Age of Empires 3 is, as any astute gamer could tell from the title alone, of course the 4th 'Age of' game made available by Ensemble Studios and Micros . . . Wait, fourth? Is this right? Is this like how Americans keep getting their Final Fantasy games released in the wrong order? No? Well let's talk about it later. Just roll with it.
A lot of you are certainly curious how Ensemble is managing their senior franchise now that it's come to this thir ... I mean fourth iteration, and it's perfectly healthy to be curious; don't be ashamed. Join Certis and I for the latest in our comprehensive, professional, and eminently unbiased series of reviews - I'm making finger quotes in the air - as we put Age of Empires 3 under the microscope in today's Conference Call.
Elysium: Hey, fantastic! It's finally time for another in a long and illustrious line of Conference Call reviews. And, I've got to admit, I've been looking forward to this one for a while now. So let's get right down to talking about the game . . . F.E.A.R.!
Certis: As usual, you retreat to a world of fantasy when faced with a task you find to be unpalatable. We're here today to talk about Age of Empires III, a game we're going to try very hard to be fair to. Oh, it's going to be so very hard.
Elysium: Oh, come on. You couldn't have been serious about reviewing Age III? I mean, did you even read my comments on the demo? I thought you were just yanking my chain. Well, failing the opportunity to review F.E.A.R., at least let me retreat to a world where you are Elizabeth Hurley. You know, pre-baby Bedazzled Hurley. Purrr.
Certis: I don't think we should be allowed to make animal noises in reviews, leave that sort of thing to Pyro.
Elysium: And I'm not entirely sure we should be allowed to call this a review, but you were saying?
Certis: Age of Empires III is Ensemble's next foray into the now firmly established "Age of" series. They are known to take the standard RTS formula and create finely tuned games that look good, play well and encourage long-term gaming with a good multiplayer and skirmish modes. Age of Empires III is no exception but I can't help but feel the age old recipe needs more than physics, a graphical upgrade and a new time period.
Elysium: You know, honestly I never understood what you saw in Hugh Grant, but let's put all that aside for a minute, Ms. Hurley.
Age of Empires III, you want fair, fine, here it is – Age of Empires III is a completely adequate game. It's not much of a step forward for an RTS genre that seems just about out of tricks. It has a few fairly thin gameplay enhancements that don't seem to add much to that increasingly "age-old" model. It is a graphical improvement, certainly, but it's wrapped in such a hog of an engine that I had to turn option after option off to get the game to run in the manner to which I'm accustomed. Age III played, for me, like just another forgettable RTS employing fancy window dressing to hide a tired game.
That's not to say it was bad. It just doesn't stand out. For a franchise with such a storied past, that, to me, is the disappointment.
Certis: But you're old, everything is forgettable to you. You could say that what you had for breakfast this morning was "forgettable" and it wouldn't be a lie. AOE III forced me to turn one or two details down; I was incredibly depressed about that. My system is pretty powerful so it takes a real beast to make it flinch from the highest settings possible. Some might argue Ensemble is future-proofing their game but really, given that the series is supposed to appeal to the masses they should have done more to optimize the engine rather than make the interface fill up a third of the screen to compensate. Thankfully, you can reduce that to a much more playable size but you will take a performance hit for the privilege. Same goes for zooming the camera out so you can see as much as you're used to seeing in these games.
Elysium: Future-proofing – that's a great buzzwordy excuse for a poorly optimized game engine. More game companies should use that! Hell, they could make it a feature. Flashy Vapid Game 3000, now with future-proof graphic stuttering technology!
So, let's set aside the graphical quibbles for the moment, though, and talk about how Age 3 played. Here, I'll start. Did you play Age of Empires 2? Well, add a fairly obtuse card-game system to it, make artillery a bit more useful in a fight, and color the little guys slightly different colors. Wait, this is the part where I'm not being fair, isn't it?
