The third RTS in Microsoft’s acclaimed Age of Empires series picks up from the medieval 16th Century and leads on into the industrialised 19th. The single player campaigns, of which there are three, spanning twenty four missions, focus on the discovery and subsequent plunder of the Americas.
Age of Empires III is typical sequel fodder, in that large chunks of the core game remain the same, yet there are some clear refinements, the most obvious of which is the graphics engine. This has been vastly improved all round, particularly when it comes to the combat scenes.
Now when you wheel your cannon around and blast a shot at a column of enemy infantry, deceased soldiers fly backwards like so many bowling pins. Buildings crumble and chunks of masonry are blown off in smoky showers, all backed up with suitably booming sound effects. The raw appeal of these explosive visuals is undeniable, but the spangly lights won’t keep you entranced forever.
That’s where the changes to the game mechanics come in, at least in theory. New to Age of Empires III is the concept of a home city. As you expand and take over territory in the new world, your home city gains experience points and levels up rather like a character in an RPG. These points can be used to purchase various upgrade cards which can periodically be sent across the Atlantic to aid your conquering armies. It’s also possible to customise the appearance of your city by bunging a trendy Starbucks or two (or the 18th Century equivalent – Ye Olde Buck Star) on street corners.
The whole home city idea is somewhat gimmicky, but Age of Empires III pulls it off with some aplomb. The strategy you pursue with your city upgrade cards does matter, and particularly so in the multiplayer game, where you can compile different strategy “decks” which grant a range of advantages (for example, you can go for a naval dominant affair on a watery map).
Speaking of the multiplayer mode, this is where much of the depth of the game lies. There’s a whole system of ladders, clans and chat rooms maintained by the developer, a good range of maps to play on and some decent computer AI to skirmish against for practice. The single player campaigns are also impressive, running a plot-line with some flair (and cinematic style cut-scenes) and a good variety of missions.
However, there has been a little dumbing-down in this incarnation of Age of Empires. Veterans will find one less resource (stone has gone), drop-sites for the resources have been eliminated (they’re simply farmed automatically) and some standard RTS commands are missing, such as “follow” and “patrol”. The biggest problem, however, is that the unit pathing is still slightly dodgy, and controlling large armies efficiently can be a tricky and sometimes frustrating task.