Microsoft has unearthed a new expansion for Age of Empires III, which is due for release this autumn.
How d'you make a somewhat by-the-numbers, forgettable RTS better? Well, you could always just throw in some hypnotised bears. In fact, you could make a total raid of every book on Native Americans in the children's section of the library, and cheerfully shoe-in just about every fact, myth and cliché concerning the USA's long-suffering original inhabitants. So, as well as those mystically bewitched urisdae, we get similarly tamed cougars and wolves, spirit dances and magical medicine men. Everything short of transforming into a spectral hawk, in fact, but that may only be because Prey already tried that trick. Even so, this really isn't your large-bearded, pipe-smoking, stuffily accuracy-obsessed daddy's Age of Empires.
Making the three new races - Iroquois, Aztec and Sioux - semi-fantastical is a bold move, and one Ensemble has previously reserved for entirely separate games (i.e. Age of Mythology) rather than risk disgusted letters from Age of Empires' huge and stern contingent of history devotees. There's a sense that the internal debate on whether to ramp the crazy levels up to eleven was never quite resolved, as the single-player campaign actually dials it down hugely, after initially introducing wardances around the firepit and hero units with the power to mentally enslave.
Quickly escaping his rustic roots, the first act's Native American hero, Nathaniel Black, soon becomes intertwined with George Washington and his American resistance, and from then on it's pretty much business as usual, though at a rather more break-neck pace than in AOE3 vanilla. There's a bit of a back-to-front Last of the Mohicans vibe to it - the hero's called Nathaniel in both cases, but here he's of Iroquois descent rather than being a Frontier settler, and in both, there's a helpless, kidnapped woman holding out for a hero, but this time around she's been snatched by boo-hiss baddie German colonialists rather than the novel's evil Indians. The second act plays up the fiction even more, with Nathaniel's brooding grandson suffering a bit of an identity crisis and running into one General Custer.
Fans of killing things by clicking on them might want to check out the WarChiefs demo released overnight, offering a sample of Ensemble Studios' expansion pack for Age of Empires III.