Since Age of Empires debuted in 1997, the series has grown to become one of the pillars of real-time strategy gaming. Its success is in part due to the way the series has shifted historical periods. The first game covers antiquity, from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Age of Empires II focuses on the medieval era. And 2005's Age of Empires III is about the era of European exploration and colonization. This brings us to Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties, the second expansion pack and the first game in the franchise not created by Ensemble Studios. Big Huge Games, creator of Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends, is responsible for The Asian Dynasties, and the company ably delivers a solid expansion.
What the expansion brings to the table are three new Asian civilizations--Japan, China, and India--as well as three campaigns built around them. The Japanese campaign deals with the Warring States period of rival Shogun; the Chinese campaign actually covers a naval expedition to the New World; and the Indian campaign is about throwing off the oppressive yoke of the East India Trading Company. The campaigns have their twists and turns, with a fair amount of betrayal going on, though the characters are drawn in such obviously black-and-white textures that it's not too hard to see the plot developments coming. For instance, most of the bad guys in the game speak with haughty, arrogant voices, while the good guys tend to be humbler and wiser.
The heart of the expansion is the three Asian civilizations, and Big Huge has done a good job in making them feel distinct from those seen in Age of Empires III. The Japanese are built around extremely powerful infantry units like samurai, while the Chinese and Indians can easily bring sheer mass to a battle in the form of large armies. The various economies reflect historical trends; for example, the Chinese and Indians can quickly boost their populations, giving them hordes of villagers to gather resources. One of the most important new features is actually the reintroduction of wonders to the game. Wonders are notable structures from history, and they played a significant role in the first two Age of Empires games, only to disappear in Age of Empires III. They're back in The Asian Dynasties, and each Asian civ has five to choose from. The ones that you select can help define your play style; we like the Chinese wonder that grants transcendence, or the ability to heal all your units instantly. That's particularly useful if you like to go on the offensive. Other wonders can boost resource gathering, grant free armies, and so on. Wonders are also important because they're the only way the Asian civilizations can advance from one technological age to another.
At the same time, the core game remains relatively the same. It's all about getting a large number of villagers out there gathering the three primary resources (food, wood, and gold) that are needed to build all your buildings, recruit your units, research your upgrades, and then advance to the next technological age to repeat the process all over again. The home cities concept is still here; you can request reinforcements or supplies from your civilization's capital. You do this by using special cards that you unlock. There are cards that can send military units, villagers, and resources, for example. You can also build custom decks that are designed for various strategies, like an economic deck that gives you bonus powers that aid your economy. Another unique aspect of the Asian civs is that they can use many of these cards twice, which can really help ramp up the size of an army or economy quickly. Serious players will no doubt spend lots of time analyzing the possible unlocks and building customized decks for different play styles, though you don't need to expend that much effort if you're a casual player, as the default deck is good enough.
One new feature is the foreign consulate, which allows Asian civilizations to ally with a European power and purchase reinforcements using tribute, which is a fourth resource that's unique to Asian civs. Tribute is basically a tax on your economy, and you can increase your rate of tribute at the price of a slightly slower economy, but what it does is allow you to purchase rare and powerful European units. The sudden appearance of a European army or navy to the battle can turn the tide of battle. Since you need to have Age of Empires III to play The Asian Dynasties, you can pit European and Asian civilizations against one another in skirmish or multiplayer modes on a wide variety of maps. Want to have Chinese warriors in New England? Go for it. The sides seem relatively well balanced even though they differ in how they advance from age to age. The Europeans tend to have a technological advantage, though the Asian civs tend to have a numerical one.
The Asian Dynasties does add some visual pizzazz in the form of architecture; the majestic wonders and buildings pop out on the screen. There's also plenty of variety among the units, from Indian war elephants to Chinese steppe riders and Japanese samurai. The music also offers some appropriately cultural queues (though it reuses much of the existing Age of Empires III score).
Like The WarChiefs expansion from last year, The Asian Dynasties does a good job of introducing distinct new civilizations to Age of Empires III--only this time, instead of Native American tribes, there are three iconic Asian civilizations to play with now. There's a fair amount here to dig into if you're a serious Age of Empires fan or someone who likes Asian civilization.