The New World was never so much fun!
The game is set in the New World with the European powers trying to assert their dominance over the region. You start off the game as a New World colony of one of the 8 European powers included in the game and follow the RTS build and destroy formula to achieve victory. And ES has done a swell job in making that engrossing, intuitive and fun.
The one thing you notice right off the bat is the concept of Home Cities. It fits perfectly into the gameplay and offers a whole lot of strategic options. And like any other well-done RPG element, it is Highly Addictive! The Home City concept plays out like a meta-game and basically gives you control of a European City of your choice which controls your colony in the New World. Each of the 8 civilizations (viz. British, Dutch, French, Germans, Ottomans, Portuguese, Russians and the Spanish) in AoE III has a unique Home City template which has been made highly customizable.
Your Home City levels up from the experience you gain in-game by waging wars, forging alliances with natives and setting up trade routes. With each level your Home City gains, you have the option of choosing one out of an array of unlocked cards. These cards represent a shipment that your home city can send to your colony each time you gain a shipment bonus during gameplay. This can be anything from a couple of settlers to a Massive Fort or even a whole army of Mercenaries. The higher your Home City level, the more cards you have to choose from.
You place a maximum of 20 of these chosen cards in a "Deck" which will represent the various shipment options you have during the course of gameplay. Of course, you can assign more than one deck to a single Home City for different strategies. So don't be surprised if two players, each playing the Germans, play completely differently based on their card choice and shipment strategy! Needless to say, this feature adds a lot of customizability and strategic depth to an already rich RTS gameplay.
The gameplay itself builds upon the previous games in the series. Any fan of the Age series or RTSs in general will feel right home with the various task. You start off with a Town Center which can make Villagers who can gather resources and build economic and military structures. AoE III has done away with the resource drop off buildings which lets you concentrate more on the battlefront than on your food or lumber production. The military unit production is done in groups of 5 or 3 which makes end game battles really massive!
Since the game IS set in the New World, it pays due attention to the Natives! Although there are no playable Native civilizations, you can still benefit from them. There are usually two or more Native settlements per map. You can forge alliances with these natives by building a trading post over their settlement. This allows you to train troops and research technologies that are unique to that particular Native. Ottomans allying with the Comanche? Russians teaming up with the Incas? Two words: "Ya rly".
The trading post can also be built on specific locations on the trade routes that a map has. These posts will then automatically generate resources or experience and can be upgraded during the gameplay to increase the rates. Once these posts are fully upgraded, they actually transform the route into a railroad. You can see a train running along it once in a while. And that's not just awesome to look at; controlling the these trade routes and natives is a crucial part of gameplay and can offer you a distinct militaristic or economic edge over your opponent.
Thankfully, they stuck to some of the unique features in the legacy of the Age games! You still need to advance through ages (5 in total: Discovery, Colonial, Fortress, Industrial and Imperial) in order to upgrade your military and economy. A nice twist to this concept is the choice of a 'politician'. A politician sends in a unique shipment to your colony in the form of a handful of troops or crates of food. The resources that you have to manage this time around are Food, Wood, Coin and Experience. While food comes from hunting, farming, foraging or fishing, you can chop down trees for wood and get Coin from the mining nodes scattered across the map. Experience, however, can be earned by performing several gameplay actions. Once you gain enough XP, you can unlock shipments and HC cards. How well you gather these resources can make or break your game. Striking a careful balance between the economy and military is vital to success, especially so in long, drawn-out games.
Gunpowder units with bayonets, Cavalry and Cannons are the backbone of the AoE III unit system in the tried and tested rock-paper-scissor system. So a group of Musketeers will fall to a barrage of canon-balls from enemy Falconets and those canons will be trampled by the Hussars. There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule. Along with these units AoE III has the Mercenaries, like Ronin Samurai, Mamelukes and Finnish Hackapells, which are powerful units generally available only through shipments. Another unique addition to the game is the Explorer unit. This is basically your early-game hero unit, explorer (duh!) and swashbuckling treasure hunter! Yeah, treasure hunter! An explorer is the only unit who can reclaim 'Treasures' which are unique bonuses spread throughout the map. In order to reclaim the treasure, you have to kill all the 'Treasure Guardians' around it. The bonuses vary based on the level of difficulty of these guardians. Not only does this make the early parts of the game very interesting, it give you more options to really dive into your strategy from the get go and prevent your opponent from doing the same.
There are loads of random maps to choose from and most of them offer unique strategic options. While Texas gives you pre-built defensive buildings to start of with, Sonora offers plenty of choke points. Apart from the normal Supremacy mode, you can also play the Deathmatch mode which starts you off with a truckload of resources to unleash a military mayhem! You need to create a new Home City for the Death Match mode and one for each new Civ you try out though, so it tends to become a little hard to switch factions. So, if you've been playing with the Brits till Level 20 and suddenly want to try out the Spanish, you'll need to start from scratch with a new Home City. This can be a real bummer if you wanted to try out something with a loaded deck.
With all these strategic options, Age of Empires III really shines in online multiplayer. And the Multiplayer matchmaking network in the form of ESO 2 does a swell job of ensuring that. It has tabs for creating clans, browsing games and setting up matches. The ladder system is fantastic and the various ladder categorizations leave room for everyone to shine. Some glitches in joining the matches apart, the network handles the load nicely. For the most part, the online gameplay is smooth but random lag spikes do occur and can play a spoilsport. This is especially true during the heavy naval battles and when the game gets really heavy on artillery.
Unfortunately, the AI doesn't really keep up with all the strategic options available and though the Expert AI does offer some challenges to those who're not well versed with RTS gameplay, it can't really hold a candle to someone who knows what he/she is doing. The single player is based on the journey of the Black Family throughout the ages and across the New World. The voice acting during the cut-scenes is markedly over the top (Morgan Black sounds like Groundskeeper Willy, only very, VERY annoying) and although the storyline is decent with respect to the individual scenarios, the fictional element in an otherwise historic game makes the campaign stick out like a sore thumb. The historical campaigns in AoE II were downright brilliant and, in my opinion, they should have stuck to that concept.
Units flying through the air when hit by a cannon, ripples and splashes in the water, buildings crumbling to the ground after being destroyed, chucks of structures flying off of buildings when they're hit by a whirling cannon-ball, flying birds casting shadows across the landscapes and those amazing, amazing Trains really bring the New World alive. The graphics are downright spectacular and the implementation of the rag doll physics makes the battleground more lively and fun to watch. And the graphics do scale well on dated systems.
I have always been a big fan of the Age music and Stephen Rippy has done a swell job of it once again in AoE III. The atmospheric sounds blend right in with the scenery and the tracks provide a soothing progression throughout the gameplay. Akin to Age of Mythology, the music intensifies during major battles, really sucking you in the heat of the moment.
Exceptional multiplayer, a truly addictive RPG element and mind-blowing sounds and stunning graphics... a few annoying flaws and omissions aside, this is one game that will truly satisfy everyone, not just RTS fans, for AGES to come!