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Age of Empires 3 Review

publisher: Microsoft
developer: Ensemble studios
genre: Strategy

PIV 1400, 256MB RAM, 2GB HDD, 64MB video card
ESRB rating: T

release date: Oct 18, 05
» All About Age of Empires 3 on ActionTrip

Ensemble Studios has been around for a long time, and if there's one genre, in fact the *only* genre they have concerned themselves with and excelled at, it's the RTS genre. The 'Age' series has been so successful and popular on the PC that the third game in their flagship 'Age of Empires' series, has certainly been closely watched by both the press and the game enthusiasts alike.

Now the wait is over. The game is slated to appear in stores in North America on Oct. 18. Published by Microsoft, the game places players in the time period of roughly 1500-1850, picking up where "Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings" left off. Certainly an ambitious project, AoE 3 is a testament to a different game design direction that Ensemble has taken, hints of which were evident in "Age of Mythology".

As you may know, the third game deals with the colonization of the New World, giving an opportunity to the design team to blend all sorts of unit types, cultures and civilizations into the single-player campaign. These include the Native Americans cultures like the Aztec, and of course, the European colonial powers, the Spanish, British, Ottomans, Russians, French, the Dutch and many more.

What is surprising about this game, however, is that it is much more story-driven than you would first imagine when hearing about its features. Upon hearing about the historical setting and all of the different cultures, my first thought was that I'd be playing a run-of-the-mill single-player campaign where the story is non-existent or simply relying on certain historical facts and pseudo facts, while the actual gameplay and the balancing of all the different unit types take center stage.

In lieu of the different design approach that I have mentioned, things look very different in game. Age of Empires 3 relies heavily on a well-written storyline that deals much more with mythology than it does with facts. The historical setting serves merely as a skeleton for a rather interesting plot, which is full of character, develops really well and is epic in scope. I liked this very much. The fact that the voice acting in AoE 3 is absolutely top-notch and that the characters as they were presented in the story are full of life and personality, only makes the story mode (single-player campaign) that much more engaging.

On top of that, the single player game is pretty lengthy, consisting of three chapters, so that should provide quite a bit of play time on top of the fully-featured online and LAN multiplayer game.

The aforementioned changes in Ensemble's RTS design logic do not stop there, however. The very fact that the campaign is much more focused on the narrative entails that the mission design itself is quite different from what we're used to seeing in the Age of Empires series.

What do I mean by this?

Well, quite simply, the mission design as it is now is much more goal-oriented, and there are usually numerous sub-quests and secondary objectives within each mission. There is a good side to this: The missions are much more versatile and hence more exciting to play in single-player, and the exploration plays a bigger part, which also helps keep the main campaign dynamic. But the trick is that if you don't play the mission "as intended", your chances of success will be reduced significantly, even on the normal difficulty level. The enemy forces will just keep on coming in numbers, so concerning yourself with say, base defense, while putting off the game's objectives is ill-advised.

Tying in to this mission design is the rather heavy accent on experience points and the Home City feature. The Home City screen will be available in most of the missions during the single-player campaign. The way that this feature works is that naturally, every colonial power is receiving shipments from the motherland as they struggle to conquer the New World. The number of your experience points will decide which type of cards (upgrades) you'll be able to unlock for your tech tree. During the mission, you'll be able to summon shipments and reinforcements from the Home City, which if used wisely can be the difference between victory and defeat. Certain missions will have you relying solely on the Home City resources while others will take a more traditional approach of strictly farming for resources from the local landscape. Most of the missions will be a mix of the two.

All these new design elements are rather logical if you think about how the game was conceived. Certainly, many AoE fans will strongly object to what some see as a 'dumbing down' of the core tactical features of an RTS title, but obviously, certain trade-offs had to be made. Could gamers have had their cake and eat it too? I seriously doubt it considering the task that the developers had put before them, designing the game in the way they did. The way in which AoE 3 plays will certainly be a love or hate thing. More traditional RTS fans might not like it much, but if you really think about it, this is a better way to play a single-player RTS. The new features make the campaign more fun, versatile and dynamic.

The part where Age of Empires 3 goes very wrong without any doubt is the very fabric from which RTS gameplay consists, the gameplay mechanics. Quite simply, the programmers have completely botched up anything that has to do with unit control. I may be too harsh, but I don't think I am when I say that without installing the 1.01 pre-release patch, I wouldn't even advise you to play this game, as you'll get so frustrated you'll likely quit. The path finding isn't good - units have collision detection and this will create complete confusion when they're supposed to navigate the many objects in the environment *and* their comrades. Some of the units will rush blindly into the fray and often, enemy stray units won't even react to the fact that you are killing them. Shoddy AI - the enemy will simply continue merrily on their way. Furthermore, the units are very unresponsive; they often won't attack the targets you've ordered them to attack. Consequently, they will create a tactical nightmare for any serious RTS player as they'll focus on the rather insignificant Native American dart shooters while letting the enemy artillery (which can be quite deadly) pound on them from its position. This would happen even though I have frantically ordered them a dozen times to attack the freaking enemy cannon.

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7.9   Good

Gorgeous, great story-driven single-player campaign, versatile missions, Home City, many cool features, voice acting, plenty of play time and replay value (multiplayer);

This game needs at least one more patch before one can fully enjoy its basic workings; get the fundamentals right before you ship your product to the stores.


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