Six years have flown by since Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings became one of the definitive real-time strategy games on the market. Age of Kings typified this style of gaming in many respects, but it innovated and improved the style in many others, establishing the template for untold numbers of historic real-time strategy games to come. Coming off the successful spin-off that was Age of Mythology, Ensemble Studios is back with another installment in the series that put the developer's name on the map. Age of Empires III advances the series hundreds of years into the future, trading swordsmen and catapults for musketeers and cannons, while keeping the series' signature formula basically intact. What's more, the game features some gorgeous visuals and an interesting, inventive twist in its persistent "home city" system. So it's unfortunate that the actual meat-and-potatoes combat of Age of Empires III didn't turn out better, since what ought to be the most fun and exciting part of the game is actually the part that feels like it's seen the fewest improvements.
You'll need a lot more than three musketeers to win a typical skirmish in the New World in Age of Empires III.
Make no mistake, Age of Empires III is still an impressive game overall. But fans with fond memories of the previous installment will be left feeling nostalgic for that game. Part of the reason may be purely subjective. The colonial setting of Age of Empires III, which focuses on hypothetical conflicts between European powers vying for control over the New World (that is, an unfettered North and South America), presents a subtler culture clash than, say, samurai fighting Persian war elephants. And the transition through five different ages that's presented in the game, culminating in the industrial age (when locomotives and mass production became a reality), aren't drastically different in gameplay terms, since the magic of gunpowder is available from the get-go. Nevertheless, one look at either Age III's majestic galleons firing all broadsides or horse-drawn cannons readying a deadly payload ought to be all the convincing you need that this is a welcomed direction for the series to take.
Eight different European civilizations are at the forefront of Age of Empires III, though mercenaries from other foreign nations sort of make cameo appearances, and various Native American tribes are also included. The usual suspects are here, like the British, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch. The Russians, the Portuguese, the Germans, and the Ottomans are also available, and each has certain key differences in its economy and military leanings. These differences are significant in practice, such as how the British automatically gain additional workers when they build new houses, or how the Russians may quickly train up large numbers of light infantry. But the eight cultures' personalities don't necessarily come across in combat, because most of the units and structures unique to each side aren't so unique as to be highly distinguishable, and many units and structures are shared in common across most sides. There are certainly exceptions--the Ottomans, with their heavy emphasis on gunpowder, bring to bear some of the biggest and baddest guns in the game, for instance. And, oddly enough, British longbows seem just as surprisingly deadly here as they did in Age II. It's probably just a necessary consequence of the setting, but don't expect for Age III's factions to blow your mind by how different or unusual they are. Fortunately, each one is complex enough and seems viable enough to where it's easy to find an early favorite and want to stick with it.
Age of Empires III is every bit the fully featured game you'd expect it to be, featuring a lengthy single-player campaign in three interconnected acts, each one a generation apart. There's a fully customizable skirmish mode with five difficulty settings for the computer opponent; there's the ability to play over a network; and, of course, there's the ESOnline player-matching service, where you can compete in ranked matches over the Internet, chat with other players, and more. There's also a scenario editor, in case you wish to create your own maps or campaigns, plus some encyclopedic information about all the game's units, structures, cultures, circumstances, and more. A tutorial is there to teach you the basics, and you can also play a practice match in which a fairly helpful narrator will gently remind you of the stuff you're basically forgetting to do.
The game looks dramatically different on the surface, but much of the Age of Empires formula remains fully intact.
When you get right down to it, Age of Empires III plays a lot like Age II. It's been simplified in a number of ways that fans of the past game will quickly notice and mostly appreciate, but the overall flow of gameplay remains very similar. You're put in charge of a fledgling colony in the New World, and you must deploy workers from your town center, who may build new structures and harvest the game's three resources: food, wood, and coin. Stone, which was a fourth resource in Age II, is no longer a factor, and you don't have to worry about creating resource drop-off sites this time around (settlers sent to chop wood, for instance, will just chop away without ever heading back to a town center or lumberyard). A marketplace structure centralizes economic upgrades, and mills and plantations can be built to produce an infinite supply of food and coin, respectively. So later on in a match, you can safely stop worrying about micromanaging your resource gathering--at least until your foes swoop in and damage your economic foundation.
Meanwhile, additional houses must be built to support a growing population, and walls and defensive structures may be used to repel guerilla tactics. Military forces mainly consist of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and they're trained from separate structures. Most military units can be queued up five at a time, so rather than produce musketeers one by one, you can build a group--provided you have the resources. Presumably this is so you can quickly marshal some defenses if caught off guard, but it's strange that the same amount of time is needed to train one soldier as is needed to train five. You can effectively get an interest-free loan by training your first troop, then waiting until he's almost ready before quickly queuing up four more.
So in an average match, you'll spend a considerable amount of time building up your base and your economy, eventually marshaling a mixed group of forces with which you'll try to overwhelm your enemy. Dancing between your economy and your military, as you micromanage each in turn, is the key to victory. While the game's interface makes it fairly easy to keep track of what's happening on these fronts, your manual dexterity is still key to success, both when preparing for combat and when engaged in it. A lot of buildup can end very quickly if opponents aren't evenly matched, while equally skilled opponents may be at each other's throats for longer than an hour in a typical Age of Empires III match.
Combat between large forces gets chaotic, and the frame rate can bog down too. Micromanage your way to victory!
The game offers plenty of interface features for letting you keep tabs on everything, but when you get down to the combat, things are more chaotic and less true-to-life than you'd probably expect. Groups of units automatically form columns, just as you'd assume (infantry in front, artillery in back), and they move at the rate of the slowest unit. Unfortunately, when ordered to attack, they still move at that same slowest rate. So to make your cavalry effectively charge into battle, you must order them separately from your crossbowmen, and so on.
The neatly arranged ranks immediately break apart when the battle begins, with riflemen fanning out to attack and horse riders clumping around their targets and swinging away, rather than charging through the ranks. Units can all turn on a dime, so cannons have no trouble hitting moving targets, and the game's stately ships display some shockingly absurd behavior when in close quarters or near shore. Most units appear small onscreen, so it can be difficult to keep track of individual combatants in a hectic battle, especially since the game's frame rate will noticeably bog down--even on fast machines--when the bullets start flying. So not only does the game favor whoever brings to bear the biggest force in the first place, but also it favors whoever's got the fastest trigger finger in the West, not to mention the best frame rate, since you'll need to finesse some of your units around the battlefield to make the most of them. Granted, this is nothing out of the ordinary for a real-time strategy game, but that's just the problem: You might reasonably expect the long-awaited sequel to one of the best real-time strategy games of all time to have provided a good solution for what many players have identified as one of the genre's setbacks.