Age of Empires 3

Age of Empires 3

Written by Tyler Sager on 12/1/2005 for PC  

The Age of Empires series has been, to me, the epitome of “old school” real-time strategy.  Past titles have been very well done, but at their core they are pure “build and conquer” type games, with very little extra fluff.  Units were never complicated or fancy, and each was balanced with strengths and weaknesses against other unit types.  Age of Empires did pure, almost bare-bones, RTS, and they did it extremely well.  But for me, after hordes of copycat RTS titles, I needed something more than just old-school fun from my RTS game.  I was looking for something to set the title apart from the rest of the pack.  When I heard that Age of Empires III was adding an extra deck-building element to their tried-and-true formula, I was intrigued.  After running AoE3 through its paces, I found myself a bit disappointed.  I was expecting greatness, and I received something less.  While the game is solid, beautifully done, and fun to play, it still just feels like an old-school RTS with a few extra bells and whistles. 

Age of Empires III takes place during the Age of Exploration, when European countries were sending forth brave souls to colonize and conquer the Americas.  Like previous Age of Empires titles, AoE3 spans various “Ages”, technological levels through which players progress during a given scenario.  Taking on the role of one of 8 European countries, players begin at the Age of Discovery and progress through to the Age of Imperialism, showcasing a wide range of technological advancement.  While there are several new features, AoE3 plays very much like its predecessors.  An initial colony is planted, after which Settler units begin gathering resources to fund the burgeoning economy.  An early rush tactic it a bit difficult in AoE3, as it’s almost impossible to raise a standing army during the Age of Discovery.  By the time the second Age roles around, there are generally enough defenses available to stave off an opportunistic early assault.  For a turtler like myself, this is a very welcome feature.

Age of Empires fans will notice quite a few changes from previous games.  First, Settlers are now drop points for resource gathering, meaning they no longer need to return their loads of resources to the town center.  In addition, the annoying Farm system has been removed.  Settlers can still gather Food from fruit bushes and wild game, but they no longer need to plant those time-limited Farms once the local food supply runs out.  While I honestly never had much of a need to use anything other than the local flora and fauna, for those that want a bit more permanent (if slower) food source, Mills are now available.  Mills are slow-but-steady food producing structures, each of which can field up to 10 Settlers.  Plantations, a gold-producing version of the Mill, are available when the precious mines run dry. 

Resources can also be obtained through Trading Posts, a new and interesting feature in AoE3.  Trading posts can be built on certain spots on most of the maps.  Once built, they begin trickling in Experience each time a delivery is made.  Upgrades allow players to increase the rate of deliveries, and they allow different shipments (of wood, food, or gold) to be made.  Since these locations quickly generate resources as needed, they are usually hotly contested points on the map.  Trading Posts can also be built in Native American villages, neutral, indestructible points much like the trade route lines.  Building a Trading Post at a Native American settlement allows players to gain technology advantages and military units from the Native Americans.  As an added bonus, Native American military units do not count against the population limit for a given Empire. 

The military units, and combat, is very much old-school Age of Empires fare.  Much of the “rock, scissors, paper” feel is in place, as each unit will have strengths against some unit types, weaknesses against others.  Fielding the correct combination of units is important, although players will quickly find that some units are a great deal more powerful than others.  In fact, in spite of the huge range of different units available to the various Empires, I was relying on about 3 or 4 unit types though most of my games.  Combat itself is quite straightforward, with very little advanced tactics available.  There are no formations, and very few alternate combat abilities for any of the units.  Most of the time, the best method of attack is “Get ‘em!”  Each Empire has a hero-type Explorer unit, a powerful military and exploratory character, but even they don’t often turn the tide of battle. 

Probably the most interesting aspect of Age of Empires III is the Home City.  Here is where deck-building meets real-time strategy.  A new resource, Experience, is introduced into the Age of Empires franchise.  Experience is gained for just about everything in the game.  Building structures, defeating enemy units, and collecting various treasures all build up experience.  During the single-player campaign, experience is also gained for completing various objectives.  In skirmish mode, experience points are gathered for a host of different events, but winning a particular map nets the biggest chunk.  During a given scenario, Shipments from home will be awarded as enough experience is gained.  To gain a shipment, players need simply to travel to the Home City screen, and then pick a shipment card from their Home City deck.  These shipments can be simple, unlimited-use deliveries of small amounts of food or settlers, or they can be incredibly powerful, one-use technology advances or shipments of military units.  Home City shipments can quickly turn the tide in battle, as a sudden influx in military might or much-needed resources arrives. 

Experience gathered during play also increases the level of the Home City, and these advancements are carried from game to game.  Each Empire has different Shipment Cards available for purchase as the city levels up.  After reaching high enough level, more cards are available than can be carried into a given skirmish, so some deck customization is necessary.  In a resource-poor map, more supply cards can be included.  Water-rich maps require cards increasing strength and numbers of naval forces.  I personally like stacking my decks with artillery and economic cards, allowing me to turtle up and blaze through the Ages, until I build up enough to become an unstoppable force. 

Age of Empires III looks and sounds incredible.  The graphics are great, with each unit very well animated.  I never had my usual RTS trouble of distinguishing unit types at a glance.  The terrain is fully destructible and highly detailed, and is just a pleasure to look at.  The game also sounds great, from the music to sound effects and even the voice acting.  I often find myself cringing when the characters begin talking, but this time around I was quite pleased.  I found the interface to be a little less than optimal, which surprised me.  While many things were hot-keyed, there were quite a few actions that weren’t, and I found myself fumbling occasionally during the heat of battle. 

The single-player campaign is surprisingly well done for an RTS game, chronicling the adventures of one Morgan Black and his descendants.  The campaign itself showcases nicely just about every map type.  The skirmish maps are also well done, and it shows that a great deal of care went into each design.

While everything is very well done, Age of Empires III just doesn’t do enough new or innovative to truly captivate me.  I thoroughly enjoyed the game, and very much enjoyed the Home City deck-building aspect.  At its heart, though, AoE3 is still “just” another Age of Empires game.  Fans of the series will be well pleased, and RTS fans will have an enjoyable time.  However, Age of Empires III is not the “next big thing” in RTS, so those looking for total innovation or reinvention of the genre will be somewhat disappointed. 
Age of Empires III is a very well-polished old-school RTS, with enough new concepts to freshen the series up a bit. Fans of the Age of Empires franchise will be well pleased, but those looking for the Next Big Thing in real-time strategy will need to look elsewhere.

Rating: 8.2 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

I'm an old-school gamer, and have been at it ever since the days of the Atari 2600. I took a hiatus from the console world to focus on PC games after that, but I've come back into the fold with the PS2. I'm an RPG and strategy fan, and could probably live my gaming life off a diet of nothing else. I also have soft spot for those off-the-wall, independent-developer games, so I get to see more than my share of innovative (and often strange) titles.

Away from the computer, I'm an avid boardgamer, thoroughly enjoying the sound of dice clattering across a table. I also enjoy birdwatching and just mucking around in the Great Outdoors.
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