Stunningly beautiful – that’s the first thing that is going to occur to you as you get started with Age of Empires 3 – the latest in the AOE series from Ensemble Studios and Microsoft. Colorful birds flit, herds of animals roam, schools of fish and whales swim about, trees, grasslands, rocks; it really is all spectacular. The people are intricately drawn and smoothly animated; peasants are distinct from archers from pikemen from musketeers. Sounds likewise are rich and complex – the boom of cannons, the blast of muskets, the clash of swords, though the music is muted for the most part and the voice work isn’t exactly stellar. The menus have been minimized leaving more of the screen for the map view, and the enlarged isometric view makes the game feel closer to Rise of Nations than AOE2. Still, as you really dig into it, AOE3 represents mere baby steps from AOE2 in practically all other facets of the gameplay beyond the graphics. Most notably, the AI, that fearsome bugaboo, leaves much to be desired, but let’s approach this thing with some semblance of order, shall we?
At its heart, unlike many of the more blended RTS/RPG games such as Warcraft 3 and Warlords Battlecry, AOE3 remains old-school RTS. They’ve reduced the previous four resources down to three – food, wood, and coin – stone having been dropped. Additionally, resources are no longer technically gathered, in that peasants still need sit and collect them, but then don’t need to stop to take them anywhere (wood does not need to go back to a sawmill, nor metals to a foundry). It reduces the importance of the city layout considerably in that I no longer need to try and place the sawmill near a forest, nor worry that, late in the game, local deforestation will make my sawmill a long walk from the nearest wood source. Not that I’ve typically spent hours planning my towns or micromanaging my peasants, but this reduces that facet of the game fairly significantly. Otherwise, true to the RTS formula, you construct buildings, buy units, research a few city and unit improvements, and then try to wipe the enemy off the map.
The single player campaign tells the story of exploration of the Americas and the race for the fountain of youth. It brings in British, Aztec, French, Spanish, Turkish, Russian – a couple of others that I can’t think of at the moment. They all build many similar buildings and units, though each has special units or bonuses that will probably cause people to pick a favorite. The biggest change I think in AOE3 from the predecessors is the concept of a home city. This home city is located back on your home continent far away, and as you gain experience for reaching objectives or killing enemy soldiers and such your home city gains points, that in turn can be used to redeem cards to send units or resources to your town center. Some cards can be redeemed infinitely as long as your home city has the points to redeem them, while others can only be redeemed once per game. In practice it plays out a lot like redeeming cards in Risk, only you can get resources as well as units. Gain enough experience and your home city can “level up” allowing you to make cosmetic changes (which I saw as mostly useless) and select new cards to use in future games. At some point you have more cards than you can keep in your “deck” and so must select which cards you wish to bring into any given mission or game. This represents, at best, a very minor strategic undertaking.
The real weakness of AOE3, the thing that makes it seem like AOE2 with a new coat of paint, is the AI. This mostly affects the single player scenario, but it rears its ugly head in multiplayer games as well. Ooooh, where to start? Well, ships all attack broadsides and have a very small angle of attack, so they spend a lot of time pivoting around trying to get lined up and not very much time firing except at stationary targets. A couple of ships duking it out at close range look truly ludicrous. The computer seems to have a great deal of problems with all of the campaigns that involve water as you can very quickly gain control of the seas, and then bombard the shoreline from the water, destroying defensive fortifications, buildings, and dozens of soldiers while all the enemy can do is throw what look like Molotov cocktails at your ships. Groups of mixed forces at rest form up into neat little formations – hand to hand guys in the front, shooters and chuckers in the back – and then advance at the speed of the slowest unit to maintain formation, even going into combat. So, if you want your cavalry to actually charge the enemy you have to detach them from groups of foot soldiers. And mortars, which move REALLY slowly, can bog down an entire offensive force as they shuffle along. The computer does nothing to protect its resource gatherers, as I snuck a couple of bowmen into his forest and killed untold dozens of peasants sent to gather wood without reprisal. Finally, the computer seems to approach every scenario exactly the same way, hanging back and building up a sizeable force and sending it out at your camp. If you can build up your defensive fortifications enough to repel a few of these attacks, you can then easily move a force of your own forward, using mortars to destroy all his buildings from range, and easily defeating any smaller forces that come out to try and hit your mortars. It’s a strategy that worked for me during the entire single-player campaign. There was no attempt by the computer to alter its losing strategy.
The game is much more entertaining in multiplayer (which can be accomplished fairly painlessly either through LAN or the Ensemble Studios Online). The various civilizations are superbly balanced, and players of similar skill can hammer away at each other for hours. Ultimately, however, the winner will probably be the guy who can micromanage the combat troops more effectively due to the sucky formation AI. One interesting side note in multiplayer games is that your home city advances (cards) stay built up through online victories, but they are only good for a single civilization. So if you have been playing multiplayer as the French and have this advanced French home city with a whole stack of cards available and you switch to the Spanish your home city is back to square one. It’s a large deterrent from swapping civilizations in online play, and in my mind kind of a needless one.
One last thought I’d like to include here because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to stick it is that advancing through the ages, which occurs in this AOE as in previous AOE incarnations, spans only the pre-industrial up to the industrial age. There’s not a bunch of great technological advancement over that span, gunpowder for example being available throughout, so that you don’t get the vast disparity that you used to get when a stone age society butted heads with a society comfortably in the iron age. It flattens the significance of the advancement, and makes it less important to strive to do so.
It’s a little difficult to call a game like AOE3 dated because so much work has been done on the graphics and interface, but under the hood (with the exception of the home city concept) AOE3 is all AOE2. Is this a bad thing? Maybe. I’m still playing AOE2 online and in skirmish mode (where the computer does relatively well on certain maps), and now in AOE3 I get to play AOE2 with snazzier graphics and a groovy new interface. Perhaps with a couple of patches they can clean up a few of the formation issues and make life even more swell (though I think the ship combat is a total loss). As it stands, it’s a pretty good game. Not a great one, but pretty good.