The Age of Empires series has always pushed the boundaries of the real-time strategy genre, starting with the original title. But instead of early man this time around, AoEIII concentrates on the European powers and their struggle for survival and dominance in the new world.
It’s a great age to set a game. The United States did not yet exist as a country, and all the land in North and South America was open for ownership disputes. Technology was also evolving rapidly as the age old weapons of swords and bows would sometimes clash on the battlefield with muskets and cannon. All this is reflected nicely within the game.
At its heart, AoEIII behaves like others in the series. You have to gather food, wood and gold to support your colony’s economy, and depending on the age of advancement you are currently at, resources take on different priorities.
There are many paths to achieve a good stockpile of each item. You could have your settlers hunt wild game, raise sheep, trade, or build a mill (which is like having ten farms) to get food for example. And there are various improvements you can invest in to help gather resources faster, such as hunting dogs or steel traps to increase the gather rate for villagers assigned to hunting.
These resources are used to buy more units and invest in buildings to support your colony. You have to build housing for example to increase your maximum unit count or a market to switch one resource for another and get technology improvements.
Ultimately, your goal is conquest. That was the name of the game in this period of rapid imperialism. You can’t as England throw up a great pyramid and expect Germany to be so impressed that they stop fighting. So you will need an army for conquest and defense. At the very least you will probably need a good wall around your colony and probably some defensive outposts if you want to survive very long.
Thankfully, the wilds are not completely unfriendly. In almost every map there are native Indian villages. Indians are neutral and won’t fight for any side, at least at first. If you build a trading post in their village, you will form an alliance with them and can produce Indian units to fight for you from there. Of course your opponents can do the same thing if they get there first.
Indian units are built using your resources, such as 40 food and 20 wood to build certain archers for example, but don’t count against your population caps. So they can be used to beef up an already large army, or as a defensive force if you are heavy with villagers and have not gotten around to getting your own fighters trained. There are many different Indian nations and each has unique units to offer like axe-wielding cavalry or trained attack panthers for example. The Indians even have some unique technologies that you can’t get any other way but from them.
There is also at least one trade route in most maps. A trade route is a road (though later it can become a railroad) where a neutral unit travels at certain intervals. If you build trading posts at certain points along the road, you will get experience, gold, food or wood each and every time the trader passes it for the rest of the game, or until your post is destroyed. So control of the trade road is a powerful advantage.
And you are not alone in the new world, at least not completely. Each home nation does what it can to support its colonies. As you build buildings, defeat enemies, control a trade route or find treasures you gain experience. When you get enough experience, you can order a shipment from your homeland. These can range from extra troops to crates of food, to technological advancements.
As you gain prestige and glory in the new world, your home city gets more powerful too. This is actually almost like a separate game. You can create more structures in your home city and modify what the city can send you. You have a deck of twenty cards, with each one representing a possible shipment during a game. As you gain in power, you can pull lower-level cards and replace them with more powerful ones.
Your home city’s status sticks with you from game to game. So if someone constantly plays Russia for example, then the Russian capital will be very powerful, which will give that player an advantage in multiplayer games. The default deck can always be chosen if you want to keep things even in human versus human matches.
Since the state of the home city is persistent, it adds a bit of a role playing element to the game. Also, you can have multiple decks for each of your cities and can choose to play with different ones. You might have one deck with all military cards for a conquest game, meaning almost all your shipments will be troops or army improvements. Or you might have an economic deck, or a defensive deck, or whatever you like. This adds a trading card type game feel into the mix as well.
Each of the eight nations has advantages and handicaps, which means you can probably find one to fit your playing style. The French for example make easy alliances with the natives, while the Dutch are slow to start but can build coin-generating banks to become an economic juggernaut late in the game. The Spanish get more support from their home county and the Ottomans have the most diverse units in the game.
And it’s probably worth mentioning that the game is simply gorgeous. Every inch of ground looks highly realistic and the physics engine is top notch. When you fire a broadside from one of your ships into a group of infantry hiding in the woods, you will actually knock down trees and send bodies flying. Blowing up buildings or burning them down looks amazingly real, and is almost worth the entire military campaign just to see things blow up.
AoEIII does what its predecessors did: set the standard by which other RTS titles will be judged for sometime to come. It remains the gold standard and earns 5 GiN gems for its home city’s treasury.