Having a third-party developer make the expansion pack for another team's latest magnum opus is hardly an uncommon occurrence. It's an odd practice, but I can understand the thinking behind it - "we spent all this time making this game; can't we just sit back and enjoy the big pots of cash for a while? Hey you, here's a biscuit - go make me some levels." It's rare that such cases suffer the complete quality breakdown of the direct-to-DVD movie sequel, enthusiastically but cluelessly directed by the original's lead stunt guy or chief tealady, but it's really rare to call in another superstar developer to do the money mop-up the first guys can't be bothered with. To continue the movie analogy, Big Huge Games (Rise of Nations/Legends) stepping in to handle this latest expansion for Ensemble Studio's long run of Age of Empires games is like James Cameron directing the sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. And like Aliens was to Alien, this is flashier and lighter - almost a different prospect entirely.
Except, of course, Age of Empires III wasn't anything like as smart and experimental as Alien. It's the least interesting of the AOE series, playing things far too safe and making some really dubious font choices to boot. It's got its crazy, angrily defensive fans, but for all their efforts it hasn't managed the mainstream breakthrough AOE2 did. So maybe that's why the big name studio's been called in.
It works. There's something immediately far fresher about the Asian Dynasties than either AOE3 or its first expansion, The WarChiefs. It looks great (those nasty fonts aside), remarkably vibrant, but carefully exaggerating its architecture and colours just enough to ensure some sense of authenticity remains alongside the tooniness. Its colourful trio of Japanese, Chinese and Indian factions are a far cry from the muted brickwork of the original's European forces. I dunno about the mysteries of the East, but their equivalent of Homebase certainly has a better paint selection than ours.