Dec 31, 2011

Review: Age of Empires III

Sometimes, when you're as old as I, some classics stick out. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing based on how well they age. Many, many games older than say 5 years from release will simply refuse to play since they rely on outdated drivers and other programs that are no longer supported. Others may run, but seeing the game running again will probably completely ruin whatever childhood worships you once had on such games.  And don't even get me started on the games that are non-compatible on current systems, and most likely never will be enjoyed to their fullest rights.. Unless of course someone 5-10 years down the road from now decides to write a retro review, such as this one I'll admit, and prove me wrong.

Home boys in Amsterdam busy sending me stuff

Bit of a sidetrack there, back to aging of games. Some games don't age well at all then as mentioned.  Then, there's the odd game that not only plays just like you remembered it, they are actually forward compatible with whatever hardware your today's computer is packing, making them a better experience than you even remembered them to be.

Age of Empires (AoE) III is one such game.

In it, the player takes hands on control of a country of their choice and drives it to domination of their opponents. This will usually happen in an action RTS'ly (real time strategy) manner, when the gloves come off. The trademark of the AoE series though is really solid development through different ages of development not only in the choice of military units, but economy as well and a wide range of tech for both.

What this boils down to, is that a typical multiplayer (or vs bots, or combinations+bots) match will be fast paced, and very strategic as especially your early military units can decide if you win or lose even in the first few minutes, but somehow AoE still feels.. deeper, than, say, Starcraft 1 or 2. Even if it doesn't play all that different.

Bit of religion warfare

AoE also boasts a town levelling system that has to be said to have been ahead of its time, by letting players level up their countries of choice, giving access to cards that can be used during matches. These cards come in all varieties, some can be used from the get go, others are late tech ones. You have your cards that make your markets more efficient, and your workers mine gold faster, and then there's the cards that ship an army fort to your base, or large units of troops.  Think of these cards as your typical perks choice in for example Call of Duty, they specialize your empire. If you pick purely economical ones, you risk getting rushed by an army of pikemen if the opponents have military cards in use, unless you put some effort into early defenses.  Much like in any RTS really, just a bit more random. If you go all in economy at the start of a game, you will get owned by a quick tech+military card push.

I've mostly talked about multiplayer quirks and features so far, which I realize may have been an odd place to begin, but it is a strong point, even if you probably wont find any human opponents to play against playing AoE III today.  Fortunately AoE also features a pretty solid solo campaign with your typical assortment of RTS assignments through four Acts of missions that also roughly follows technology advances through the early settlement of America in the years 1500-1850.  This is a quite big difference from previous AoE games where you'd typically play from the middle ages or earlier.

New Amsterdam in the making

To get down to the gameplay in specifics, AoE III plays very much like your today's RTS game in most regards. There are three types of resources that all have to be managed using settlers, your explorer and fishing boats to manage. Despite being a quite old game by now, anyone familiar with Starcraft, or the more recent Command & Conquer games will know exactly how to play. Click drag and drop to select groups of units, ctrl to make hotkeys for groups, rightclick to send units to do their stuff, the usual business.  Here's where I need to point out a game flaw though, and a pretty big one at that.  Your units will show some odd attack behaviour, whether you leave them to their own devices or have them attack move somewhere. You can't trust them to not just stroll past a platoon of enemy forces, being shot down in the process.  Even if you directly command a group of units to do the most basic things, such as attacking a unit or building that is clearly unobstructed, and in range, the little buggars won't always do it!  (And then, sometimes they do just as you tell them, just to piss you off since you spent a minute on the ready with the cursor over them in case they decide to be stupid.)  If you're used to churning out an army and sending them out with an attack move while focusing on base stuff, you will definitely need some adjusting to this game.

Now then, I will finish off the review with what I started talking about initially.  Please forgive me for the awful structure of this review, and thank you if you managed to bear with me thus far.

Have some dutch cannon balls, evil dock!

Age of Empires III remains a remarkably slick game even today. It supports all the common widescreen resolutions that really weren't common back in the day, all they way up to 1920*1080 (and beyond? Thats as high as my monitor goes), and uses what has to be considered decent shaders even by today's standards, reflections as well as support for anti aliasing, resulting in a game that will not look awfully old at all on today's computers, not to mention almost all computers will be able to just max all details and get it on.

In conclusion: If you can bear with some oddities with military unit micromanagement, Age of Empires III is a surprisingly strong RTS title that can offer gameplay challenges to match most recent RTS releases.  If you're a fan of the genre and happen to find AoE III for cheap somewhere, go for it.

+Feels authentic, colonizing Americas style
+Decent OST, very good SFX. Musket shots and cannon fire in particular sound very meaty
+ A lot of content provided bought at budget somewhere

- At times awful unit AI, needs careful micromanagement. Even then, things can get weird...
- Old game, don't expect to find online opponents (though its fairly easy to set up, should you have any)


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