Retro Monday: “Age of Empires 3”

Title: “Age of Empires 3

Developer: Ensemble Studios

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

Released: October 2005

With the news that Airtight Games (the guys behind the very “Portal” as made by the same director “Quantum Conundrum” and very recent “Murdered: Soul Suspect”,) is going under, and the Nottingham, UK based Crytek UK (the former Free Radical Design guys who made the “Timesplitters” series and went bankrupt in 2009 so were bought by Crytek,) who are currently making “Homefront: The Revolution” may not have a rosey future either. They both made decent games, “Timesplitters” helped define first person shooters in the PS2 era, but both of their games never sold that well which adds a financial bullet to the bankruptcy gun. To add to the misery, the game I’m talking about today is a very good RTS game from 2005, made by Ensemble Studios who closed in 2009. They had a history of making very good RTS games like Westwood Studios in the nineties. The ‘Age of Empires‘ series was their flagship franchise and it sold pretty well. But their last game was “Halo Wars” an RTS Halo, which sold ludicrously well because ‘Halo’. But before completion, their owner Microsoft Studios closed down a reshuffled the studio so some would get re-hired and form Robot Entertainment. Two more new studios would come out of the ashes but they got absorbed by Zynga so I pray for them. (I really don’t like Zynga.) The Robot Entertainment guys got by because they made the popular “Orc’s Must Die!” series. To tie this off, I just want to say that while writing these retro reviews, I get to write the line ‘former game developer that has since closed‘ far more often then I would like. It’s a sad state of affairs when game developers can’t risk anything to make something new and end up making the same stuff or copying someone else that is popular endlessly. Players oft complain that they don’t get anything new but in the same motion buy the next of a franchise. The consumer hands aren’t entirely clean but neither are the publishers. I would go on bit I should stop. I’ll write else where if people want to hear me shouting. Here I know no one is listing. Now, on to the retro review;

Age of Empires 3” is an historical RTS game set in the many American eras. The main mechanic of the game is that you can advance your nation/base to new eras of technology which unlock advancements, upgrades, new buildings and units. You start off in the ‘Discovery Age’, the age of the people fresh off the Mayflower. So most of your villagers should die of dysentery before you move on but who needs that detail of historical accuracy. The next age sees you in the ‘Colonial Age’, so after Thanksgiving but before the multiple wars and the ‘westward expansion’. They next age is the ‘Fortress Age’. This is the era when you can start getting cannon so I guess this fits into the time when the fighting between the nations started, i.e. the fight and take over of the English and the long time rival, the French, before we… I mean they beat them and took over. I’m not really sure if we should take credit for that or not. Considering what they did to the natives of the country, I’m in the not category. The penultimate age is the ‘Industrial Age’, aka the ‘Industrial Revolution’, aka ‘The late Georgian/early Victorian Era’ for the history buffs. To end, there is the ‘Imperial Era’. America, I know you like to think so but you don’t and never had an empire. The only islands you have in what can be called an empire are sand banks and totally uninhabited islands. Saying that, the nations you play as in the game all had empires but but this point historically the Boer War and and World War One would have been looming hard or already started meaning the end of imperialism.

Historical accuracy is not something I go on about. Being accurate frankly gets in the way unless your tackling a hard issue. Although that isn’t always the case. “Assassin’s Creed 3” had a Native American lead and talked about their issues but it swayed from bowing down to them and saying they where naive in the next. At least they got the ‘natives buggered by imperialism/foreigners/white people’ right. “Age of Empires 3”, in comparison, is a lot more softer and probability more accurate. You can get Native American units but they are a bonus resource. You never against them. At least in the main game. Some DLC got made that adds 3 native tribes (The Iroquois, the Sioux, and the Aztec,) but the second part of the story campaign is set during the Great Sioux War so it is sort of forgiven.

The story of the main game follows the Black family through 3 generations of protecting the ‘lago de luna’ (‘lake of the moon’) AKA, the fountain of youth from the evil and made up Circle of Ossus. The story is split up into 3 acts over 3 generations. The first is Morgan Black, a knight who is betrayed by his master. Talking about “Assassin’s Creed” is sort of apt because the first act is much like the first “Assassin’s Creed” plot wise. Just with knights. The second act is more like a Saturday morning cartoon. The hero chases the evil man across America because the evil man always finds some way to escape. The third act is a mix of the previous two. You play as the narrator who ends seeing important people do important things (ala the current trend of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ game) but the bad guy always escapes because we need to expand this story somehow. The plot of the story campaign is ok. It’s gets you though it but it’s not that stimulating. It just comes down to good guy against bad guy for maguffin used is stories we’ve all heard many times before.

The graphics of the game is something interesting. There are in-engine cut-scenes but as it’s an RTS it just ends up being something that resembles a human talking to something else that resembles a human. There is an option that adds some finer detail and extra polygons which makes the game look really good even from a modern stance. Although, the extra polygons comes with a minor annoyance. With the extra polygons that programmed a fancy demolition algorithm which makes the buildings explode fall apart when they are hit. It sounds good but it is not representative of the actual health of the building. For example, I have a guard tower that was being attacked from a cannon. In the super fancy mode, whole chunks of the tower where being blown off. After two shots the whole top section of the tower was blown apart and missing. But that was only 15-20% damage, damage that is negligible and not much of a problem. It just means that a building can look like its torn apart and near death but its not. It was just hit by a cannon which after a while become inevitable. In single player skirmishes, my lead tactic is to get as many cannons (aka mortars) as possible and attack from range. It seems to be the tactic of everyone else as well considering the strength of walls/forts/guard towers.

Another mechanic that can get rather irritating is the Home City and its cards. As you play a match you gain experience (XP) for your home city. You get XP from building, training units, finding treasures and killing the enemy. After a set amount of XP you can get a shipment of stuff from your home city that arrives at your town centre. The shipments can be resources, units, building/cap upgrades or building wagons to auto-build forts, outposts and factories. Shipments like units and auto-build wagons can only be sent once but once you get to the ‘Imperial Age’ most of them can be sent again. In the early part of a match they can be a god-send as it can get you through the lower parts of tech-trees pretty quickly. But after a while they become useless. For me, at the end of a match I have a pile of un-used shipments because that have no point. Even when I get to the ‘Imperial Age’ where I can free fighting units again it kind of pointless because by then I’m in ‘scorched earth’ mode, sitting in the middle of the enemy base with mortars happily blowing stuff up. Having only 20 cards helps keeps the online multiplayer fair but it just means that by the time you get to the 4th age the home shipments lose all meaning because by then you would have build a mill (free food resource) and a plantation (free gold resource) so you can build limitless Grenadiers, and unit if in big enough numbers can destroy a base by themselves.

Age of Empires 3” is a great game with some petty niggles. It looks good, it well designed and well balanced between the nations. But the campaign story is one from a Saturday morning cartoon and the home shipments after a while loose all point after a while but they are small problems. The campaign is short so the cartoon-ish nature doesn’t wear thin and poses enough challenge to keep in interesting. The home shipments can become annoying but they can be ignored when they have no use.

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