The Age of Empires franchise once again gets a little bigger with Ensemble Studio’s Age of Empires 3: The Asian Dynasties. This time, the action moves across the Pacific to focus on three entirely new empires, Japan, China, and India. While each of these empires play differently than those introduced previously in Age of Empires 3, I couldn’t help but feeling that much of this game was just “more of the same”. Perhaps I’m just feeling a little tired of the Age of Empires franchise in general, perhaps I’ve just been wowed by some very impressive and innovative RTS games in the past few months. Make no mistake, the Asian Dynasties is a solid addition to the Age of Empires 3 lineup, and is quite well done. However, “more of a good thing” didn’t manage to win me over this time around.
As the Asian Dynasties requires the original Age of Empires 3 to play, I’ll skip an overview of the nuts-and-bolts and dive right into the new content contained in the three new empires included in the expansion. While all three new empires have their distinct traits, they do share some intriguing similarities new to Age of Empires 3. Instead of an Explorer or War Chief unit, the Asian empires sport a religious Monk leader in their place. These monk units have the basic exploration/trading post building abilities like their American and European counterparts, and they can also be upgraded through the use of the new Monastery building to help them remain useful throughout the ages of the game. I was particularly fond of the Chinese Monk unit, with its ability to train Disciple units. I didn’t so much care about the overall usefulness of these guys, I was instead entertained to no end to watch them kung-fu their way through their enemies. The Japanese and elephant-riding Indian Monks were also powerful in their own right, but they weren’t nearly as entertaining to play. Still, after the newness wears off, the Monks are not all that much different than their counterparts.
In addition to the new Monk units, each Asian empire also gains the use of the new Consulate building, bringing with it a new resource, Export. This resource is gathered by siphoning off the gather rates of the other resources, and can be used to purchase units from various European powers. The Consulate gives each of the Asian empires a nice bit of variability, allowing them to tailor themselves better to a given situation.
The Asian empires also age up a bit differently than previous AoE3 empires. Asian empires must build a Wonder to advance an age (with prices similar to age-up costs of previous empires). Each of these Wonders, in addition to allowing players to access later ages, also brings forth some interesting powers. Some of the powers are passive, an increase in wealth or experience trickle, or perhaps a bonus to a particular type of unit. Other powers are rechargeable super-powers, such as the ability to instantly heal the entire empires’ units. Regardless, each of these Wonders requires not only resource cost but quite a bit of space to build. These things are HUGE. Many times I found myself having difficulty locating a good spot to throw up my Wonder, and I found myself with much more cramped bases than I had before. With 5 Wonders available to each empire, it’s also tricky to figure out which to build first, and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t figured how best to bring them into play.
Each of the empires also gets a slew of new units, all with the appropriate Asian feel. I’m still learning the balances of the various empires and their appropriate tactics, but for the most part the new Asian units feel like remixes of previous empires, albeit with spiffy new graphics and animations. The Asian Dynasties does play around a bit with costs and recruiting, however. For instance, Indian villager units cost Wood rather than Food to produce, a little detail that continues to confound me in the early game. And the Chinese have a very interesting recruiting method—units are not built in groups of same-type units, rather Chinese units are purchased in Armies, mixes of melee, ranged, and cavalry. These Armies are also priced like groups of regular units, meaning that units can’t be purchased a few at a time as resources are made available, but instead they must be purchased as a package. While I like this Army idea in theory, I often wanted a different mix of units than was offered. Regardless, I applaud this different approach in an expansion that doesn’t quite deliver enough fresh ideas.
The Asian Home Cities are similar to those of previous empires, so while the cards are different, many of the effects are the same. Many cards offer additional troops or bonus abilities, while some have a few unique offerings. The Japanese, for instance, can call forth powerful Daimyo and Shogun units, powerful units in their own right, with the ability to train other units in the field.
The single-player campaign is solid, as is usual for an Age of Empires 3 outing. These missions are a bit more difficult than I remember previous campaigns, although I can also just chalk that up to rusty AoE skills. While only 15 missions long, the campaign does well in bringing players up to speed on the different Asian empires, preparing them for the heart of Age of Empires, the skirmish. Players will be thankful to learn that The Asian Dynasties starts non-campaign cities off at Level 10, giving a nice boost to get players past the early card-limited headaches. The skirmish maps are fun, although I didn’t get much of a chance to try my hand (and probably get clobbered) in the multiplayer arena.
Rounding things out, The Asian Dynasties looks and sounds great, and the Asian-style graphics are top-notch. The usual AoE polish is firmly in place, and all that familiar gameplay allows old fans to jump right back in and be running in no time. Unfortunately for me, all of this just felt a bit too familiar. For all the exciting new units, the new strategies of the Consulate and Wonders, and the spot-on Eastern feel, I just found myself getting a little tired of the Age of Empires 3 world. Fans of the series will have a blast here, and I’m sure the new content will heat up the multiplayer arenas for months to come. Still, for me at least, Age of Empires 3 is starting to lose its shine, and The Asian Dynasties didn’t really rekindle that flame I felt when I first played it a few years ago.
While a solid title and a good entry into the series, Age of Empires 3: The Asian Dynasties failed to rekindle my interest in Age of Empires 3. A good title for fans, but not worth it for those hoping for a reinvigoration of the series.