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.