The weight of expectations handicaps some games, making it difficult to fully appreciate a good game when you expected a great game. And that's precisely the problem with Age of Empires III. It's a solid game, fun to play, no glaring problems, some minor innovations that add to the experience, but it's also the third incarnation in an incredible series of real-time strategy games. In the last ten years, the Age series and the Warcraft series were by far the best RTS games available. So, for anyone familiar with its lineage -- the entire RTS community -- AoE III was expected to be spectacular. Unfortunately, only the graphics are spectacular.
Each game in the Age series focuses on a historical epoch -- with the exception of Age of Mythology detour -- and AoE III features the colonial era. Tri-cornered hats, muskets, cannons, frigates, colonial powers, pirates, Indians, and the lust for gold are all prominently featured. Gamers will play through three generations of the Black family: (1) Morgan, a Knight of St. John (roughly equivalent to the Templars, for you history buffs and fans of The Da Vinci Code); (2) John, Morgan's son and a mercenary; and (3) Amelia, John's granddaughter, and industrialist. As with most RTS games, the story is mildly interesting, but the real fun starts as soon as the cut-scenes end.
Earlier AoE games concentrated on melee fighting, however, this is the age of gunpowder, and player tactics must be adjusted. Most of the units in the game are ranged (except for the important cavalry), and success can be neatly summed up as a race to the cannons (not available until the third age of the game). An outnumbered army with several cannons will cut larger armies to pieces. The overriding importance of the cannon is unfortunate because cannons are so hard to counter. Expert players may be able to anticipate and counter them, but the average player will just lose, miserably. Also, the move to primarily ranged units reduces the micromanagement fun of the game -- strategy is primarily making sure you have the right ranged unit, but once they arrive at the battle, they start firing away. Experts will want to focus their fire appropriately, but this is extremely difficult.
The biggest addition to AoE III is the playing cards. With each level gained, players will gain access to additional cards, which can be added to their 20-card playing deck. Cards offer benefits, like troops and upgrades, and can be cashed in when sufficient in-game experience is earned. In the story mode, this interesting, but in multiplayer it becomes crucial. Different decks offer different strategies, and players can modify their tactics considerably through their choice of cards. More advanced players have access to powerful cards, which makes playing them as a less experienced player quite difficult. The included online matchmaking service, Ensemble Studios Online, is excellent and a decided improvement over the Age of Mythology version.
Real-time strategy aficionados will want to pick up AoE III, but would be well advised to temper their expectations. For players new to RTS games, AoE III is a great introduction. For their next effort, however, Ensemble would be well advised to focus less on graphics and more on gameplay.
Graphics: The game world looks incredible. Every building, unit, tree, and aspect of the world is rendered in amazing 3D detail. Cannons fire, shrapnel explodes, smoke hovers over a battle, and buildings disintegrate and burn. Water shimmers.
Sound: Thoroughly ordinary, but that's fine for a RTS game.
Enjoyment: Good, but it could have been better.
Replay Value: The multiplayer options will keep serious gamers going for a longtime.
People who downloaded Age of Empires III have also downloaded:
Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Axis & Allies, Caesar IV, 1701 A.D., Sid Meier's Civilization IV
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