"The goal is to make the
best f****** game ever," says Ensemble technical director Dave 'Potty Mouth' Pottinger, before adding the caveat, "in terms of graphics". Considering that he's talking about a real-time strategy game, this is a particularly bold statement. For so long considered the ugly red-haired stepchild of the gaming family, Ensemble has decided that it's time for the RTS to fight back. Traditionally hidden away in the back of magazines near the personal ads, the developer has set out to create a game so visually stunning as to command front covers. And while we haven't quite afforded it that privilege, we did deign to visit its studios in Dallas, in between eating our own weight in dead cow.
While conforming to the stereotype of pasty men surrounded by action figures, the Ensemble office differs in one key area, in so much as the lobby is designed to look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, with designs taken directly from the Star Trek Hilton in Vegas. Depending on your viewpoint, this either makes Ensemble "a real fun place to work" or deeply tragic.
The team seem happy enough though, and for the last two and a half years have been beavering away on Age Of Empires III, the latest incarnation of the classic strategy series. According to Ensemble lore, they were bucked into action by a magazine article claiming that the RTS is dead. As one of the pioneers of the genre, this was clearly perturbing, and so the team set about proving that rumours of its death were exaggerated. Following much internal discussion, the developer decided the way forward was to create a game as visually compelling as the likes of Half-Life 2 or Doom 3, while retaining the trademark Age Of Empires gameplay.
Taking on the first-person shooters on their own terms could be deemed madness, but Ensemble has gone about the task with fervour. Starting out with the engine from most recent release Age Of Mythology, a slew of programmers have been employed to improve the graphics, including one committed individual who's spent an entire year on the water effects. Throw in the Havok physics engine and the ability to support over 100 characters on screen simultaneously, and it appears that Ensemble means business.
We've seen it in action with our own bleary eyes, and despite reeling from a triple-whammy of jetlag, meat and hard liquor, have to admit to being impressed. The Ensemble team are pretty thrilled too, and during the presentation there were no less than ten mentions of the various levels of excitement, be it "really excited", the occasional "super-excited" and even a rogue "über-excited".
Their collective excitement is fair enough, and the game has to be seen to be appreciated. Whereas the average RTS could have been made any time in the last five years, AOE3 looks bang up-to-date, despite the historical setting.
We won't bore you with the technical details - mainly because we don't understand them - but suffice to say that it achieves some impressive levels of realism. The sun beats down, the shadows are in the right place and the water reflects and ripples like a year's worth of tweaking suggests. Moreover, there's a unified wind system, whereby everything reacts to the wind consistently, be it fluttering flags, billowing smoke, the aforementioned water or a discarded packet of cheese & onion crisps. With tiny graphical details such as a man in a tree being menaced by a bear, it's a particularly rich and vibrant place. As senior designer and Ensemble founder Bruce Shelley says, "It's a world you want to be in", if not necessarily while stuck up a tree being pawed by a grizzly.