I know I’m going to receive a million e-mails attacking me for this, but I’ve never liked the Age of Empires series.
I was just getting into PC gaming when Age of Empires 2 was released, and I found the game to be a long, drawn-out strategy romp with some annoying tendencies and little in the way of action – I was instead enticed by Total Annihilation, with its brilliant gameplay and absorbing story.
So, when Age of Empires 3 landed on my desk, I can honestly say I was pleasantly surprised with how far the series has come from its 2D origins.
This version of the new-world strategy adventure features the original game and its two expansion packs, the Asian Dynasties and the War Chiefs, offering a decent variety of empire-building and civil war skirmish alike, as you take your fledgling nation from your home city out into North and South America in pursuit of gold and glory.
The gameplay in each of the three games is pretty much standard AoE fare.
Starting out with one town you have to advance across the world, working your way up through a tech tree, acquiring new units and blowing the hell out of your competing nations. In the main game eight factions are playable, such as the British (which I chose, naturally), the Dutch, French and all the other usual suspects.
Each faction has their own unique units and powers, and the game’s combat is gritty and satisfying, if a little irritating to observe through the in-game camera, which has a nasty habit of wandering off on its own for no reason.
Another interesting addition to the series is the increased focus on alliances and trading.
Each faction’s home city is represented on a different screen, and the player has to use a series of point cards to request reinforcements for deployment in the new world, to upgrade the technology tree or adjust any of a number of goals your nation is working towards.
As you conquer more of the new world, your capital city starts to come to life, and it can be quite a pleasing sideline to watch the city grow and evolve as the game continues.
Though the main gameplay is fun to jump right into, the core tenets of the AoE series remains largely unchanged, so fans should be able to pick up the game without too much difficulty.
The main game features several lengthy plots, though the hammy voice acting and predictable plot twists don’t add a lot to the experience.
Of the two expansion packs, the War Chiefs is the less thorough, focussing on three Native American nations, which are on the receiving end of colonial expansion.
There is a much more story-driven vibe to the gameplay of the War Chiefs however, as each tribe’s respective leader works to counter or adapt to the Westerners’ new way of life.
Each of the tribes has their own specialist units and buildings, and all three play very differently to the Western nations, relying heavily on cavalry charges and close combat rather than musket and cannon.
Though the War Chiefs is the weaker of the two expansions, it’s still fun to play, and the variety of units is a pleasing alternative to the often very similar nature of the Western nations.
The other expansion pack included in the box, the Asian Dynasties, is the better of the two, with the Asian nations, such as Japan and China, playing very differently to the game’s other protagonists.
The expansion also includes the welcome return of AoE’s traditional ‘Wonders’ – famous buildings which offer special powers to your faction, be it free armies, healing powers or reduced building times.
The clever use of the wonders’ powers can really make the difference in combat, so their return makes the game much more varied in play, as well as allowing the Asian nations the means to move up the tech tree.
I also particularity enjoyed utilising some of the Asian special units, such as the Japanese Samurai, whose powers in close combat eclipse the Western nations by a huge margin.
This expansions suffers from a serious mixed bag of sound and plot design however. The main single player campaign is contrived and pretty dull, and when the characters speak it seems to be a parody of Japanese accents which have been phoned in.
But the gameplay itself is just as much fun as the main game, with the added strategy brought of using units very different to the others included in the full game.
The whole package is just about right for AoE fanboy and newbie alike. All three games are all easy to get used to, and a comprehensive tutorial makes sure you don’t get frustrated with the slow pace of the early gameplay, as you build your nation up into a world superpower.
Graphically all three parts of the package are pretty to look at, even on the lowest settings. There are, however, numerous graphical bugs which pop up, and the camera is unruly and difficult at times (which can be very irritating in the middle of a pitched battle) but, this aside, every detail is nicely rendered, from the smoke plumes of the cannons to the water parting under your fleet’s hulls as they sail into an enemy harbour.
All three games also come with a skirmish and online mode, which is still pretty popular despite the game’s relative age in the fast-moving world of PC gaming.
The scenario editor is also pretty diverse, and armchair generals will no doubt enjoy designing massive naval battles and enormous group battles fought for mighty cities alike.
Age of Empires 3: Complete Edition is a thorough good package for the price you pay for it. Though the occasional camera bug can cause irritation, and the contrived plots and hammy voice acting don’t add much to the series, all three games are varied, enjoyable and ideal for any fan of the AoE series, especially for those who remain firm fans of Ensemble Studios.
Lots to see and do
Good strategy elements
Nice trading/alliance integration
Not So Good Stuff:
War Chiefs is a weak expansion
Some graphical bugs
Not much change in the AoE formula