Age of Empires III is the next incarnation of Ensemble's incredibly popular series; a series that is often used as a comparison reference when referring to the best titles available in its genre. It takes the classic real-time strategy formula, throws in a few twists and turns, a good handful of very innovative gameplay elements, and combines them into an innovative feature-packed release with virtually limitless replay value.
You can choose from one of eight different civilizations, though French, English and Spanish are the most common. Each civilization has a home city and the game really focuses around this point. You build your colony with a town center and as you grow and expand this empire, your home city (which you don't see on the gameplay map) grows as well. As you gain experience points through battles, trade routes or simply advancing through the game, you can "redeem" these experience points in exchange for shipments from your home city. Whether it's simply crates of resources that can be quickly gathered and added to your stockpile, units or even additional fortifications such as outposts (sent on wagons), this element can really influence the outcome of a game. Some shipments, such as food and other elements, are "unlimited", as in you can redeem them as many times as necessary, while others (especially units), are mostly one-time gifts. Home city shipments are a dynamic, innovative element, and while it may seem to simply add an additional complexity to the game, the developers have taken the option to really simplify other areas of the series.
Resource management is a huge part of the real-time strategy genre and every development team does it differently. Number of resources, drop sites, gathering rates and even management of peasants is a major development decision and fortunately, Age of Empires III takes the genre back to its roots. When you look at the evolution of the genre, Rise of Nations having six required elements and Empire Earth II having even more, you spend a lot more time micromanaging your colony than actually planning invasions, and building units (the more tactical side of the game). Age of Empires III has taken a different route; there are only three resources to gather; food, wood and coin. Furthermore, for coin and food, you can construct buildings that can grow crops and plantations, thus providing a somewhat infinite number of resources (although they are expensive and gathering rates at these facilities is slow). In addition to the simplified resource model, there are no drop sites and no need to build storage facilities. As the resources are gathered they are instantly added to your stockpile for use. It's simple, yet very effective and really avoids the hassle of micromanaging peasants.
Gameplay is the real core of any strategy game and Age of Empires III has got this down cold. The basic gameplay model is that found in any real-time strategy title; construct a city, build an army, attack and defend, and any combination of those. Surprisingly, this is where Age of Empires III really shines; the unit balance is near perfect and the AI offers a challenge to even the most experienced player, though the core model is practically the same as that used in every real-time strategy game in the last five or so years. However, Age of Empires III offers several significant improvements which I noticed while exploring the maps. For starters, when you gather units, they seem to automatically be placed into tactical formations and all travel across the map at roughly the same speed. This means that your horseback elements will keep pace with foot soldiers if they are grouped into the same selection. One of my other issues with the classic model was that once you had lost your main defenses, there was little chance of rebounding to make a comeback. You could try to create additional units, but the second they emerged one by one from the barrack, they usually were blown to pieces. Age of Empires III has addressed this issue, with the ability to create multiple units of the same type at once. You are able to queue up to five identical units for creation. These units are created concurrently and it only takes slightly longer to create five units rather then a single unit. With five units emerging from the barracks (or stable for that matter), you may actually stand a slightly better chance of survival.
The introduction of trade routes and partnering with native groups adds yet another strategic element to the long-time series. On each map, there are one or more predetermined trade routes, indicated by trails and native trading outposts. Also indicated are positions where you can construct these outposts, to trade with the Natives in exchange for food, wood, coin, or simply experience points. In addition, you can build outposts on native settlements and then construct native units (which are inexpensive and very effective) to battle alongside your troops. The key with this is there are only a small number of available outpost positions available and you'll have to fight your neighboring colonies for them. Trade outposts are essential to getting an advantage; they can provide much needed resources or experience points depending on which option you have selected in the outpost menu. As the game progresses, you have the option to upgrade the trade routes from your outposts, from carriages to stagecoaches, and finally to a rail network. As you upgrade the trade routes, you'll get a lot greater capacity and more frequent deliveries (yet another advantage over enemy colonies).
It goes without saying that Age of Empires III is the most highly detailed, absolutely beautiful real-time strategy game ever produced. The screenshots reflect the actual gameplay of the title. Environments are absolutely gorgeous; lighting, shadows and textures beautifully designed. Even at a high resolution, the performance is still surprisingly good, although you'll need a high-end PC to max this one out. Buildings are highly detailed and while building construction looks amazing, destruction looks even better. Buildings crumble, mortars blow through individual walls, flames burst out of roofs as the structures collapse, and that's just a small part of the destructive power found in Age of Empires III. What is probably the nicest part of the new engine though, are the unbelievable water effects. Waves ripple across the open seas, reflections glare from the light, and it all looks incredibly detailed. The screenshots don't lie; this is easily the best-looking real-time strategy game to date.
My only real complaint with Age of Empires III is the viewing model. By default, you are zoomed in close; really close. I've always been the type of player who prefers to zoom out as far as possible and view the battlefield from a distance in planning my attack, and Age of Empires III doesn't allow you to really do this well. You'll likely find yourself fairly restricted into how close and how far you can zoom, and it really changes the gameplay strategy if you've previously used this approach.
Sound-wise, Age of Empires III is a very solid release, but nothing revolutionary. The soundtrack and voice acting is spot on, and the sound effects are well presented. The cheer of soldiers as they take down an enemy building, the shattering of glass as a building is torched, and even the sounds of swordplay are superb and really complement the game as a whole.
The real strength of Age of Empires III is in its replay value. An incredibly lengthy campaign broken down into three main acts, skirmish mode with an astounding amount of customization, multiplayer support with the ESOnline matchmaking service, and a scenario editor where you can sit down and create your own maps and campaigns. The multiplayer mode in itself is impressive, rank-based matchmaking over the internet pitting you against players of roughly the same skill level, or simply LAN-based matches; both with a variety of customization options.
Age of Empires III is a very solid title as a whole, but in the end it is still another entry in an overcrowded real-time strategy genre. It offers a very solid gameplay model and superb graphics, but it isn't really a revolutionary game. It may not be what people were expecting, but that doesn't stop it from being a very solid entry into the real-time strategy genre, and a recommendation to say the least.