Previews like this one always contain a certain sense of inevitability. Those who know the Age Of series already know, in terms of general quality and quantity, what to expect. Likewise, the developers, Ensemble Studios, knows exactly what to do, and it's not about to turn its legendary RTS games into an ill-conceived bout of monkey tennis. In fact it's unlikely to put a foot wrong at all - a misplaced toe is about the worst we can expect.
So it’s in a predictably satisfying manner that AoE3 adds new bells and whistles to the usual terrain-conquering formula, as Ensemble attempt to capture the spirit and flavour of the colonial era New World, while at the same time expanding on the challenges that gamers’ enjoyed in the previous games.
The colonial era was a quiet time for videogames, but a good time for conquering heroes and railroad networks, since all the debauched old European Empires decided to deliver packages of imperialism and influenza to the unsuspecting native Indian populations as they searched for gold and ate turkeys for the very first time. Destruction of these natives is actually fairly limited, and the key receiver of your musket-fire is actually going to be the conquistadors of the other rival powers who are also setting up their empires across the virgin territories. The crosses are huge stretch of time, going from log cabin beach-landers, right through to the revolutionary times of the railroad and the fully fledged yankee.
A Bit Townie
The biggest change, which reflects the over-arching theme of colonialism, is the ‘home city’ screen. This is where assets from your European patron nation can be organised for shipment to the colony. Just as you’ll develop and upgrade facilities in your town, so you’ll also upgrade the capacity to ship people and goods across from Europe, or back again. As the game arc progresses so a sturdy economic base will make the forthcoming challenges easier.
Each of the cities can be customised over time by collecting a deck of ‘cards’, or resources that the city can offer. You can have up to 20 of these and can swap out elements of the deck as you game progresses. The deck will decide what kinds of support your city is going to be able to offer in a particular game. This might vary depending on your nationality too: the Brits will have the strongest economy, while the Spaniards have a head start in extra support for their overseas colonies.
The home city concept adds some extra tactical depth, yet it’s actually simpler to deal with than it sounds. Whether the concept will really prove its worth is probably going to depend on whether it works long-term across many hours of play. In Rome: Total War, for example, the town-development only ever really seemed to add something in the mid-game, with starter towns needing a predictable set of developments, and endgame towns being so big that they might as well be left to their own devices. Hopefully the AoE3 home city will parallel those midgame cities, giving us something else to tinker with throughout the all stages of the game, as towns consolidate and empires grow.
The meat of AoE3 though, with all its resource gathering, building and fighting, is delivered with a host of new knobs to play with, including an experience system that adds to how quickly you can import and develop, and trade routes, in which you can set up trading posts near roads, to collect a bit of extra coin, or collect bonuses from a trading post built near the villages of various native tribes.
Key to all this activity is the hero character who is both a strong combat unit and a vital explorer. It’ll not be worth using standard units to explore the map without a hero leader, since only the explorer can collect the treasure caches, which are hidden across the terrain. These will usually incur a brief fight or two, as your explorer and entourage are forced to fight off crocodiles, bears or whatever else has ambushed a wagon train or murdered a woodsman.
These fights themselves demonstrate the excruciating level of detail that AoE3 is going to. Muskets flash and smoke, and then soldiers get stuck in with bayonets and rifle butts as they club and stab enemies to death. Likewise, buildings are destroyed by squads of infantry hurling Molotov cocktails onto the roofs and watching them burn. Combat is fast and amusingly colourful. Conflict in AoE3 is going to be a delight. It’s vital that we mention that Age of Empires 3 really is very pretty, although the screenshots we’ve seen could fool you into thinking that it’s rather more pretty than it actually is: this is still a 3D RTS and a lot of those screens are really rather static.
No Human Contact
If the hours of click-explore, click-gather, and click-build derived from our preview assets are anything to go by, then PC strategists are likely to return from the shops with this clutched between hungry paws and then not be seen by another human being for many weeks. Engrossing ‘tidying up’ of conquerable regions is a hallmark of Age of Empires and it is no different here. AoE3 looks diverse enough to bestride the genre once again, taking all comers with its numerous environments from across the Americas, and its well-matured mix of combat and trade.
For many people, though, the real value of this third instalment will rest on whether or not it the multiplayer is as strong as it has been in previous incarnations. We’ve not had access to that yet, but when the time comes we'll be tolling the patriot bell, or something. Everything from the single player game - the trade routes, the fact that peasants no longer have to carry resources back to base, the speed and versatility of different combat unit types, even the ships that fish and explore along the coastline – all suggest that the multiplayer game will be as demanding and distracting as anything else out there. For some of us, it’s almost certainly going to be an imperial winter.
Age of Empires III: Age of Discovery is due for release on PC on November 11th through Microsoft. Check back shortly before the game's release for a full review.