Age of Empires III. I never heard anything particularly good about this game, especially in comparison to its glorious predecessor; but all in all, it’s not a bad game after all. It’s just… not as good as its predecessor.
But hey; what game is?
My Beautiful (Inter)Face
The main problem is that it’s big, even with “minimal interface” mode activated. While AoE2 had a very refined, civilised interface with a small and tidy font, AoE3 vomits a big ugly splatter all over your screen, obscuring most of the game world. The worst thing is that most of the elements are completely superfluous — the currently selected unit’s portrait (not animated, and clicking on it doesn’t even zap the camera over to the unit) and name take up a big plap in the middle, forcing the unit information to be hidden behind the command card on a seperate tab (at least for your own units). The currently selected units are squeezed onto a little bar above the name and portrait. Did I mention the unit information tab doesn’t even tell you attack damage?
It just seems awfully poorly laid out and with a lot of wasted space. I know making a giant interface is a performance concern, because it means you get to render a smaller amount of 3D world, but I’d rather sacrifice some graphical power for the ability to actually see the world I’m working with.
AoE3 is a very pretty game, so it’s got plenty of power to spare. Water reflections, dynamic shadows, bloom, all the staples of the modern world. In terms of polycount, the actual infantry models don’t look much more than Warcraft III (people seem to have hexagonal legs instead of square (and Deus Ex mittens for hands), but there’s less facial detail); but that’s all right, because from far out they look fine. Who commands their army looking up the nostrils of every soldier anyway?
He’s Very Resourceful
There are three resources: food, wood and coin (apparently people stopped needing stone to construct stone buildings when they moved to the Americas). Coin comes straight out of the ground like gold used to, but it can come from silver or gold mines or other more exotic things like whaling, or even treasure collected by a hero. Which is kind of cute.
Resource gathering has been simplified all round. There is no longer a need for villagers to return to base with a sack every so often; they just stand there mining or lumbering or farming and the resource trickles in. It seems that they invented resource teleportation when they colonised the New World, too. While this means that the AI don’t leave mining camps scattered across the map (and feel compelled to rebuild them even after the mines themselves are gone), they do still love to hunt the deer outside your base.
Also gone are the days of filling every inch of your town with glorious farms; instead, a single mill comes with an infinite farm attached that can support ten villagers. No more reseeding, no more endless fields…
Ohm Sweet Ohm
AoE3 takes a different approach to the fashion for RPG elements by giving you a home city. While there are hero units, these are like in AoE2: only slightly more powerful than normal units (though most have a single special ability or the ability to train units), and they do not level up (when they die, they just go down and have to be revived by another unit walking by later; there are no more “x must survive” quest requirements). Your home city, however, does level up. Everything you do in the game grants experience points that go into shipments (which allow you to get stuff from your home city) and leveling the city itself up.
The home city concept isn’t necessarily a new one; Earth 2150: Lost Souls (and presumably Earth 2150 itself, though I’ve never played it) gave you a little persistent base to and from which you could ship units and money (though you had to build a transport pad and it was slow as buggery) for later. The AoE3 home city doesn’t store units or money, but it can be made to generate them for you if you have the right Cards unlocked. Cards are acquired as the city levels up; most of them can only be sent once per mission, but they include shipments of food/wood/gold or squads of soldiers — so if you’re in a tight spot, you can order a free army (assuming you still have a town centre for it to arrive at).
As you unlock cards you also get the chance to unlock customisations, like different paint jobs for the major buildings or street entertainers to wander around. I hired a prostitute for my harbour.
In skirmish games, the home city seems to be persistent (per civilisation). You start off with a pretty cruddy set of cards, but the same mechanics as the campaign seem to be present. Not sure how good an idea this is for against real people; even though a lot of cards are locked to needing a certain age to be used, you could still construct a deck that gave your play style plenty of advantages against a n00b with the starting deck.
Let’s Get Physical
Like most games these days (of any ilk) (and, err, it’s a few years old, so it’s not really of “these days”), AoE3 owes a lot to its physics engine. When you start shooting a building, pieces of it drop off (or fly off) and bounce around, and when it finally dies, it collapses into delicious meaty chunks. Trees that are chopped down fall and make the screen shake when they hit the ground (which makes you think you’re under attack, but whateverrr).
