Tue, 27 Feb 2007 Age Of Empires III
Put your thinking cap on: it’s time to take charge and wage war
- Manufacturer: Microsoft
- Pros: Stunning, deep engrossing gameplay, intelligent, well-designed missions, comprehensive single-player campaign, LAN and online multiplayer games
- Cons: Heavy system requirements hobble the game for Mac owners without 3D graphics cards, requires considerable investment of time to play
- Star rating:
Like most RTS games, playing is largely a case of defending your base, building up your resource gatherers, and working out a cunning plan for taking out the enemy.
Settlers form the backbone of your society and are sent out to gather wood, coins or food. They can also be used to build structures: barracks, churches, stables and so on. These, in turn, produce military units, provide upgrades, defend your base and supply a variety of social tasks (markets can be used to turn one type of resource into another, for example).
While a large part of the game involves building and structuring your society, the other half of it – arguably the more fun part – involves bashing nearby settlements to smithereens. For this you’ll be using your military units, which are divided into four basic types: infantry, cavalry, artillery and ships. In each area of the military there’s a wide array of different units: pikemen, musketeers and crossbowmen are common types of infantry, for example.
As with most RTS games each unit has strengths and weaknesses: pikemen are good against cavalry; cavalry are good against crossbowmen; crossbowmen are good against pikemen; and so on for all units. Essentially most RTS games are glorified versions of the ‘paper, scissors, stone’ game played by children everywhere (only infinitely more complicated and engrossing). The key is learning what each unit is good at and controlling battles so that you have the right units attacking the right targets.
Span the ages
Where Age Of Empires III really succeeds is the sheer breadth and depth of the various units available to you. There are eight different civilisations to choose from (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Ottoman, Russian, Dutch, British and German), each of which has access to different military units (over 37 in total). On top of this, each civilisation goes through five different ages: Discovery, Colonial, Fortress, Industrial and Imperial. During each game you can progress from one age to another for an expensive levy. Moving up an age places newer and more advanced units at your disposal.
Indeed, the huge amount of things to build, see and do appears daunting at first, though it never seems to overwhelm. This is partly due to the superb single-player campaign, which takes you from mission to mission while following a captivating storyline (for a video game anyway). Each mission introduces more complex aspects of the game, while steadily increasing the difficulty. Absolute beginners can also work through the tutorials, although these do start off with ‘click on the unit then click on the screen to move it’, which will have more experienced players reaching for the Escape button.
Alongside the Campaign mode are skirmish games that can either be played against the computer, on a network, or over the internet. There are two types of skirmish: Supremacy (you start with nothing and build your army); and Deathmatch (you start with a stockpile of resources and get straight into the fight). When playing online you can find other Age Of Empires III gamers using the GameRanger service (www.gameranger.com), which matches players at similar levels to each other. Sadly you can only play against other Mac users, not the army of PC gamers out there.
There are many reasons to praise Age Of Empires III. It’s amazing to look at, although the visuals never get in the way of what is, at heart, a strategy game more concerned with cerebral taxation than visual gratification. It is astonishingly absorbing, dragging you deep within its world of trade, development and war. Much has been made of the physics engine in Age Of Empires III and it is a treat to watch cannonballs bounce over infantry and into walls. It’s also the little touches, such as ships slowly falling to pieces rather than simply having a energy bar dissipate, that really make this game what it is: a stunningly engrossing strategy game with a surprising amount of visual and technical detail.