AOE3 comes in with MASSIVE expectations, and it delivers well, at least on most of them. A must play for RTS buffs.
Coming out almost 6 years after the last Age of Empires game (The Conquerors), it was inevitable that the franchise would get a massive graphical overhaul. The graphical splendor seen in this installment is absolutely fabulous. Period. There’ve been RTS games which have tried to infuse 3 Dimensional models on an essentially 2 Dimensional map scale. Plenty of them have inched towards perfection. But what AOE3 showcases is perfection. The swaying trees, the lifelike shadows and reflections, the subtle touches like bullet traces, footprints….. All are a visual treat for the player. The new Havoc physics engine lends your battles a destructive yet engaging look, almost visceral in nature! Cannonballs knocking off soldiers in your ranks, buildings catching fire and getting knocked off chunk-by-chunk, debris and remains of your conquests flying everywhere……. Life can get real beautiful sometimes (Yeah, and I’m a sadist!!!).
As far as the core gameplay is concerned, AOE3 sports a colonial setting, with European powers vying for supremacy in the New World. The gameplay’s much like AOE2, yet a lot different because of subtle touches by ES. One of the major improvements to come along in this title is the new Home City concept. This concept is partially responsible for giving the game its colonial feel. The concept is quite simple – each player is actually controlling a colony (yes, not an entire civilization, for god’s sake!!), with a home city watching over it. Players can occasionally seek aid from their home city, based on the amount of Experience (xp) points they earn. Aid comes in form of resources, villagers, military reinforcements, and even mercenaries. Different shipments are available to you in different ages in the form of cards (Kind of like Risk 2, only that it’s more than just territories here!). The game requires you to stack up a deck of at most 20 cards, divided between ages, which you may access when you have the required number of xp. Most shipments are available only once, and the game requires you to weigh all your options before using a shipment. The best part, though, is the ability to unlock new cards as you play the game and gather more experience point. Newer cards are available are higher levels, giving the system a quasi-RPG touch, yet staying firmly within limits. The whole home city concept is an interesting twist added to the normal RTS gameplay, which helps make this game fast paced and aggressive.
The rest of the gameplay has also undergone a makeover. You start your colony with your villagers, a Town Center and a Hero-cum-Scout-cum-Treasure Hunter. Apart from the usual scouting, you now need to look out for Treasure in various parts of the map, most being guarded by wild animals or bandits. Treasures vary from resources to experience to free units. Treasure hunting aside, you’re required to build up your colony, and in the process, advance through 5 ages upto the Industrial Age. Your villagers are used to gather resources, namely Food, Wood and Coin. Villagers in this installment do not need drop sites, which proves to be a blessing in disguise, averted from the otherwise complex nature of the game. The game shifts back to the normal Town Center system of AOE2, instead of carrying forward the Settlements of AoM.
The ultimate goal, obviously, is supremacy, and you’ll need to fight hard for it. Military consists of mostly Infantry, Cavalry and Siege units, although now the swords have been traded for muskets and the Mangonnels for Cannons. Your troops are now trained in batches of 5, which requires some more resource planning, but eventually pays off. Although the core of all battles is still the same Rock Paper Scissors formula, the correct balance of units and the amazing battle scenes (Repeat: Top Notch Graphics) do lend some originality to gameplay.
A special mention must be made of the naval units here. The ships in AOE3 are nothing short of Royal!! They are absolutely huge and dwarf all units in the game. Their power is a reflection of their size, and that’s why ES has put caps on the no. of naval units you’re allowed to train. However, even with the cap, those who control the seas definitely hold an edge in the game.
Age of Empires III offers eight different European Nations to play with – The British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Russians, Ottomans, Portuguese and the Germans, each having some key differences in their economic and military approach. The vast differences between these civilizations is something that makes this game quite complex and challenging, and take quite some time to figure out. However, with the Home City system in place, players are compelled to choose a favorite and stick with it!
The single player mode consists of a Campaign spread over more than 20 scenarios and subdivided into three acts. The campaign follows the story of Morgan Black, a member of the ranks of Knights of St. John, who embarks on a journey to the new world to save a ”Fountain of Youth” from the clutches of an ancient order. The Campaign goes upto the American Revolution, following the Black descendants through a cohesive storyline. Apart from the campaign, there’s the Skirmish mode which pits you against the computer, and allows you to practice and fine tune your Home City for the real battles online. Ensemble studios has provided the ESO matchmaking services, where players can compete in ranked matches over the Internet. LAN and Direct IP connectivity options are also available. Apart from this, the game also features a full fledged scenario editor, which players might fondly remember from the previous games in the series. The good news is that it’s back and better than ever before, allowing you to create custom scenarios with ease using a user-friendly interface, as well as explore the complex depths of AI and Random Map scripting.
The game, apart from looking great, sound good too. The musket fires, cannonballs getting pumped out, units acknowledgments, all might be run-of-the-mill for a strategy game, but they lend a definitive engrossing element to the game. The background score’s good too, although not as great as some of the previous games in the series. The in-game cinematics, though, are jerky and definitely need improvement.
The game (like any other) comes with its fair share of problems too. Graphical goodness like this almost guarantees that there will be frame rate problems. Although the game’s engine is extremely adaptable (I successfully ran it on lowest settings on an age old SiS chipset and the GeForce 2MX), the game sometimes stutters at highest settings during intense battle sequences. The complexity of the game is another factor which die hard AOE fans will have to contend with, as the game might prove to be too different, although the core gameplay remains the same. The Home-City system, as stated before, as a refreshing add-on, but does tend to force players to pick up a nation and stick with it, gradually improving its level for online battles, making experimenting a bit more difficult. The Single player campaign is one of the weakest points in the game, in my opinion. After the different campaigns in AOE2 and its expansions, players expected more of the same (I’ve probably seen a million threads predicting a Napoleon campaign in AOE3, prior to its release, obviously). The campaign in AOE3 follows a storyline which might sound interesting at first but tends to get rather foggy towards the end.
Minor problems apart, Age of Empires 3 offers a great package for those looking for a historical RTS with loads of eye candy, great gameplay options and complex internals. AOE fan or not, if you like RTS games, you’ll probably do yourself a huge favor by picking up this one.
• Drop Dead Gorgeous graphics, Runs on low end systems too.
• Revamped gameplay with new options.
• Good blend of originality and complexity within the core gameplay.
• Great Skirmish mode and Multiplayer.
• Visual stutters on some machines, High requirements.
• Poor Campaign design.
• Maybe too different.
• Experimenting between nations limited.