The empires strike back.
Age of Empires II kicked about as much ass, scientifically speaking, as a pride of giant metal lions. Gamers were left confused and bleary-eyed in the wake of its ferocious, multi-pronged offensive; if the campaign mode didn't get you, the skirmishes would, and right when you thought you were safe you'd get sucked into the sweet online play. But after six years of captivity, most players have managed to tame that game.
Instead of pitting you against more of the same, Ensemble Studios has taken their game to the next level with Age of Empires III, unifying the lion's share of the previous game's features into one massive, interlocking juggernaut bent on slaying every hour you want it to, and probably a few you don't.
To say that this game voyages into new worlds of playability and unity is an understatement, especially since it unfolds on a 15th century American stage. The players, including the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Russians, Germans, and Ottomans, all seek to fill their coffers with the unspoiled riches of the virgin land while allying with native populations and thwarting the designs of their European rivals.
You assume control of one nation's campaign, intrepidly commanding its forces and expanding its empire. At first, your campaign through the Americas seems uncannily similar to what you saw in Age of Empires II. You start with a base and some peasants, build this, train that, then march over and conquer them. The big difference is that your country will help you in this process by sending periodic shipments of units, resources and technologies.
But rather than just get sent stuff, you now visit the new Home City screen and order it, Amazon style. You get one shipment point every minute or so, each of which is good for a boatload of whatever resources your country has to offer. After a short while, the supplies you ordered will arrive at your city center, free of charge.
Like the previous entries in the series, Age of Empires III has you progressing through eras, which in turn dictate the buildings and units you can produce as well as the shipments you can receive. Obviously, you'll want to dash through the ages as quickly as you can to get your evil imperial mitts on cannons and guns. Fortunately, the support of your nation makes time fly.
It also makes for a brand new card-based experience system. After a skirmish or mission, your country will gain experience points and convert them into levels for your city. You can then choose new shipment options from a pool and add them to a deck of up to twenty shipment "cards." These twenty then dictate what shipments you receive.
Now, card-based systems aren't the most exciting things to talk about and they certainly aren't new, though they're a surefire way to add depth to just about any game; more and more developers seem to be catching on to this all the time. What makes Age of Empires III different is that this system of leveling up and collecting cards will apply to every sector of the game, not just the single-player Campaigns. You'll create a profile for skirmish matches that will benefit from the experience gained in those battles, turning Skirmish mode into something of a Campaign without a plot. You can set up the battles that suit you, fight them, and then use your new toys to customize your nation in a way that fits your play style.
Once your city has gotten to a high enough level and you're confident with your scheme, you'll go online and challenge human opponents with your custom-built nation. The emphasis in multiplayer battles will be on speed and adaptation, because you'll never know what your opponent is going to throw at you thanks to the game's eight, heavily modifiable nations. Instead of developing one area of their game to the exclusion of all others, developer Ensemble Studios has created an infrastructure that unifies their game and makes all of it worth playing.
They also beefed up the graphics with a slick new physics engine that really shines when you roll out the heavy artillery. The cannonballs issued from the barrels of your guns aren't just for show – they're physical objects that damage whatever they crash into. Blast a house and watch with glee as the cannonball plows all the way through it and then squishes a hapless peasant standing on the other side.
While cannons destroy structures with figurative fire, troops reduce them with the real thing. Instead of hacking at buildings with their swords or shooting them full of arrows, infantry and cavalry fling torches when told to attack buildings. It took six years, but we're proud of the little guys for finally figuring out that hacking at a house with swords just doesn't cut it.
Age of Empire III's score, on the other hand, has more cuts than a Depeche Mode fan. My favorites are the ones that recall Dvorak's New World Symphony. If you don't know Dvorak from Zorak, his work captures the anticipation and wonder of carving a place for yourself in a new world, and by carving, we really mean blasting. The booming effects that accompany each cannon shot provide each battle with an awesome bass beat. You'll be blown away by the sound effects, and hopefully your enemies will be, too.
With Age of Empires III, Ensemble Studios was faced with the unenviable task of improving on an already great PC strategy series. Where most developers would be content to simply add a couple tweaks and let the game coast on its laurels, Ensemble decided to blaze new trails and unify its modes into a federation of playability. While some constitutional elements remain to be hammered out, we'll be ready to set sail for this new state of bliss when it's ratified on October 25th.