The age of antiquity.
With more interesting takes than a Stanley Kubrick movie, last year's RTS crop was the most exciting thing in PC gaming. This year, publishers are capitalizing on those innovations with Barbarian Invasions and Winter Assaults, making it the perfect time for a really amazing, unique RTS to swoop in and wipe everyone else's expansion pieces off the game board.
We were hoping that would be Ensemble's Age of Empires III; after all, it's got pretty much the best cred in the business. But aside from a new card-based system that allows players to really deck out their forces, not much is new. You can still spend hours battling through three single-player campaigns, engaging the computer in skirmishes, or waging war online, but most of this is the same as it was in Age of Empires II.
The plot actually got worse. Age of Empires III goes to the trouble of setting itself in actual time and space - colonial America - but avoids all the interesting and prickly issues like genocide, epidemics and slavery, instead subbing in a wimpy tale of a family destined to protect the Holy Grail from a Satanic Cult.
We understand that dealing with real issues plaguing colonial America, like slavery and genocide, doesn't make for a very, uh, marketable game, but this weird fantasy plot isn't a good alternative. Europeans weren't over there to protect a sacred relic from Satan - they were there to escape their oppressors and eradicate the indigenous folk. (Now that's the stuff good video games are made of.) In any case, the single-player campaign tells a wimpy story and doesn't let you do any of the awful things you might be yearning to do under the pretext of harmless entertainment.
Instead, it lets you do all kinds of things you've pretty much done before. You still make peons, tell them to gather and build stuff, then pump out the troops and place them in groups before sending them to battle. You cannot, however, set formations or behaviors for your troops " formations are handled for you, and commands like telling your troops to act defensively or aggressively are not in the game. For the most part, you just group your troops and right click on whatever you want attacked.
So let's right-click on the game modes. The main campaign presents you with the same RTS objectives you've been completing for years " defend this base for five minutes, destroy that base, deliver this cargo across this map, etc., etc. If the plot had been edgy and the objectives taboo ("Moctezuma must die!"), this would be worth a run through, but as it stands, you're better off jumping straight into Skirmishes and Online battles.
But these modes aren't flawless, they just manage to avoid telling some Mickey Mouse tale of bravery and virtue. The problem with the skirmishes, online and off, is the fact that there is only one victory condition " kill "em all. There are no command points to control, no flags to capture, and no innocent populations to spare or slaughter. The two modes " Supremacy and Deathmatch " are only distinguishable by the resources you begin the match with. In Supremacy, everyone starts with nothing but a few peasants and must build their forces from the ground up. In Deathmatch, everyone starts with 20,000 of everything (Gold, Food, Timber), so players can build big cities and armies as fast as their fingers will let them.
Deathmatches are almost always preferable due to an Age of Empires III peculiarity " never-ending resources. You can build mills and one factory, and between the two receive an infinite stream of resources. This obviously makes turtling (building walls and heavy defenses while training tons of units) a choice strategy in Supremacy matches, where Zerg rushes aren't a large concern. However, once all the players on a map become nice and fortified, bringing them down is nigh impossible without leaving your city open to conquest. As a result, everyone just sits there soaking up resources in a stalemate.
While Supremacy matches can literally go on forever, Deathmatches see players build up the biggest armies they can in almost no time at all and clash immediately. These matches are usually good, quick fun, although we wish there were more ways to enjoy the game than just this one.
The core of AOE III is so surprisingly familiar, you'll start to wonder exactly what Ensemble has been up to in the past few years. The answer is the Home City, the best new feature in the game. Every nation has a Home City, from which players can periodically choose gifts to augment their war efforts. These gifts are basically cards that players can build into a deck of twenty, although they may have hundreds to choose from.
When you begin a new Home City, you'll have fifteen cards. As you gain experience in battle, your city will level up and you'll be allowed to choose a couple new ones, adding them to your deck. Ultimately, the idea is to build a deck that complements your nation's natural attributes, hopefully allowing you to build a big force faster than your opponents. This is an exciting addition to the strategy, because it means serious players will have their own custom nations, making battles far less predictable. But while a well-balanced card system can be a thing of beauty, it's not really the only thing you look for in a sequel that's been coming for six years.
We also wish it were more fun to look at. Age of Empires III is certainly prettier than Ages past with its new 3D models and nifty effects, not to mention its fancy new physics. Hurl a cannonball at some pesky natives and watch it literally roll over them. However, the game uses the same camera system as Age of Empires II. You can't rotate or angle it; you can only slightly zoom in and out. As a result, the game ends up looking a lot like Age of Empires II in spite of the significant graphical upgrade.
If the camera man needs to be fired, the fight choreographer needs to be fired twice. Age of Empires III is geared for huge, insane battles, but not very pretty ones ones. If you've played or seen a Rome: Total War game, you know what awesome battles look like, and given the state of Age of Empires III's ugly, static clusters, I'd say someone should mail Ensemble a copy.
At least they got the audio right. The ambient sounds, music and voice work all suit the colonial theme, and the sound effects are by far the most interesting elements of any battle.
But no one buys strategy games for the sound effects - they buy them to agonize over tactics and statistics and this is why Age of Empires III is still a recommendable RTS. The steps it has taken in the gameplay department since Age of Empires II are negligible, but at least the new card-based bonus system adds an element of customization and depth to the genre. This result is as detailed as a history book, and about as much fun.