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Age of Empires III

The real-time strategy genre has been relatively stagnant the last couple of years, but 2005 had some heavy-hitters step up to the plate. Dragonshard had some fantastically innovative ideas and a lot of new features, although it didn't always execute on the gameplay front. At the other end of the spectrum you have Age of Empires III, which was light on innovation but outstanding when it comes to execution.

Graphically, Age III was one of the best of the year for PC and undeniably the most beautiful real-time strategy game to date. The way that the light plays off of the water is astounding: from the pale orange of the Great Lakes at sunset to the shimmering tranquil blue of the Caribbean, the effects were often hypnotic. Trees sway in the breeze, casting dappled shadows on the ground while leaves flutter to the earth. You can see squirrels skitter along trees, or the intricate rigging of ships as they set sail across the ocean.

Once the combat starts, the eye candy really kicks in, with cannons tearing off chunks of buildings or scattering ranks of troops like so many toy soldiers, their hats and muskets whirling away in all directions. From the snowy wastes of the Yukon to the steamy jungles of South America, Age of Empires III captures the majesty of a spectacular era.

Not that the game is bereft of innovation. New to the genre is the concept of a "Home City," which is almost like a persistent online character that represents your faction. As you gain experience on the battlefield, your Home City can send shipments to your town center. Over time, from one game to the next, you can upgrade your Home City with new abilities, and even customize its appearance. It's a great incentive to keep you playing "just one more game," and a new twist on the gameplay. Two high-level German players might play the game completely differently, based on the abilities they've picked for their Home Cities. There's also some strategic tension with regards to which shipments you send to your colonies and when you ship them.

Online play is a blast, and one of the things that helps cement Age III's position on our list this year is the stellar online environment. The ES-Online service is the model of how an in-game multiplayer service should be organized. From a very slick interface you can create a persona and a player icon, manage all your Home Cities, add friends to your buddy list, send instant messages, participate in chat rooms, see everyone's stats, play in different ladders, and (of course) search for and play online pick-up games. Age of Empires III may not have re-invented the real-time strategy genre, but it certainly set new standards for years to come.

Age of Empires III

Developer: Ensemble Studios

Publisher: Microsoft

Release Date: 10/18/2005

ESRB: T

$39.99