Age of Empires III (PC)

By Phill Parker

Published on Sunday, September 25, 2005

With the official announcement that Ensemble Studios has finished work on the real-time strategy epic Age of Empires III, and that publisher Microsoft will be shipping it to stores Oct. 18, now is a perfect time to take a closer look at this game. Will it be worth your while to rush out and buy this much anticipated sequel? The best way to determine AoE III’s must-have factor is to move beyond the hype and spend some quality time with the recently released 365-MB demo. Cosmos Gaming has extensively play-tested the trial, and there is much to report. Is the experience good, bad or ugly? Read on…

The AoE III’s demo’s first campaign mission starts with your hero character, Amelia Black, trying to expand the railroad. You do this by establishing trading posts, which isn’t so straightforward when enemy troops attack.

The second demo campaign scenario starts at a military fort under siege by the Mexican army. Amelia and the troops have to hold out until reinforcements arrive. You also must upgrade trade routes from wagons to trains so supplies can be delivered more quickly. After these steps are complete, you send your troops out to raise havoc, destroying the Mexican Army’s town centers. Once that regiment of reinforcements shows up, the final step is easy. Burn, baby, burn!

Besides two campaign scenarios, you can choose to play in skirmish mode in Texas or New England, using either the British or Spanish. Five levels of difficulty are presented, ranging from sandbox to expert. Starting ages include Nomad, Discovery, Colonial, Fortress, Industrial, Post-Industrial, Imperial and Post-Imperial.

No multiplayer functionality is included in the demo, so at this point it’s not possible to judge how this aspect will work in the final build.

The full version of Age of Empires III will feature eight different civilizations, each with a unique and persistent home city, plus 24 single-player campaign scenarios. For story depth, these scenarios will span three generations of the Black family. Gameplay will take place on 15 random map types, such as desert and forest areas presented in the free trial.

One of the biggest points Ensemble has been trying to emphasize is the graphical improvements they’ve made to Age of Empires. They state this will be the best looking game ever made – period. Did they succeed? Well, this is rather subjective, but no, AoE III doesn’t trump the entire world in terms of eye candy.

Nonetheless, it does look might good. It’s too bad you can’t zoom in closer or zoom out farther, but otherwise, there isn’t a single thing to complain about. All units are intricately detailed and colorful. The game is packed with a wide variety of buildings, animals, people, weapons and transport.

It’s a joy to watch strategy translate into action when battle is joined. Structures collapse, rockets arc across the map, artillery belches smoke, pikemen grapple and fall, while cavalry gallop into the fray.

Sound is a great compliment to the animation and graphics. Realistic effects accompany every event, such as trains blowing steam whistles, muskets cracking, hooves clumping, and even hapless settlers screaming when shot. It’s all quite immersive.

Gameplay is standard RTS fare, so Ensemble obviously didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. You gather resources, build structures like barracks and houses, produce units like infantry or workers, then declare war against the opposition.

One interesting addition to the formula is the home city, which supplies resources to your growing colony. You can pick what goods are shipped out to the new world after you accrue experience points and mark certain achievements. The home city screen can be somewhat clunky, but then again the demo doesn’t include detailed instructions about how it works. Besides a manual, the full game will include a tutorial, so this murkiness probably won’t be an issue.

Considering Age of Empire III’s sweeping historical scope, beautiful production values, and deep gameplay with variable levels of challenge, this is one title that RTS fans can easily justify purchasing. The trial version amply demonstrates AoE III should provide hours of refined fun for gamers this fall.

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