Even though Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t quite stick the landing, there’s something to be said for that grand sense of exploration that the game espoused. In the months leading up to the game, Andromeda‘s Facebook page spouted off a bunch of quotes from explorers; and the actual game, however poorly, made seeing the unknown one of its central motifs. That drive to explore is at the heart of a lot of great games, some of which actually stuck the landing, and it’s also at the heart of tonight’s game: Age of Empires III.
From Planks to Palaces
Age of Empires III is a real-time strategy game and one of the last games developed by Ensemble Studios before that developer shut down in 2009. The game was developed as a sequel to Age of Empires II, but rather than focusing on the age of knights and castles, Age of Empires III hones in on the European discovery and colonization of the Americas (think 1400’s-1800’s). The base game shipped in 2005, but over the next two years Ensemble released two expansion packs adding Native American and Asian civilizations, respectively. The Age of Empires III: Complete Collection being reviewed here tonight compiles all three titles into a single game of exploration, trade, and war.
Like Age of Empires II, Age of Empires III is a strategy game that revolves around developing a civilization. Players start off from humble beginnings with a few settlers and a town center, but can quickly build that up into a bustling colonial empire. Through carefully managing resources and keeping rivals at bay, players can create a streamlined military and industrial powerhouse rivaling the most prosperous colonies of the New World era. Attaining that goal is easier said than done, but it’s what gameplay in Age of Empires III revolves around: training units, gathering resources, building up a base, and smashing the enemy.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
As previously mentioned, players start out with a few settlers who can set out to gather resources like wood, gold, and food. Using these materials, players can train more units and build up their settlement into a thriving community. Houses, for example, let players support a larger population, while barracks allow for training soldiers. Unlike in Age of Empires II, players don’t need to gather stone, and villagers don’t need a drop-off point for the resources they’ve gathered. It’s also possible to train military units in batches of five… assuming players can cough up five paychecks at once.
Just like in Age of Empires II, the true key to winning a match in Age of Empires III is a robust economy. Players have to balance between researching new technologies, gathering resources, and building up an army to take the fight to a rival power. The Age mechanic returns to the series from Age of Empires II and allows players to advance to a new level of technological sophistication, provided they have the resources. A player in the Imperial Age, for example, can produce far more advanced weapons and tools than a player stuck in the Colonial Age.
Age of Empires II has perhaps too many civilizations, especially with its recent expansions, but the base Age of Empires III game shipped with eight European powers that players can choose from. Some, like the Spanish, French, and British, were obvious choices to include, while the Germans are a bit of a stretch and the Ottomans were included for… who knows why? Ottomans did many amazing things, but colonizing the Americas was not one of them. The game’s Native American expansion adds the Sioux, Aztec and Iroquois powers, while the Asian Dynasties pack adds the Chinese, Japanese, and Indians.
Unlike Age of Empires II, which differentiated most of its civilizations with as little as a single unit, Age of Empires III goes to great lengths to make each of its civilizations play differently. Each civ has benefits and drawbacks corresponding to the perks of its historical counterpart. The Portuguese, for example, excel at building ships and navigating water maps. The French are great at forming partnerships with Native American tribes, while the Spanish are outstanding at telling Native Americans that they’re not Catholic enough. Similarly, each civilization has its own units and exclusive technologies. Playing as the Dutch and researching Coffee Trade is both a great way to boost the economy and to keep the entire western hemisphere caffeinated. Proost!
Please Send Food
Though Age of Empires III looks mighty similar to Age of Empires II from a distance, the sequel made some major shakeups to Ensemble’s real-time strategy formula. For a start, players get an Explorer, a hero unit best used to look around the map in the early game. Explorers can be knocked out but never killed, making Age of Empires III more merciful toward its heroes than Age of Empires II. It’s also a good way to help novice players get used to the environment without paying a heavy price; no one’s to say how the Explorer only falls unconscious after rousing a den of angry bears, but sending someone to resuscitate him makes it easy to get back up and exploring in no time.
The other major innovation Ensemble made with Age of Empires III is the Home City mechanic, which allows players to request supplies and soldiers from back home. Every action in Age of Empires III gives the player experience points, with which they can click away to a beautiful rendition of their civ’s capital city and buy stuff to send across the pond. These perks come in the form of cards, which players can unlock after each match provided they earned enough experience in-game. Some cards, like a shipment of 200 gold, are fairly basic, while high-end cards like an army of Swiss mercenaries are quite a bit more valuable. Usually, more powerful cards can only be activated in late stages of the game.
