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After an absence of several years, the venerable Age of Empires series is finally back with Age of Empires III. This latest addition to the real-time strategy stable looks amazing, plays great and comes with a tonne of game time, but those expecting a revolution in the RTS genre may well be disappointed by Age's decidedly old-school approach.
That's because despite the change of setting, some new gameplay tweaks and a raft of technical advancements, the essential play experience of Age of Empires III is similar to its predecessors. There are several new additions - such as the Home City concept, trade routes, allying with native tribes and more - but for the most part gamers will spend most of their time in Age of Empires III doing the same thing as in many other RTS-games. That is, gathering resources, expanding the population, building troops and eventually leading a large force on an all-out assault on an enemy base.
RTS fans, of course, will find little to complain about in AOE III. This new title is as slick as an RTS can get, and features several control improvements from previous Age of Empires that greatly streamline the gameplay experience. Resource gathering, for example, has been vastly simplified. As well as now only having three resources to gather (wood, food and coin make a comeback, but stone has been ditched), your citizens no longer need to travel back to a central point to drop off any resources gathered. Simply assign them to their task, and the collection will be handled automatically. This allows players to turn their mind away from micro-managing their resources later in a game to instead focus on improving their armed forces.
When it comes to the military, AOE III employs features several different units, each with their own particular advancement path and weaknesses. As with all RTS games, success depends on identifying your enemies' troops and countering with the appropriate unit. But just like most other RTS games, a lot of the strategy in AOE III can be thrown out the window providing you amass enough of an army to completely swamp an opponent. Controls could have been streamlined for this, however - it's sometimes difficult to select your troops without accidentally selecting your settlers. Troops will also only move as fast as the slowest unit - this means plenty of micro-managing, as you'll often have to select units individually to make them move at their proper pace.
Set in the 15th Century, the game sees players take on one of eight different civilisations as they attempt to conquer the New World of the Americas. Eight civilizations are selectable (Spanish, British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, German and Ottoman), with each having particular strengths and weaknesses. Some of these differences are quite subtle, but do have an impact on the game (particularly in its early stages). The British, for example, will have a better supply of settlers to populate a colony, while the Ottoman excel in developing firearms.
Perhaps the most significant addition to Age of Empires III is the concept of a Home City. Each colony is permanently linked to a Home City back in Europe, which can send various items to support its fledgling New World settlement. This can be anything from more troops or settlers, to more resources or ships. Experience gained in the New World transfers to the Home City, which in turn allows players to send better and more varied resources. Using shipments from the Home City early in the game is one of the keys to victory in AOE III, as intelligent use will often result in a significant leg-up either in terms of resources or manpower.
While the Home City concept is an interesting innovation, most of the other additions to AOE III will feel familiar, particularly for hardcore RTS fans. Thankfully, the game features a strong single player campaign which chops and changes objectives from mission to mission, meaning boredom through repetition shouldn't set in. The game's single player campaign is broken up into three distinct chapters and follows the fortunes of one family in the New World. The result is a surprisingly coherent narrative which makes for one of the better single player RTS campaigns.
As can be expected, multiplayer is well catered for. AOE III can be played via LAN or via Ensemble Studios Online (ESO). Playing on ESO allows you to play at your desired difficulty as there are plenty of game options to select from.
One of the standout features of AOE III is its looks - the game looks stunning, with the environments and troops featuring plenty of detail. The in-game environment also boasts an impressive physics engine. Buildings and trees break apart realistically when under fire, while soldiers have rag doll animations which are fun to watch. All this graphical goodness takes a bit to power, however, with even some high end PCs struggling with the load.
Age of Empires III is sure to please fans of the RTS genre. While it's broken no new ground, an extensive single player campaign and strong game fundamentals means its one of the top titles in its class.
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