Reviews

Age of Empires III

Ryan Smith

If you can look past the fact that much of the combat was done with slow-loading, inaccurate rifles by men in gaudy uniforms, you'll find it hard to believe how few games have been made about the era.


Publisher: Microsoft
Price: $49.99
Multimedia: Age of Empires Iii
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Ensemble Studios
US release date: 2007-06
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If a History of the World According to PC Games textbook ever existed, there would probably be only three chapters in it -- one for each era that most games, especially the first-person shooter and real-time strategy genres, obsess over.

Chapter one would be The Age of Togas (Ancient Rome and Greece), followed by The Age of Ridiculously Heavy Armor (Medieval Europe) chapter, and finally The Age of the Boring Green and Brown Duds (World War II).

Why there aren't more games based on other time periods or wars is a bit of a mystery. Granted, no one's asking for a Spanish-American War game where you control President William McKinley and the goal is to annex Guam, but do we really need Allied Call of Honor for Duty 3: Pacific Theatre edition? Thankfully, Ensemble Studios, whose first two Age of Empires titles were steeped in the aforementioned medieval and antiquity periods, have shifted gears slightly for the third release in their RTS manifesto.

In many ways, Age of Empires III is a true sequel in that it begins where part two (The Age of Kings) jumped off -- the early gunpowder age. More specifically, Age III roughly spans the 350 or so years beginning with the Age of Exploration, continuing to the Colonial Era and ending with the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the locomotive and mass production.

On the surface that may sound a tad dry. But if you can somehow look past the fact that much of the combat was done with slow-loading, inaccurate rifles and cannons used by men in gaudy uniforms (and of course, all of the slavery, genocide, and oppression that came with these conquests), you'll find it hard to believe just how few games have been made about the era.

One look at a majestic Spanish galleon from Age III firing a wood-splintering cannon shot into the broadside of a French caravel was enough to sell me.

In Age of Empires III, you can play the role of one of eight different European civilizations vying for control over the New World. Some of them -- like the French, British, and Spanish are holdovers from AOE II, but new ones such as the Russians and Ottomans are now in the mix. Though the civilization choices leads to some implausible twists to history (Russians in Mexico, the Turks in Colorado), it makes sense from a gameplay standpoint.

It's also worth noting that although the game takes place in the Americas, you can't choose to play as American colonists or the natives. You can, however, "ally" with Native Americans by building a trading post in their villages and giving them resources in exchange for special bonuses and the ability to build cheap native units for your own army. (Ensemble also arguably took the politically correct route by making Native American villages indestructible.)

When you get right down to it, the core gameplay in Age III remains basically unchanged from its previous incarnations. Critics and fans have debated whether that means refinement of a fine-tuned classic or Ensemble's creative bankruptcy. Nonetheless, the game is still all about expanding and managing an economy to build an army to wipe out your enemies.

You begin each game with a town center and a small army of skilled laborers who can construct houses, walls, military structures, and harvest the game's three resources: food, wood, and gold.

Luckily, Age III has streamlined the economic part of the game so there's not as much micromanaging of villagers and resource gathering. Stone, which was the fourth resource in Age of Empires II, is gone. Gone also is the burden of having to build resource drop-off sites like lumber yards and mines. Instead you can create structures like mills and plantations that automatically produce food and coin.

The real-time battles are won on equal parts numbers and strategy. The units are balanced in a rock-paper-scissors kind of way so that like the other Age games you can counter an enemy's heavy reliance on ranged and infantry units with cavalry and artillery (respectively). Identifying these counter units and creating the appropriate army is just as important as knowing where and when to fight.

The biggest change in Age III is the addition of Home Cities. Playing off the game's time period, colonization is simulated and you may be asked for supplies and shipments from the motherland.

You receive new shipments by gaining levels (your experience bar rises as resources and treasures are collected, and enemies are vanquished), and you have a set list of things that you can send over. It has a huge impact on strategy and gives a player a plethora of options going into a game.

The single-player campaign is a mixed bag. It's long and can be entertaining, especially the rescue missions, but the story is a bit dopey. Age III wears it's historical relevance on it's sleeve, yet the first act of the campaign involves destroying the Fountain of Youth (and no, not the Oil of Olay kind) in Florida before the Spanish and some sort of Illuminati-type group can steal it. Right.

But the real strength of the game is multiplayer. Even if it's still a little buggy, Ensemble's new ESO online server for Age III makes it easy to get into a scrum with any wannabe general.

There's a whole lot to love about Age III. Spectacular graphics, a stirring score, and powdered wigs. Plus all of your favorite old white men from Columbus to Washington to Napoleon are representin'.

Holla back, King Louis.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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