Age of Empires III – Game Review (PC)
When it comes to PC games, few genres are as inundated with "clones" as real-time strategy. There are three major franchises that tend to set the bar, the Command & Conquer games, the "Craft" games by Blizzard (Warcraft and Starcraft), and the Age of Empires series. Occasionally a game comes along that is not a part of any of them and is actually worth a play, but those titles are few and far between. When a new title in one of these franchises comes out, there tends to be a wee bit of excitement. Thus we have the heavily anticipated Age of Empires III. This time, the pseudo-historical series takes us to the Colonial Ages as the European powers seek to grab whatever they can in the New World. The player can take control of one of eight different civilizations, and ally themselves with twelve different Native American tribes (depending on the geographic setting of the map). Technologically speaking, this era makes for an interesting setting. You’ll find swords and firearms meeting on the battlefield – and both running into cannons. Ships still use the wind to power them. So does this installment set the bar any higher for the genre? …Well, at least a little.
"Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss…" (Gameplay):
Let’s get down to the basics. Age of Empires III is a real-time strategy game, and a not particularly different one at that. The basic premise is the same: worker units make buildings and gather resources, buildings and resources make units, units kill other units and buildings. There are very few changes to this standard formula in AoE III. There are a couple of minor differences from previous Age of Empires games. Worker units no longer have to return the resources to the town center. A worker cutting down a tree continues to cut it down until the wood is all gone, all the while it’s automatically increasing your supplies. And eventually you can skip on mining and hunting or gathering. Instead, you can build a mill in the beginning which can support ten workers that will continuously generate food for the entire game (unless your opponent destroys it of course), and likewise, in a later age you can build a plantation that will provide a permanent source of gold. The only resource you’ll be forced to send your workers out for is wood, but since they don’t need to travel back and forth, protecting them isn’t too difficult. Also, as is standard for RTS games now, combat generally works along a rock, paper, scissors format where each type of unit is good against another type but weak against the third. All in all, the game is pretty standard fare, and whether or not that’s good is a matter of personal opinion. If you don’t like RTS games already, this title won’t win you over to the genre. If you do like them, and haven’t grown tired of the basic mechanics, you’ll probably get a kick out of this game.
To be fair, there are a couple of additions to the usual mechanics. The biggest one players will notice right away is the addition of the "home city" system. In an effort to capture the feel of being a colony of a major power, your town can receive supplies, units, and technology from the home country. As you gain experience on the map (from combat, creating units, constructing buildings, etc) you can receive a shipment from the home city. The shipments are selected in the form of "cards." You select the shipment you want, and after a time it arrives at your Town Center (or Fort or Outpost depending on where you select them to arrive). An example of a shipment would be 6 Musketeers or a cannon. Most shipments can only be sent once, although a few (like sending 300 of a resource) can be sent repeatedly. Also as you continue to play the game off of one home city, it gains experience permanently. This allows you to unlock additional cards and customize your deck (you can select up to 20 cards before you start the game, and only those cards will be available in the game). Most of the shipments are essentially free, although eventually you’ll come across cards that need resources to be used, like sending a whole mercenary army for a price in gold.
The home city is a nice addition to the game, and it does give the feel of having a major power out there supporting you. The only real flaw to the system is that, in my opinion, they missed a great opportunity to introduce casual RTS players to having to support a supply line. Regardless of the situation that the player is in, shipments from the home city arrive at the selected location. An outpost could be completely surrounded by the enemy, and yet shipments arrive there without problem. It would have been nice to force players to defend an certain path or location on the map for the shipments to arrive, and the reverse of that – it would have been nice to allow players to cut off another force’s shipments. As it is, the home city system adds a fun but somewhat shallow addition to the game.
|Between games you can visit your home city and customize it as you gain experience.||Play enough games and your deck can go from this measly set to have a wide variety of cards that you can swap in and out between games.|
Another feature players will come across in this game is that of trade routes and trading posts. Maps now have trade routes laid out around the map, with set locations along them for the player to build trading posts (both the player’s hero explorer and villagers can build them). These trading posts initially provide experience at regular intervals. However, trading routes can be upgraded (all the way up to a railroad) and when upgraded they can be set to provide experience, gold, wood, or food. Controlling trading posts along a map can provide a huge boost to a player’s colony. However, trade routes aren’t the only place that can support a trading post – they can be built at Native American villages too. Once built on a village, an alliance is formed which allows Native American military units (unique to the tribe) to be built and (also unique) technologies to be researched. While the Native Americans usually only have one or two types of units which can be built, they can prove useful to fill gaps in a player’s army.
Both the home city and trading post features come into play in all forms of the game; skirmish, multiplayer, and the surprisingly fun campaign. I’m personally not a huge fan of campaigns in most RTS games. Now and then there will be a game that has a really entertaining campaign, but they seem few and far between. AoE III is probably the last game I expected to find a quality campaign. It is divided into three acts. The first act begins with Morgan Black, a Scottish knight who serves the Knights of St. John, based in Malta. The game begins with Morgan defending Malta from an Ottoman attack. After pushing the Ottomans off Malta, it becomes clear that there is a legendary power in the New World and that the Ottomans might be headed there. Morgan is sent off to track the Ottomans and prevent them from securing this power. It’s soon discovered that there is a mysterious third party involved – the Circle of Ossus, who want to secure this power – the mystical Fountain of Youth – for themselves. As Act I finishes, the player takes control of John Black, Morgan Black’s grandson, who soon also runs afoul of the Circle of Ossus. The final act involves Amelia Black who is John Black’s granddaughter, and president of the family business, a railroad company racing to lay track to the Pacific Ocean. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a safe bet that Amelia Black also runs into some old family friends in the form of the Circle of Ossus. For a game like AoE III it was surprising to find such a focus on characters in the campaign, and it provides a nice change from the generally distant feel of the game.
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