Upon our return from LA and this year's E3, way back in the misty month of May, we were quickly scandalized for not toeing the line on Ensemble's newest Age of Empires. It appeared we were the only visitors to the show that walked out the door not over-whelmed by Ensemble's offering. In fact, quite the opposite, most of us characterized ourselves as really not all that whelmed at all, thank you very much. This was not the kind of response the AoE3 community would suffer lightly, and we were clearly corrected by a great number of people who had never actually played the game, or visited E3, but were factually certain that we were either cynical or stupid or both. Well boys, get your hate on, because the recently released demo doesn't improve my cynicism, stupidity, or total lack of whelmness with the way Age 3 is shaping up.
While our E3 round-up on Age was authored by Pyro and Reaper, they summed up my feelings on the matter pretty well. I was, however, willing to concede that our exposure to Age was taken in less than ideal conditions with less than ideal personnel, and hoped the situation had unfairly colored our feelings. Our guide to Age 3 seemed equally bored and confused either by the game or the convention as a whole, and was either incapable or unwilling to really explain why the hell there was a card game on the screen. Not surprisingly, or so we thought, we wandered back into the E3 maelstrom without high marks for Ensemble. This, measured in comparison to the bursting enthusiasm with which we'd seen many other games, including another Microsoft RTS, Rise of Legends, left us cold.
The demo is like an ugly flashback to how exactly I felt at E3. It is not a look at the improvement that I'd hoped would take place, but an unpleasant reminder.
First, the UI is plain, clunky, and massive. It is not particularly intuitive, even for those familiar with the genre conventions. I found myself wasting possibly important seconds figuring out where the information I needed was hiding, and was often left wanting more - information I mean, not interface. Considering that it covers nearly a third of the screen, one would hope that the interface is near bursting with relevant and timely info. It is not.
The demo was also full of strange graphical glitches. Cannon fire explosions would occasionally freeze leaving tufts of flame and smoke lingering on the screen. A passing train left a long tail of steam that became an apparently permanent part of the landscape. Fortunately the game itself seemed stable enough, though there was evident, if forgivable, slowdown with many units on screen in combat.
But, hey, I'm copasetic with cosmetic changes, because ultimately they are either elements you can just ignore or that can be tweaked in the days leading to release. My vastly more fundamental issue with Age 3 is in its key gameplay elements.
If I may break off on a tangent for a moment, I like football games. Bear with me. I enjoyed – though complained lovingly about – the NFL 2K series, and I even bear little ill will toward Madden's creatively bankrupt cash-cow. But, I always bristled at the annoying and often vapid add-on features that, more often than not, interrupted an otherwise good game. From NFL 2k5's crib, to Madden's NFL Superstar mode or, yes, Madden cards, I avoided these so called enhancements and bitterly resented when they interupted my primary interest in a football simulation. I am of the mind that if I want to play a collectible card game then I will log on to Magic the Gathering Online and let Certis smugly beat me for a while. Playing Sticky Hands during a NFC North rivalry game is as alien and ridiculous to me as imagining that George Washington's retreat across New Jersey from the advancing British might have been turned around if he had just played a card that provided 7 new calvary units.
My suspension of disbelief can only be stretched so far. Your mileage may vary. I, however, have played enough MMOGs to know that I never want to grind for experience through skirmish or online games just so I can level up St. Louis and get that fancy new card that gives me bonus defense to cavalry. In the end, it feels to me that experience has just become the next resource to manage in the RTS genre, and its implementation seems sketchy at best.
There were some positives to my time with the AoE3 demo. I was wildly impressed with the environments. Autumn leaves fall from the trees. Turtles swim in ponds, and climb on logs to sun themselves. Smoke from houses and weapon fire, when not glitched, is atmospheric. Flags unfurl lazily in the breeze as formations of geese fly overhead. Coupled with solid sound design both in the ambient environment and the battles, the demo does a solid job of putting the player in the moment.
The physics engine is a nice, if not particularly functional, addition that makes artillery combat at least a little more interesting to watch. Unit animations are passable, but occasionally feel stilted.
The trade routes are a far more interesting game design choice than the out-of-place card and experience system. A bit like control points in other games and genres, placing trading posts along the routes gives periodic resource bonuses. Controlling your trade routes while disabling your opponents should become a key strategic tug-of-war, one that will require players to explore new play-styles and balances between offense and defense. Additionally, setting up trade routes with the natives grants access in game to new units and technologies.
Unfortunately, my overall impression with the Age of Empires 3 demo is not a particularly positive one. I remain skeptical of the final product, though I concede that the fully fleshed system may reveal cohesiveness and depth that I don't feel is yet evident. I freely admit that the very conceit of a card and experience based gameplay element is a default turn-off for me, but I've been swayed away from preconceived notions before by strong implementation that dramatically enhances gameplay. I'm just not feeling that here.