One of PC strategy gaming’s most venerable franchises, now bringing the series up to the Industrial Revolution with rapid gameplay innovation to match.
Age of Empires III, and its two expansion packs, The Warchiefs and The Asian Dynasties, (both of which are included in this Complete Collection) have been the subject of much controversy among self-proclaimed hardcore and “old school” fans of the series and the genre itself. But I have little-but-praise for this instalment in the decades-old series and the new game mechanics being implemented within.
The concept remains the same as prior games in the series; an overhead camera based real-time strategy with simple resource and population management. AoE3 continues the polygonal models and 3D gameworld established in the previous ‘Age of Mythology’, and retains the focus on fewer, more detailed, individual civilisations, with eight colonial powers in the basegame, and three more nations in each of the two expansions, all of which are highly diverse and thoroughly different in playstyle and appearance. In a radical move and departure from the series until now, the player retains control between individual game of one European capital (Paris, London, Amsterdam, etc.) which progresses with a simple Role-Playing-Game-light card-locking mechanic and smattering of cosmetic changes, while actual gameplay and direct combat take place in isolated New World colonies. A appropriate reason means to facilitate the need to build one’s power back up each game and enable repeatable skirmishes between equal foes, rather than smashing entire nations against each other in a big stalemated mess, as one might otherwise expect from an all-in 18th Century European land war.
All of the main features remain much the same, however, ‘Random Map’ gameplay is much faster-paced than previous titles, with 1-VS-1 matches lasting a reasonable 15 – 30 minutes each. Very fitting for a change of setting that introduces massed firearms and largescale gunpowder artillery, which has taken dominance over the previously dominant knights-in-armour in a bombastic reflection of real history. The new 3D engine makes effective use of the setting to provide apt aesthetic accoutrements to the setdressing; black powder cartridges fill the battlefield with puffs of smoke, a breeze whistles through the undergrowth and realistically into the sails of tallship navies, cannon shot visually rips through enemy fortifications – a far cry from the days of a single repeating fire animation sitting perpetually on the walls of my stone castles.
The options menu features the standard suite of audio and visual settings with which to tinker your personal graphical preference. While always welcomed, one need not fear this 2005 release, which still retains a surprisingly high-standard of polygonal models, especially on the not-at-all taxing highest texture settings and from as far zoomed-out as one expects from a top-down RTS.
Age of Empires III retains the series’ campaigns which always drove player investment in gameplay, but once again takes direction from Age of Mythology with the fictitious, and somewhat meta-textual, story of a single extended family line descended from a chivalric knight-in-shining-armour who tentatively makes his way to the New World. The fantastical elements have been toned down significantly (if not necessarily entirely) from AoM to fit the setting, and while the shifting of focus away from the purely historical will have disappointed or angered a small subset of the game’s fanbase, I still enjoyed the multi-generational narrative being told. The Warchiefs expansion fills in many of the story’s gaps with two new chapters for the original three-part campaign, making use of the Native American factions it brings to the table and puts a twist of the colonial gameplay with three new, fully-playable, indigenous groups which all feature a unique roster fitting to their historic cultures. The Asian Dynasties again brings a great deal of new content to the game, and rounds out this instalment with three standalone campaigns for another three new civilisations, re-introduces Wonder-building from previous games, adds more than a dozen new Random Map settings, and new exotic units and buildings from the Far East.
The regular plethora of in-game tools remains as useful and deep as always, bringing the full potential to create new maps, scenarios, and entire campaigns worth of content to the users. Among the tools you’ll find a historical reference guide for every aspect of the game, which is once again up to Ensemble Studios’ high standard and shows that while the plot deviates somewhat from historical fact, they’ve clearly done their homework.
Just as with the singleplayer random maps, finding a multiplayer skirmish is easy with the implementation of a MP-game lobby and a matchmaking system that will efficiently find you a game to connect to, or other players to join you. Lag, latency, de-sync is almost unheard-of, the games remain smooth throughout and the connections are stable. Despite Age of Empires III having less of the cult-classic following of its predecessor, one will not go wanting for others to play with at any time, day or night.
The Steam port brings with it a new set of well-designed Trading Cards bearing the game’s primary artwork and an accompanying array of Emoticons and Backgrounds that fans will no-doubt enjoy, this release, does not however, at time of writing, have any implemented Steam Achievements, - unlike the other “Age of-” titles to be found here.
This game is really one that is open to all-comers, AoE fans or first-timers alike. This is definitely a game to keep an eye on during sales, whether you have any prior experience with real-time strategy or not, and a good buy regardless.