|Borrowed Copyrighted Content|
The extremely spiffy looking Age of Empires III (2005) marked a major departure from the regular Age of Empires style, even though it picked up from where Age of Empires 2 left off. It's set during the European conquest of the New World and you can only play one of several competing European powers. The local natives get a look in, but only as bit players that you annex and control like another resource and can extract some extra techs and units from. One of the things that did make the early AoE games distinctive was their no-nonsense, uncluttered historical styling. AoE3 has gone completely the other way, well on its way to becoming Yet Another Warcraft 3 Clone. Its packed to the gunnels with shader effects, beautifully modeled environments and almost claustrophobic detailing. Surprisingly, most of the sales pitch revolves around its good looks, sounds, and the Havok engine, a third party physics system for game developers. (Yep, games are getting so complex now that developers are simply buying a lot of their code off the shelf.) Age of Empires III feels more than just a bit ordinary under all that glister, and in grave danger of dating really fast.
It feels radically shrunk in scope, too: simpler, cuter and a lot less strategic. Maps are cramped, trigger driven affairs. Even more jarring, the viewing area is much smaller, using a 3D camera that you can truck in and out but remains clamped in place overhead. Heroes felt a little more like fantasy caricatures in historical dress. I doubt many American frontiers women looked and sounded like sassy supermodels, or that old generals were slim, clean cut, Anime wise men, yet that's the sort of impression you get when you run through this thing. Heroes come with rechargeable magic spells - I mean, "special abilities" - and you even get treasures guarded by wandering monsters!! (e.g. grizzly bears guarding an abandoned camp.)
There are some extra game features, like a home city back in Europe that periodically tops your supplies up, and Imperial experience points for exploring, building, killing enemies and keeping Trading Posts. The home city and XP thing feel like a poor man's substitute for an actual working campaign: the single player campaign is still a story driven trigger fest running on rails, with the persistent city funding you in the background.
All very sumptuous It also offers "unlocks" like a console game, which presumably keep players interested. The other odd thing is that the home city, gloriously 3D that it is - is simply nothing more than extravagant wallpaper for the game GUI! The base building aspect has been simplified too. You get an animal pen building which can fatten up stray cattle found on the map and "train" sheep, but Farms and Mills have been merged together, and chopping wood or mining "coins" is now exactly like Warcraft with no intermediary buildings. The string of trading posts felt more like the carefully placed Strategic Points in Dawn of War that work on a gaming level, but don't have any relevance to the map or any sense of actually trading with anyone.
Game physics, despite the hoopla, seem to serve mainly as graphical embellishments, not an actual strategic element, unless you count artillery. Unit interaction doesn't seem any different from the primitive fights where units stand in front of each other and blast each other at point blank range - which seemed perfectly at home on older, simpler games, but start to look decidedly out of place in in games where "realistic graphics" and "physics" are hyped over actual gameplay. It jars. Gameplay in AoE3 still seems to boil down to massacring each player's villagers to get anywhere.
Its still an interesting play, mainly because the Warcraft formula is so robust, and there are still some of AoE's original game features shining through with a lot of good little updates. Plus, the graphics and in-game physics spice up the look of battles, making it all worthwhile for pretty much everyone except fussy neurotics like Yours Truly. But if I wanted a Warcraft game I'd just pop out and grab it or Armies of Exigo. And finally, despite all the various Ages you research, and the almost Half-Life quality to the graphics, your units and buildings barely change. Its an Age of Empires game... with hardly any Ages in it! This doesn't feel like the original Rick Goodman game at all. think I'll stick with Rise of Nations or Civilization 4...Back