A Game of Own(ed)
The Explorer and the Home City are but two of Age of Empires III‘s many changes to their RTS routine. Players can also attack neutral enemies (creeps) for resources, build trading posts to get shipments of supplies, and build alliances with local Native American tribes. The rest of the game is classic Age of Empires: start up a town, mow through acres of gold mines and pine trees, and assemble an army bristling with pikes and muskets. Start out with a few musketeers before working up to pistol-wielding dragoons or endless columns of strelet infantry. In one of the laziest gameplay implementations ever seen in an RTS, players can build a saloon and hire from a random assortment of mercenaries. The word “lazy” denotes the saloon’s hilariously anachronistic offerings, like wild west gunslingers in feudal Japan or mounted elephants in the Thirteen Colonies. Go home saloon, you’re dru — oh wait.
Like other Ensemble games, beating the opponent in Age of Empires III boils down to a game of rock-paper-scissors: artillery beats infantry, infantry sort of holds their own against cavalry sometimes, cavalry beats artillery. Employing a mix of these three unit types is a great way to guard against enemy forces and respond to whatever they’re packing. Players can turn their town into a fort for a long-term game, or rush the opponent early on if they’re feeling like taking risks. Generally, the best way to defend a town is have units stationed by the gate to immediately respond to an attack, with extra cannons at the ready to make short work of an enemy charge. Contrary-wise, the best way to attack an enemy base is pound it from afar with cannons. The enemy can either stay in their base and die, or venture out to get hit by artillery and musket fire.
Cause for Concern
Although Age of Empires III‘s gameplay is smooth and allows for great variety, Ensemble deserves some flack for its portrayal of certain civilizations… specifically, the Asian and Native American ones. The big three Native civilizations can build a giant bonfire and task villagers to dance around it; depending on the dance, they can somehow increase unit training speed or the deadliness of their warriors. While such dances are certainly a matter of historical record, their implementation in Age of Empires III feels stereotypical of Native Americans. It also feels lazy, like Ensemble disregarded some of these civilizations’ actual achievements in favor of the Magical Medicine Man racist trope that’s already plagued Native portrayals in other media.
Even more galling are some of the portrayals Ensemble made of Asian civilizations, like that Japanese monks have the power to tame wild animals for battle, or that their soldiers can call upon what basically amounts to the power of the Iron Fist to aid them in combat. Inexplicable mind powers and magic charms not only do not belong in a real-time strategy game that claims grounding in history, they perpetuate racist portrayals of Asian peoples that, unfortunately, have been common in western media for centuries. “Never mind that these civilizations fielded (and continue to field) some of the mightiest armies in world history—let’s fall back on the trope of warrior monks who can call upon earth magic.” Ensemble struck a rich vein of cringe with these ridiculous design decisions.
An Untouched Paradise
Although some of Age of Empires III‘s human portrayals raise a lot of questions, their environments inspire much more awe. Though the visuals have aged a bit since 2005, Age of Empires III remains a colorful and engaging game, with huge maps that burst with color and detail. Zooming in on those details isn’t always pretty on the eyes, but Age of Empires III encompasses a vibrant New World from the steppes of Argentina all the way up to the frozen wastes of the Yukon. New maps were added with the game’s two expansions, including a stunning palette of Asian territories and these are bundled together in the Complete Collection as well.
Though the emphasis of all of these maps is undoubtedly for multiplayer, Age of Empires III also allows less social gamers to compete against the computer. These days, with the game’s multiplayer as dead as it is, this is usually the only recourse for players spoiling for a fight. The game also features a single-player campaign that follows the fictitious Black family as they journey to the New World, but this narrative isn’t much to speak of. Neither are the stunted story campaigns offered up by the Native American or Asian civilizations. They make for some passably entertaining history-babble and offer some cool campaign-exclusive units, but that’s about it.
So, what is Age of Empires III, exactly? It’s a beautifully rendered real-time strategy game that makes up for in variety what it lacks in speed. It’s a smart, streamlined game whose civilizations offer a great amount of gameplay variety at the expense of some shockingly racist portrayals. What is the modern RTS fan to make of all that? Well, online multiplayer is pretty much dead. Age of Empires III‘s online community can’t hold a candle to the resurgence Age of Empires II has enjoyed, and probably never will, but local multiplayer is not unheard of. Additionally, there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploring these beautiful landscapes, whether at the helm of a custom colony or through the eyes of the exceptionally ordinary story campaigns.
Most RTS fans will probably prefer a game with a living community, and time has not been kind to some of Age of Empires III‘s gameplay elements, but the game still succeeds in capturing that grand sense of exploration mentioned earlier. There’s a lot to explore in the game’s vast assortment of maps, and a sense of accomplishment that comes with starting a profile and watching colonies swell. Whether those elements are enough to warrant a purchase is up to the players to decide, but for anything that can be said about Age of Empires III‘s decline in recent years, it captured those elements well.
You can buy Age of Empires III here.