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Age of Empires III (PC)
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Model Multiplayer

Online multiplayer is accomplished through a built-in service called "Ensemble Studios Online." This full-featured gameplay service is a model for other games to follow. You can do everything from in the game: create a new account, choose a portrait, develop your multiplayer Home Cities, chat with other players, add buddies to your friends list, send instant messages to one another, form a clan, join a clan, browse for games, see ladders and rankings... all within a beautiful interface.

A series of random map templates are available for multiplayer, most with some interesting twists on gameplay and their own set of native villages. For instance, the "Yukon" maps group all of the players close together on the bottom of a frigid snow-covered map, along one side of a trade road. Across the road is a river, and on the other side of the river is a resource-rich area loaded with gold and silver mines. These maps leave you fighting tooth and nail, shoulder-to-shoulder against your foe while everyone tries to establish rich colonies across the river. Fun stuff.

Win or lose online, you'll probably earn enough experience to customize and upgrade your Home City.

Getting a good multiplayer game going isn't always easy. Now that the service is live, we haven't encountered any of the difficulties discussed in our first impressions piece. However, because Age of Empires III is a peer-to-peer experience, if anyone tries to join your game with a bad ping it can cause a lot of lag. We experienced more than a few disconnects from people with poor Internet connections, which causes a screen to come up asking players to wait or to disconnect. Often people bailed out on the whole game when this happened. Hopefully the Ensemble team can smooth out this process in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we had trouble arranging large games because any given 3-vs.-3 has at least one player causing problems.

Once you do get a good multiplayer game started, you're in for a treat. A variety of strategic options are available. Thanks to the strength of artillery and the speed in which Home City shipments can build up a fighting force, we found that the game tends to be very offensive; few players online bother to build up significant defenses. The real question is, when do you attack? Do you rush the opposing player in the third age, or do you ramp up your economy and focus on building powerful units in the fourth age? For games that are stalemated, there's even a fifth age that you can develop your culture toward, with significant costs, allowing you to build immensely powerful units. In practice we found few games where people took this option.

So far, based on our online testing, no particular strategy seems to win out. This results in some very fun games. There's a contingent of players choosing the Russian civilization, which allows them to build enormous armies of relatively weak "Strelets" units (in one multiplayer game we witnessed someone building over 1000 of these guys), but good artillery can combat the Russian Rush. Every culture has its own gimmicks. My best city is German, which means I get bonus cavalry with every shipment I send over. It's pretty easy to build up a significant cavalry force by the third age, which gives me an opportunity to rush an enemy city to try to thin their civilian population. It's risky, but it slows people down. Best of all is when my opponent plays as the English and tries to rush me with longbows; my cavalry mows them down like a weed-infested lawn.

Regardless of whether you win or lose online, your Home City will gain valuable experience, which rewards you for playing no matter what the outcome.

The Final Word

Truly hardcore strategy gamers might find lots of nitpicks in Age of Empires III. It's difficult to unload transport ships, healers have to be micro-managed or they'll charge into combat, and there aren't a lot of options for customizing your hotkeys. Artillery units on occasion can't decide to fire or pack up to move. But the important thing is that none of these little problems really impacts the core game.

Age of Empires III is an absolutely fantastic title with superb graphics and tight gameplay. Single-player or multiplayer, no matter what your skill, you'll get hours of joy out of this sucker online or off. Age of Empires III may not redefine real-time strategy gaming, but it sets the bar so high that we'll be comparing games to this for years. Shoulder your musket and pony up: this one's a real trip.



Game Information

Community Site
Reviewer System Specifications
Dell XPS Pentium 4 3.4GHz, Windows XP, 2.0 GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 6800.