Age of Empires III is the sequel to Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings (1999) and, in a way, to Age of Mythology (2002). Microsoft recently sent us a preview build of the game, and so what you’re going to find in the paragraphs below is a collection of my ramblings about it, the areas of the game that I found to be interesting or noteworthy. From what I can tell, most of the game mechanics are in place, but things like animations, optimizations, and the single player campaign still need some work. That is, the preview build should be a good indication about what the game is going to be like.
Age of Empires III is a real-time strategy game that picks up where Age of Empires II left off. It covers a time period of roughly 1500 to 1850, but while Age of Empires II focused on events in Europe and Asia, Age of Empires III concentrates on the New World. In some ways, this change of scenery doesn’t make any difference. Peasants are now called settlers, but they’re still trained at town halls, and they still gather resources so you can build up an army so you can defeat your competitors in battle. If you’ve played any of the other Age games, then you’ll be right at home with Age of Empires III, because a lot of the game mechanics are exactly the same.
So what’s new? Let me start with the major stuff. First off, since most of the events in the game take place far away from your home country, you get what’s called a home city. The home city is basically a repository for playing cards. Part of the game now involves building up a “deck” of cards for your city, and then playing the cards during scenarios and multiplayer games. Cards can do things like give you free troops or crates of supplies, and they can even give bonuses to your units. Each home city can only contain at most 20 cards, and there are requirements for each card, so you can’t just pick the best of the best. You have to pick cards that lead up to good cards.
You get to play cards when you earn enough experience during a scenario. Experience can be gained, as expected, by killing enemies in battle, but there are also other ways. For example, almost all maps include fixed trade routes, with spots on the route where you can build trading posts. Then when a neutral trade caravan visits your trading post, you gain experience. You can also upgrade your trading post to support stagecoaches and, later, trains so that it is visited more often, and you can also switch the trading post so that it gains you resources instead of experience.
Speaking of resources, they’re a little different now. Obviously, stone doesn’t play much of a role in the time period covered by the game, and so it has been removed. Meanwhile, gold is gone, too, but only sort of, since it’s been replaced by coin. Gathering resources works basically the same as before, as you have to direct settlers to resource sites, but there are some new wrinkles as well. Settlers no longer have to carry resources at a depot; just having them at a resource site will earn you a stream of that resource. Also, farms, which have changed a little in each Age game, are now completely gone. Instead, you can build mills and then assign up to ten settlers to farm at the mill. There are also plantations, where you can assign settlers to earn you gold, but there isn’t a fixed site for wood. You’ll still have to send your settlers out into the wild to get that.
What else? You can still build defensive buildings like towers and forts, but they’re even weaker than they were in Age of Mythology, they can’t be garrisoned, and you’re limited in how many you can build. Clearly, developer Ensemble Studios wants games to be decided by military units rather than by digging in. There are also treasures that you can find scattered around the map, but they are much weaker than the relics of Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology. Each treasure is protected by some sort of guardian (such as a grizzly bear guarding an abandoned wagon), but all you find if you claim the treasure is a small amount of some resource or a little bit of experience. That means exploring the map early in the game isn’t as important as it was in the other games.
The preview build we received contained part of the single player campaign, and it also included skirmish mode. I played the available part of the campaign (which deals with a mystical sect and the Fountain of Youth) and a few skirmish games, and Age of Empires III looks like it’s going to be another solid release. My only worry, and perhaps Ensemble’s as well, is that the engine and the time period are a little familiar, and so the game might be missing the “it” factor to make more than just a pleasant gaming experience. But Ensemble Studios still has lots of time to work on the game (so far as I know, nobody from Ensemble or Microsoft has announced a release date, although Christmas is a safe bet), and their track record indicates that they’ll figure something out.
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