Cannons have become overpowered. Rather than your Bombard Cannons being devasating to buildings but having Teutonic Knights walk right through their balls, infantry are bowled over and scattered to death by cannon shots. The ball will shoot right through them, even punching into trees and knocking those down. Then the bodies might slither down a slope, the cannon ball might roll away while it fades into oblivion…
The attention to detail all across the land is actually really impressive. Hero units can collect treasures, which are mostly resources but also sometimes units. A native scout, for example, trapped up a tree by baying wolves as in the screenshot above — you kill the wolves and collect him, and he climbs down off the tree before joining you. Or the trapped French villager on a rock hiding from coyotes or bears, who gingerly hops down from rock to rock until he’s on the ground. So kawaii.
Mines of Kessel of Life
Unit variety both is and is not as good as AoE2. While the main civilisations’ tech trees follow the same pattern of having mostly the same units (there are many pleasant visual/lore variations, though), there are no single unique unit-types anymore. No more age-rushing to Castle so you can make collossal armies of unique units… The disappointment here is in terms of siege equipment, which mostly boils down to “slightly different cannon”.
However, there are Native American settlements on most maps. These can be Aztec, Mayan, Carib, Plains Indian… By building a trading post on top of the village, you can unlock the ability to train a local unit type or two (plus research associated upgrades). Unfortunately, the numbers of these unit types you can control are limited by their own hard caps that can only be increased by building more trading posts on villages of the same civilisation. So you still can’t spam Eagle Warriors ridiculously.
I still miss Huskarls, though. In a world consisting almost entirely of ranged attackers, they would be unstoppable…
Historical or Hysterical?
It wouldn’t be an Age of Empires game without a terrifyingly bad Scottish accent. Act I of the singleplayer campaign takes you on a journey across the ocean as a Scotsman leading some Spanish guys to find a magical lake in order to stop an evil conspiracy; it would have been almost Deus Exian if they’d bothered to make it more than five minutes long and involved more character building than “Raaaargh, I must stop them!” Luckily, it keeps the spirit of AoE2 alive with the lead man being a swordsman and generally only letting you train crossbows and pikemen.
“Bild a berrecks.”
— Kilbirnie/Celt narrator, Age of Empires II: Age of Kings tutorial campaign
Act 2 goes all French versus British colonists and muskets everywhere. The problem here is that this is a historical period that does not interest me in the slightest. Well, maybe Lego Pirates a little bit, but that’s all. I’m a romantic old fool, so I’m a sucker for knights in shining armour and ancient Aztec architecture — the whole American colonial dream thang does absolutely nothing for me.
Act 3 introduces railroads and that’s when I really stop caring. The three acts are tied together as all main characters being members of the same family battling the same overarching conspiracy, but considering there are only about five lines of dialogue across all three there is nothing there to really hook on to. Even the implicit/explicit romance sub-plots in all three acts don’t go anywhere or do anything — they just kind of happen. It’s sort of comforting to know that they’re there, but even I know that sometimes it just isn’t worth it.
The missions themselves are spread between the usual attack/defend/gain-enough-experience-before-the-timer objectives (there was even a race-between-safe-havens-or-die-of-the-cold dungeon crawl towards the end), and manage to pace the action reasonably well. Unfortunately, the finale was rendered far less bad-ass by the return of Cannon Galleons that had the ability to fire a small nuke. Well, I say nuke; it was just a long-range cannon shell, but it one-hit the Death Turrets.
Nowhere near as awesome as the finale of Star Wars: Empire at War: Forces of Corruption, mind you.
I Am Your War Chief
Disregard all of the above; the expansion pack fixes a whole raft of issues. Monks auto-heal unit-by-unit like they used to, instead of having to micro-manage an area-of-effect ability. Unit stats finally reappear on the central interface panel, the portrait is sized down a little, the ugly home city tab is squeezed down… It’s still a bit ugly, but it is considerably improved.
Unfortunately, the ability to customise the home city is gone and you still don’t get a shiny Aztec campaign (though Tenochtitlan does grace the menu with its glorious straight-edged architecture). It’s all back to the damn colonial bullshit. The campaign gameplay is also somehow not quite as good in many places.
“I hear the growl of the jaguar… Is this an omen?”
— Aztec villager, Age of Empires II: The Conquerors. Just after I’d sent all my military men away to explore, the jaguars ate all my villagers. I had to restart the scenario.
Luckily, the Aztecs do appear as a playable skirmish race. Presumably a sop to grumpy old men like me.
The game is ultimately a good game. Because of my undying love for AoE2, I really should have hated it like the plague… But honestly? I can’t.
It’s plenty innovative, full of nice touches and genuine gameplay improvements, beautifully detailed… It really is more than just a pretty face. Its only flaw to me is its subject matter, and less shallow individuals will not find that a problem. It’s not going to replace AoE2 as my go-to guy for strategy gaming, but nor will it be consigned to the Bin of Forgetting.
Build a navy.