AoE III seem somehow unique without actually adding any sort of value. The game would not suffer one bit if the whole system were removed entirely. Hell, in many situations you can play the game just fine without even using a single card.
The third one is the use of tradings posts to interact with the Native American settlements dotted across the map. Depending on the location, you can either trade for a steady income of a certain resource or you can train mercenary Indian units for your cause. And while this is admittedly a nifty design quirk, it's not really enough to make the game unique nor stand out, and it draws on elements such as control points from Dawn of War and trading between markets from the other Age games.
Everything else is the same. Except for those 3 things (which in my view are relatively minor), nothing has changed at all since the other two Age games except the setting. Actually I take that back; Ensemble apparently thought the game would profit from a clunky and poorly-designed interface that displays surprisingly little considering how much space it takes up. But anyway, besides that, nothing has changed. There is still significant emphasis on resource gathering, despite attempts to simplify it, and battles still devolve into confusing clusters, which is an accurate representation of battles in the 18th century. Unit models are still uniform across factions, so you will have musketeers with tri-cornered hats fighting Mexicans across the American West. It's worth noting that Rome: Total War had over to correct the AI and pathfinding issues that were in AoK 6 damn years ago. What have they been doing all this time? The same strategies that held true in AoK hold true in AoE III; namely, memorize hotkeys and build as many villagers as possible so you can rush the enemy early on. The campaign has gotten exponentially worse. Why didn't they just stick to the historical campaigns of Age of Kings? As one person so eloquently put it; "the 100% PC introduction of a Dr. Quinn Medicine Broad protagonist combined with contrasting caveman-ignorant 'Then you can go fight Mexicans or whatever it is you do' comments comes off as contrived and distracting dreck of the worst sort. Get better writers."
As many here before have said, if you want a game that plays exactly like AoK did six years ago, then you should buy this game. But if that's what you want, then you're probably gullible and easy to please. Technology has progressed significantly since then, and the hardware limitations of the mid to late '90s that really gave birth to the traditional style of RTS games that Ensemble is seeking to emulate here no longer exist. But instead of using this increased capacity towards any meaningful end, they go and employ someone full time to [i[render water[/i], as if somehow that's an efficient use of resources.