Age of Empires III PC Review

RTS fans rejoice, the long-awaited instalment to the Age of Empires franchise by Ensemble Studios is finally here. Was the hype worth the wait? Does the game amount to its predecessors? Taking place in the new world after Columbus’ unexpected discovery that literally changed maps, AOEIII brings us into the lives of colonies with entirely new units, and gameplay that has had some drastic changes and enhancements while still maintaining the magic of the Age of Empires franchise. You can decide if you want to open the case for that refreshing new game smell.

Graphics

The seemingly amazing graphics of Age of Empires III are inconsistent as some will amaze you whereas others may appear to be quite primitive when compared with today’s standards. As you may have guessed, the game’s graphics are quite jaw dropping as both on and offshore locations have been done magnificently. The water is teeming with realism and the land is a work of art. As one may have guessed, the detail in the game is highly noticeable whether it is on still objects like most harbours, moving units like ships, or the guns and cannons being fired at the harbour by the ships. There isn’t much else to say about the real-time graphics as they’re beautiful, and every motion is brilliant. Watching your musketeers march into battle and begin firing off their weapons is quite entertaining, and the more units there are, the more impressive it is.

However, AOEIII’s beauty isn’t all candy and sweet treats – oh no, there is one thing that just so happens to be quite distracting to playing the game. You’re scrolling across the glorious map choc full of graphical wonders, and then suddenly you hit a mass of green on what appears to be a trunk. Whether or not this graphical let down is in correlation to the lower resolution, one would like to believe that everything in the game would at least surpass Age of Empires II graphically. Instead we were given one type of tree whose graphics can be compared to that husky kid that is usually panting at the side of the track while the rest of his team laps him the twentieth time. Perhaps I’ve been too judgemental, but when everything else is overflowing in quality, it is expected that we receive the same amount of effort from Ensemble Studios on every single aspect of the game.

Gameplay

Upon reading the user manual about all of the new features, I was quite worried about how they’d affect how I played the game. Additions like experience, levels, and the ‘Home City’ intimidated me as I didn’t want too much change that would completely change the way I played AOE. They did, but not in the awful way I thought they would. Essentially, playing the game is as simple as it was in previous instalments.

To go over the things that are totally new, we’ve got First Nations (Natives), trade routes, Home Cities, explorers, experience, levels, and cards. Explorers are characters in the game from your home city that never die. They can have their health completely depleted (they lie where they die until you go get them), but these characters are essentially only existent for the purpose of building trade posts along trade routes and in native villages (you then control that village and can generate units), and being an extra unit in battle. To explain the rest in the simplest way possible; trade routes are placed throughout the maps with trade posts. If you control that trade post, when a neutral cart goes by you’ll gain experience. Experience allows for two things: gaining a level outside of the battle, and filling up a meter while playing so that you can receive a new shipment from your home city. When you gain a level, you can select new cards (shipments of units, buildings, upgrades, etc) for your home city and build a deck to select from. As unattractive as some of these aspects may sound, they do not draw anything from the gameplay experience the slightest, and I found they make it much more interesting.

New units have always been fun to play around with as they open up doors and windows to new strategies. A great way to discover how to use them all would be the campaign mode, yet figuring out how to use them all effectively is another story. The campaign is comprised of three ‘Acts’ where we play as members of the Black family. I was a little gutted at the fact there was only one story to play through (which wasn’t told too well), but I found the campaign to be quite addictive and interesting nonetheless as there were units we could command that are not obtainable in multiplayer.

Campaign aside, we can choose from eight different nationalities. When compared to the 13 Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings had, it’s quite disappointing. A few other things disappointed me pretty greatly as they felt like major steps backwards. Loading times were quite long and were always uneventful, we were unable to change our diplomatic status during the battle, we are unable to select a group and then a unit from that group, and perhaps the biggest downfall to the game – the population limit. The limit is held at two hundred until Age V, and thus far my unborn immigrants have not seen land. The game is still incredibly addictive, however if those disappointments were non-existent, the game would flow much more smoothly. One aspect that I did enjoy was the ability to generate five units at once as opposed to the ‘one after another, after another’ system of AOEII.

Sound

The impressive water graphics of Age of Empires III certainly don’t stand alone on the podium of realism. The sounds of AOEIII are truly some of the best I’ve heard in my life of gaming. The weapons sound real (toned down in loudness of course!), the background music is beautiful, and what surprised me the most is that the voice acting does not suck! I found it amazing that while watching cut-scenes, I was able to listen to the clear voices without constantly looking for a subtitle. It is really amazing to listen to what improvements Ensemble Studios have done to the music. Remember that theme we heard in past instalments? It’s back in a much more exciting state along with a host of new tunes. While playing the game, we’re blessed with a calm tune that is quiet, but is anything but silent. Sometimes when engaging in a large battle, a stronger more prominent background music will play to create a more tense mood.

Putting aside the background music, we have the sounds of the units. The units when clicked on and given a task will, as always, respond with a quick comment in their language. However when attacking, these little people become little people with war cries. Believe me, the small sounds of a game may be under appreciated, but in the case of AOEIII, they have so much effect on how you play the game. Shooting settlers across the screen with 20 or so cannons would be nowhere near as fulfilling if the cannons’ “boom” was non-existent. While progressing through the game against your opponent(s), the background music and the noise of guns going off and buildings exploding will really make you feel as though you’re a part of the war itself.

Like many games, AOEIII does have an issue at times with its sound. At times when playing and you’ve got a small gunfight going on between 5-15 units, that quiet tune seems to overlap the guns to the point where we can’t hear them. Keep in mind that the background music is still quiet, but the guns have literally fallen silent. You will hear the occasional shot, but the lack of sound really takes away the effect of the sounds on gameplay that I mentioned earlier.

Lifespan

If there is one thing that the Age of Empires franchise is legendary for, it is the immense replay value. The introduction of experience points and levels brings even more replay value to both the campaign and skirmish (custom settings) maps. Improving upon your home city with each game is a must as those improvements and upgrades will prove to be a great asset to your cause when you decide to approach that harder difficulty against a tougher opponent. As always, simply playing with your friends or against a computer is fun and may prove to be a challenge to overcome and with the new additions to the gameplay, the game becomes even more interesting to play through. Each battle will be different, you’ll be driven to come up with better strategies as others fail, and you’ll be playing for hours.

Overall

While the game was definitely not what I had expected it to be, Age of Empires III was quite fulfilling and exciting to play through whether it was campaign or skirmish. As the franchise always has, AOEIII continues the tradition of easy-to-learn, original gameplay, impressive graphics, and that little spark that keeps us playing for hours on end having immersed ourselves within it. Assuming your computer meets the games requirements, this game is undoubtedly worth a try as it is an exceptional RTS experience that should not be missed out on by any fan of prior games in the AOE franchise.

8.8/10

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Version tested: PC