Summary: The next Age is upon us! Ensemble Studios is about to bless us with yet another coming Empire game and Jakub was all over it like a fat kid on a cookie. Read his well-digested preview here.
I recall this because Age of Empires always had something different about it. It used real countries, relatively real units, and had the concept of Ages – but that was only the start. Paul, when he first started playing, liked to build cities. SimCities even. They’d have walls, towers, gates, neatly arranged farms, and plenty of game animals walking around, completely unmolested by his peasants. Every time my rampaging Celtic or Teutonic hordes encountered Paul, it was an idyllic community that they put to fire and sword. The screams of his peasants were sweet, but not so much as Paul’s frustration. Paul eventually got better – much better, at the cost of his academic performance it turns out (oops, my bad) – but Age of Empires still hasn’t changed. You can still build your SimCities, or your rampaging hordes.
Age of Empires III expands on the economy and city-building concepts, while simplifying the process and adding Age of Mythology flavor. For example, every time the player reaches a new age, he picks a new governor, the way he’d pick a patron god in Age of Mythology. Also gone are resource drop-off points, peasants no longer have to deliver lumber to lumber mills or food to granaries – all resources are automatically added as they are gathered.
Cities also require less building; there’s less pressure on the housing situation, while unit-producing structures are more efficient. In the Barracks, for example, you can build one Pikeman or five, and they’ll both take the same amount of time to develop. In fact, you can choose to build one, and if it isn’t finished yet you can queue up another four to make five total. However, the limit does stay at five and if the player chooses more, a second queue will open up. Peasants and boats seem to be the exception to the quick-build rule.
This makes for faster time to action and less time spent on building the six barracks you need to compete. Extra barracks do help, but it is rare to need more than two. The streamlining of city-building doesn’t take the emphasis off the economy at all, however. Hunting is still the best way to gather food, with fishing and farming coming in far behind.
The way units organize themselves is noteworthy. No longer is the player fiddling with jumbles of anti-archer, anti-cavalry, anti-infantry and anti-anti-x units in various groups. Rather, the AI manages to arrange them all in a certain order if you group them. It won’t necessarily fight them against what they’re best matched against, but creating a super-group of multiple unit types arranges them in a logical fashion; cavalry up front, infantry in the middle and ranged units in the rear.
On top of tactical considerations, there’s a more strategic game as well. The player chooses not only the governors for his colony, but has to deal with the home city as well. Being a colony, it’s expected to get help from the motherland and shipments do arrive. These are based off how well the player is doing. There’s a fixed counter that slowly adds to the shipment timer, but this can be improved by beating up enemy armies for experience, or building your own. Each new unit or unit killed is worth a certain amount of points; Lancers, for example, are worth 20. Points are added to the shipment counter and when it fills, the shipment icon is pressed, the home city menu pops up and the player chooses. Certain shipments, typically those that concern military units or bonuses, are a one-time-per-map deal. Others, like resources, can be used infinitely. Experience points aren’t limited to speeding up the shipment timer, they are also used to buy upgrades at the home city. Upgrades mean getting more or better units per shipment.
Home City upgrades were quite welcome and in fact the entire idea is an impressive addition to the singleplayer campaign. Past Ensemble games didn’t quite stimulate the senses very well, with the first two Ages of Empires titles being rather bland, and Age of Mythology dragging on somewhat in some tedious scenario design. This was made all the more evident with the general repetitiveness of the RTS formula and lack of variation in it. From what we’ve seen so far, Age of Empires III spices the scenarios up and cuts them down to more manageable bites.
Sound has been improved as well. No celebrity voice actors as yet, but the boom of cannon fire or staccato of muskets is crisp enough for anyone’s tastes. The cannons are quite amusing, especially field guns which tend to knock enemy peasants out in a single hit – as well as the tree they were harvesting. The graceful collapse and subsequent thud of the tree felled by a stray cannon shot is indicative of the attention to detail that is put into AoE3.
In fact, that seems to be the theme of Age of Empires III – refinement instead of revolution. This should come as no surprise to long-time fans of the series, who have enjoyed the subtle changes and tweaks to the formula that Ensemble Studios has so much experience with. It is not a stretch to say that Age of Empires III is as compelling as any game Blizzard has released, though obviously its charms are different.
Incidentally, for those wondering what happened to Paul, he eventually graduated with his Engineering degree, became a much better Age player than I did, and he got the girl.
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