Certis: Yeah, you're probably not being fair. But then, they don't make it easy to be fair to this game. They do so many things right by default that it makes some of the more obvious flaws almost painful. I will say that I don't mind the card system, it's very straight forward and while it doesn't add a lot to the game it does give you some extra strategy to consider during a mission. The way it works is you gain experience as you play, that experience eventually adds up and allows you to go to your city screen and order up one card of your choice. It can be more food, some troops, a cannon, a cart you can use to build a second town center, all sorts of things. So at any given time you have to assess your situation and choose what the best use of your home city would be. It's quick to access and it doesn't take you out of the map long enough to be a problem.
Elysium: I really don't mean to unfairly belittle this game. Well, maybe a little, but that's because I'm old and crotchety. You're right that they've established a historically successful model, and this version adheres to that formula for success. Of course, I might say that adhering to any kind of formula makes a title – shall we say, by definition - formulaic, and often dated on top of that, but let's stick with the positives for a moment.
When you pull away from thinking about this game in terms of being tied to its legacy, and dive into a massive meeting of colonial armies, Age III has the opportunity to shine. It fleshes itself out in the conflict, and while it's a minor augmentation the glory of a solid physics engine certainly doesn't hurt the texture of combat. Firefights are fierce, and Age III does as good a job as most in describing computer generated warfare. It is a satisfying thing to finally put your mortar into position to fire on the enemy town, and those were the moments that I could forget my other outstanding issues.
Certis: Yeah, I think when you just play the game and don't worry about the niggles too much you can come away feeling like you've had a good time. It's not that Age of Empires III is bad, it's just more of the same with a graphics engine that while sexy, is restrictive to enjoying it thanks to frame-rate issues and not a lot new added aside from what seems to be surface changes. That said, there are some key changes that are worth noting.
1) Resource gathering villagers do not need a building to bring their wood, ore or food to. As they gather, the resource is added straight to your pool without delay. It's a nice change for those of us tired of spending more time managing resource acquisition than warfare.
2) Cannons and other artillery are WAY more expensive than previous games. Good luck with that catapult rush! This is a welcome change for me, artillery should never be more than a compliment to your fighting force.
3) Cavalry seem to be weaker than in the previous games. Again, a decision made to curtail some of the easier strategies found in previous games.
4) Umm"… there is more but I like discussing minutia about as much as Elysium likes forgetting what he ate this morning.
Elysium: I'm sorry, what the hell are those? Are those bullet-points? Did you just bullet-point our review? I guess readers should look for our next Conference Call in PowerPoint format, eh?
It's probably important to point out that we're only "˜reviewing' – for lack of a better word -the single-player experience here. I've always felt that RTS games are ultimately two different products in one package. I recall with some horror the roughly 35,000 words I penned in my Rise of Nations reviews (one for single, the other for the multi), and it makes me feel as tired as Age of Empires III's storyline. Hi ho!
No, seriously, let's not even talk about the storyline. I don't like validating its existence.
Certis: As much as I love the clichéd story about a fountain (or was it pool) of youth and sassy Indian girls"… yeah. Let's move on. As you've probably notice, we're struggling with this game. I almost feel bad not liking it more, it's all there, and I really think fans of the series will find plenty to love. I guess this being the fourth "Age" game in the series, I'm feeling a little less enthused than I used to be.
Elysium: Wow, Ms. Hurley, I had no idea you were so involved in the gaming scene. Hey, if you ever want to hook up for some peer-to-peer fun "… well we can talk about that later.
I mostly agree with your conclusion. In fact, I think only the more committed of Age fans will be able to maintain their enthusiasm for this one. Sure it has all the elements that made the previous games successful five years ago, but the genre has moved on. There are simply better games with better advances. Were this game not hung with the Age title, we probably wouldn't even bother talking about it. My conclusion is quite simple, and though I fear that a multitude of Age fans will take issue and produce copious evidence from other review sites – Age of Empires III is painfully average.
Certis: Yes, we're going to get it for this one. It was all his idea, I'm just an actress.
Certis & Elysium