October 14, 2005 - It should be known by now that I've been a fan of the Age games from way back. There's just something about the historical nature of the games that appeals to me. To be fair, I think elves and space marines are neat too, but I think it's more exciting to explore the what ifs of real, historical situations. Though not quite as faithful to "reality" as some strategy games, the first two Age games offered us exciting sojourns into the worlds of "capital A" Ancient and Medieval strategy. The third title, Age of Mythology, proved that the mechanics were just as solid even if the historical inspiration was a little loose.
Now Ensemble is back on the history train with the third official Age of Empires game. Age of Empires III moves the action to the New World, letting players lead a variety of European nations from the Age of Discovery through the Industrial Age. Eight playable nations battle across a wide variety of geographies -- from the swamps of Florida to the snowy passes of the Rocky Mountains. Players can recruit different Native American tribes and seize control of various trade routes. Material and technological support will be offered by the player's home city back in Europe.
I won't spoil the particulars of the story here but a common quest and a common enemy unite all three acts. The connections aren't always clear at first, but the associations start to build as the game goes on. Putting the pieces together isn't terribly hard but it gives a nice sense of purpose to the whole game and keeps you invested in the action.
While we're talking about the game's story, it's refreshing to see a game that covers this era of warfare without referencing either Napoleon or the American Revolution. While both are fertile ground for strategy game developers, it's nice to get something a little different this time around. Meeting Washington and Bolivar and taking part in the Seven Year's War adds a little authenticity as well as variety. On the other hand, some of the choices -- like finding Russians in Colorado -- may leave gamers scratching their heads in wonder.
The range of missions is pretty broad. There are plenty of defense missions where you have to protect a given structure or a whole town from enemy assault. In other cases you'll have to destroy or capture key structures. Along the way there are plenty of other objectives: rescuing captured settlers, seizing trading posts, liberating Native American settlements and a whole host of other tasks. Better still, many missions combine a variety of these objectives at once. While most of the missions let you build a base and start collecting resources, there are some missions where you have to make do with a set number of troops.
Outside of the single player campaign, Age of Empires III benefits from a very soild multiplayer interface. A few simple clicks take you to ESO2, Ensemble's online matchmaking service. Finding and joining games is remarkably easy and there are a wide variety of options to choose from. Different starting eras and resource levels will let players jump into as advanced a game as they want. The AI offers up a few taunts from time to time to (sort of) replicate the personality of a human player. It's a nice trick honestly, but the AI can't even approach the level of smack talking that goes on among the IGN editors.
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ESRB Content Descriptors: Blood, Violence