Review by hozhoz

"Golden Age for Age of Empires"

The Age of Empires series has been revolutionary to Real-Time Strategy (RTS) for years, so it's no surprise that the enchantment from the previous games has carried over into Age of Empires III. In spite of the brilliant formula of previous games, AOE 3 may feel like the same horse and cart probably depends on how much you've enjoyed and played the previous games in the series.

In this latest game in the series, gamers play as an explorer of America between 1400 and 1800AD, the time in which America was cultured by European countries and starting to grow to what it is today. A new feature is the Home City, a place where you can visit at any point during a game to send useful shipments for your explorer and settlement. There is a wide array of thing to send from your Home City and whatever is sent will speed up your enjoyment and place in the game whether it be units, buildings or advancements in resource gathering speed.

The tutorial is split into two areas, one explaining the interface of the game and Home City and the other part letting you play a game and receiving advice in-game. The advice is good to start for any player whether new or a veteran to the series. If you have played previous games you will obviously be at an advantage with many of the older games features carrying through, like similar resources, buildings and units.

Resource gathering is at a similar state to previous games and upgrades to wood cutting, hunting or mining can all be found at the market or in shipments from the home city. Another feature continued from old games is the resource trading from the market and tributing to other players, but unlike older games the market is available in the first age and is likely to be the first building you erect. One of the biggest changes to resource gathering is that settlers, or villagers do not have to walk back to deposit resources, this indeed adds to the speed of the gameplay and is a welcome new feature. This obviously eliminates the need for mining sites but there is still a mill which never runs out of food produce and every village you have on it gathers food form it at a slow rate, there is also a plantation which does the same job for coin (or gold).

There are three new features to all maps treasures, trade posts and native alliance spots. Firstly treasures are worth while thing to collect like, resources, upgrades, etc. and are usually guarded by strong or weak treasure guardians, the strength of the guardian depends on the usefulness of the treasure. Trade posts are a new system in the game to earn quick experience for getting shipments from the Home City, nearly everything you do gets experience as well but it is a worthwhile place to build on. After an upgrade to the trade route, you can also get resources from the trade post. Native alliance points are a big new gameplay feature where you can create Native American units and get unique upgrades, these can be an early help or an end game breaker as the units created there cost no populations but still cost resources.

The Home City is a big new feature and as mentioned before sends shipments of useful or unique units and upgrades to your colony. To earn shipments you must get in-game experience and to get this all you do is play; building, gathering resources and creating units all earn experience. There is another use for experience all the XP you earned in a game gets added to your created Home City's level and you can buy new shipments and customizations for your Home City. The customizations are just cosmetic but the shipments do help greatly to your strategy in the game.

Your explorer or hero in AOE 3 is more useful for just fighting and collecting treasures. The explorer can also negotiate and set up trading posts with the Native American villages and these relationships can lead to Native American warriors fighting on your side. He can also use trading posts to put on set points on trade routes to gather quick XP. The only other unit which can create trade posts is the settler. Your explorer can be captured by the enemy and held for ransom, but killing him isn't an option. They can slowly heal themselves, run at quite a speed or when captured just stay on the ground incapacitated.

A main selling point from old Age of Empires games has been the upgrading the age of your colony. Doing this is the only way to get better units, buildings and better upgrades to your economy and military. It is also graphically noticeable when you advance an age. With the passing of ages you can also get better shipments from the Home City, the reason for this is obvious; imagine if you could get another Town Centre in the first age, or only one settler in the last. One of the main reasons for wanting to advance age for the shipments is forts and factories two new buildings. Forts are like the castles of AOE 2, extremely powerful defensive structures capable of creating your civilizations favoured units. Factories create resources at very fast rate and are always worth a spot in your deck of shipments, they can also create super artillery very powerful building destroying units that cost a lot of population.

Counter units have been in the series for years and this time they have been improved and balanced to perfection. Defensive civilizations have many countering units so building a force of them will pummel attackers of certain kinds. Countering is done by having multiplying bonuses against certain types, for example, skirmishers are good against infantry and have a two or three time's bonus. To effectively use counters setting unit groups to numbers is essential and takes quite a bit of skill, but doing so you could see an army of 100 beating an army of 150.

Graphically the series has taken a huge step forward. Every unit, building, tree look brilliant and I don't like saying it but it does improve the experience. Of course if you want to experience the game fully at a good speed you'll need a good range PC. AOE 3 should work on most PCs but not look as good as it would on high end ones, make sure not to sacrifice game speed for improved graphics.

One of the best features is the way the units die. Sounds strange but when you see a unit getting bombed by a ship or an artillery unit you will probably smile at your dominating cannon. The physics in the game are slightly exaggerated but it never detracts, more likely adds to the fun. Watching battles can get you distracted from other tasks, such as telling other units to attack. Seeing the trees swaying, the water rippling is something to actually watch instead of the less exciting graphics of previous games.

The sounds of the game are good, but don't add to the experience as much as the graphics. The sounds of gun shots and of units building are realistic but there isn't much other than that. The music on the menu's is nice but I can't see wanting to listen to it in a game. I would say the best sound feature is the computer's taunts; varied for each personality it is a nice addition. Overall I prefer to have the sound off and would say they could have done a slightly better job with it, but it is definitely not very important.

The Artificial Intelligence is well implemented and computers do play better on higher difficulties. Your own units are also smart and stick to commands, putting them in defensive will make then only move short distances from they're point to attack, but attacking will follow enemy units far to kill them. The formations work well and the path-finding is very good, with units barely ever getting stuck.

The Campaign mode is quite short in length but different for each scenario. It follows the saga of the fictional Black family. It keeps up a rapid pace through-out, objectives take you through caves and other points of interest. Side objectives improve your unique Home City level for the campaign and allow you useful shipments and items for the whole campaign or just the one mission. You also encounter some historical figures but don't go in depth into factual content. There is also a skirmish mode for "random" matches

Online, this is where the game explodes fun; I've been playing online for over three months and never gotten tired of it. The balance is important here and when you get beaten you never feel too angry except at your own mistakes, this usually leads for you to improve. The online mode is more of a reason to get the game than single player though both are good reasons. The online interface is good and the servers are reliable, most of the community is good and the rating system is fair.

If you've been a fan of past Age of Empires games you'll be certain to love this and if not you'll be likely to get into this. If you were tiring of past games this has enough new features to bring you back to the series. I recommend this to be purchased if you enjoy RTS or online gaming, a long lasting and thoroughly enjoyable game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/23/06

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