It should be known by now that I've been a fan of the Age games from way back. There's just something about the historical nature of the games that appeals to me. To be fair, I think elves and space marines are neat too, but I think it's more exciting to explore the what ifs of real, historical situations. Though not quite as faithful to "reality" as some strategy games, the first two Age games offered us exciting sojourns into the worlds of "capital A" Ancient and Medieval strategy. The third title, Age of Mythology, proved that the mechanics were just as solid even if the historical inspiration was a little loose.
Now Ensemble is back on the history train with the third official Age of Empires game. Age of Empires III moves the action to the New World, letting players lead a variety of European nations from the Age of Discovery through the Industrial Age. Eight playable nations battle across a wide variety of geographies -- from the swamps of Florida to the snowy passes of the Rocky Mountains. Players can recruit different Native American tribes and seize control of various trade routes. Material and technological support will be offered by the player's home city back in Europe.
The 24-mission campaign is very well designed. Divided into three large acts, it tells the story of three generations of the Black family. First Morgan Black, a Knight of St. John races to the New World to stop the Spanish from seizing a powerful natural wonder. Next, Morgan's grandson John and his Native American allies find themselves in the Seven Year's War. The final act shows John's granddaughter Amelia as the head of a railroad company making their way west.
I won't spoil the particulars of the story here but a common quest and a common enemy unite all three acts. The connections aren't always clear at first, but the associations start to build as the game goes on. Putting the pieces together isn't terribly hard but it gives a nice sense of purpose to the whole game and keeps you invested in the action.
While we're talking about the game's story, it's refreshing to see a game that covers this era of warfare without referencing either Napoleon or the American Revolution. While both are fertile ground for strategy game developers, it's nice to get something a little different this time around. Meeting Washington and Bolivar and taking part in the Seven Year's War adds a little authenticity as well as variety. On the other hand, some of the choices -- like finding Russians in Colorado -- may leave gamers scratching their heads in wonder.
The range of missions is pretty broad. There are plenty of defense missions where you have to protect a given structure or a whole town from enemy assault. In other cases you'll have to destroy or capture key structures. Along the way there are plenty of other objectives: rescuing captured settlers, seizing trading posts, liberating Native American settlements and a whole host of other tasks. Better still, many missions combine a variety of these objectives at once. While most of the missions let you build a base and start collecting resources, there are some missions where you have to make do with a set number of troops.
Outside of the single player campaign, Age of Empires III benefits from a very soild multiplayer interface. A few simple clicks take you to ESO2, Ensemble's online matchmaking service. Finding and joining games is remarkably easy and there are a wide variety of options to choose from. Different starting eras and resource levels will let players jump into as advanced a game as they want. The AI offers up a few taunts from time to time to (sort of) replicate the personality of a human player. It's a nice trick honestly.
In general the AI is very strong. You can find some exploits here and there but, for the most part, the AI knows how to make a good army and how to lead it. While the computer opponents in some RTS games send out trickles of units from time to time in order to keep things interesting, the AI in Age of Empires III tends to rely more on groups of units and will hardly ever use them in pointless, suicide attacks. In my games the AI has had a good handle on when to press an attack and when to retreat. The only real weak point in the AI is its tendency to leave some of its settlers too isolated. (Since there are no resource dropsites anymore, it's also hard for human players to keep tabs on where all their settlers are.)
The range of technologies and units is relatively broad here. In the early ages, players will have to make do with troops that are very similar to the medieval set from Age of Empires II. Crossbows eventually give way to muskets as the ages pass by. Soon players will be fielding long lines of musketeers and using mortars to bombard enemy towers. While it may seem that some of the unit types are redundant, you'll find that each type has a specific role to play on the battlefield. Like the other Age games you'll have a variety of ranged and melee-focused cavalry and infantry as well as a nice range of artillery units. Identifying the counter units and building a balanced force is just as important as knowing where and when to strike the enemy.
Like the rest of the games in the Age series, the naval element is merely there to support the land battles. The handful of ships and maritime technologies don't offer many options. You will find that the naval side of the game is fairly compelling early on while you're dealing with pirates and chasing your enemies across the Atlantic. Once you start fighting in the interior of the American continent, you won't really miss the naval aspect of the game as much.
Pathfinding seems to be a bit of a problem here and there. Huge formations can easily find their way through the most densely packed settlements but my one hero unit can't seem to find his way out of the middle of a line of infantry. There are cases where the pathfinding is a little too good. Units are able to predict the best routes through a maze even when large parts of that maze haven't been uncovered yet. This is most telling during missions where you're leading a small force through a series of winding canyons. As long as you click on their eventual destination, they'll make their way through the labyrinth with nary a wrong turn.
While we're on the subject, it seems odd that you can't select a single unit out of a group by clicking on their portrait at the bottom of the screen. Trying to grab a specific hero unit out of a large formation should be easier than this. Luckily, there's an option in the game to disregard any non-combat units when you click and drag to select a group. This helps to keep your settlers from marching out with your soldiers.
Age of Empires III also introduces some new elements -- home cities, native tribes, trade routes and such. Taken individually none of these are profound innovations but their cumulative effect makes the game feel fresh and strengthens the appeal of the core design. So in total of this review, I recommend this game to anyone who loves RTS Games.