AGE OF EMPIRES III is a triple-A RTS, that exudes quality and polish. It's what happens when some of the finest minds that defined the genre decide they're going to spend a few years doing what they do best. If you've played any of Ensemble Studios' previous titles, then you'll be on familiar ground here. There are settlements to be built, resources collected, armies recruited and enemies to be defeated.
This time around we're in the New World, with players assuming the roles of conquistadors, colonists and explorers, scouring unspoiled lands for wealth and power. Well in the skirmish mode, at least. The mood of the single-player campaign is a little more altruistic, spanning a few hundred years and putting you in the shoes (or fetching suede moccasins, at one point) of three members of a family as they move around the Americas, striving to keep the secret of eternal life out of the hands of a wicked secret society.
Thankfully, the setting isn't the only thing that's new. As you'll no doubt have guessed, this game has lots of Native Americans. If it were a historical simulation, you'd probably be selling these poor folks diseased blankets, turfing them out of their homes and calling it 'manifest destiny', but Ensemble has wisely chosen to sidestep most of this unpleasantness, allowing you to ally yourself with the tribes instead. Construct a trading post by a native settlement and you can recruit their soldiers and medicine men.
With the addition of the 'home city' and its upgradeable card system, you can now have shipments of supplies (the main resources are wood, food and money), troops or other goodies sent to your new colony.
When you kill hostile units, destroy enemy buildings and set up trade routes, you'll be rewarded with experience points. Once your experience level has filled up a meter, you'll be eligible for a shipment. Keep filling it up and you'll be receiving more freebies than our office. It's a well thought out system, adding something a little different to what is otherwise a straightforward RTS.
The combat mechanics, unfortunately, are pretty much what we've come to expect from the genre. There's a scissors-paper-stones style hierarchy with the units - pikemen beat cavalry, cavalry beat ranged infantry, while light infantry beat pikemen - so there aren't many times when you find yourself thinking about battle tactics and strategy. The game instead pressures you toward recruiting more units, or simply more powerful ones than the enemy in order to win. Click on the baddies, sit back and wait. It's more Sun reader than Sun Tzu.
It's simplistic and we were honestly expecting more this time round. Still, it's slightly more fun than beating Jamie Sefton at Pro Evolution Soccer 5 on your first go (quite the feat as it happens). And why? It's all about the presentation.
LET'S GET PHYSICAL
A good physics engine plus cannons is a recipe for sheer coolness. Add a generous helping of excellent sound design and you've got one tasty treat on your plate. Smoke and sparks fly as cannonballs skip over the ground. When they smash into buildings or ships the effects are really convincing. Shards of wood spin through the air, dust clouds billow out and masonry crumbles. It doesn't take a genius to work out what happens when the artillery is turned on your enemy's infantry. Let's just say that you'll soon grow accustomed to watching unfortunate fellows cartwheeling around the beautifully realised levels.
Call it style over substance if you will, but it works for us. The game's real substance lies in the mechanic of building up and improving your colony, exploring the map, recruiting an army and so on. It's deceptively easy to get into and maddeningly addictive once you start.