Age of Empires III

The New World is fraught with danger and odd game design.

1_1Back when real-time strategy designers only had to simulate the complex geopolitical relations between Orcs and Humans, economic modeling in these games could be restricted to the contributions of wood and gold to building a mechanical zeppelin and training an army of archers. In a complete reversal that some would call a design advance, Age of Empires III is ultimately a game about the incidental geopolitical effects of wood and gold gathering. Oh yeah, and food. Don’t say real-time strategy hasn’t evolved.

From a thematic perspective, the game is a huge success. Frontier colonists surely had to worry about the basics of economics—if you didn’t collect enough food and building materials, you were dead. But from a game design perspective, it’s not so exciting to play an hour-long game in which you’re mostly concerned about what each individual peon—sorry, “settlerâ€â€”is doing. It’s a giant economic flowchart that all funnels through the balance sheet: Want to plan a multi-pronged offensive? Start counting planks of wood and food and population and whatnot, because the game isn’t going to do it for you.

Which is the other half of the problem. This sense that you’re only indirectly managing a war by micromanaging an economy isn’t bad in itself. Rise of Nations gives you a lot of choices that have cascading economic effects, all of which make the game rich without burying players in detail. Age of Empires III is all about the detail, so much so that you don’t really get to appreciate the larger environment. And that’s a real shame, because the larger environment has some great ideas.

The most interesting idea is both thematically brilliant and mechanically elegant. Each empire has a “home city†that periodically sends aid to the overseas colony in the form of resources or units. The real genius is that this takes the form of a “card deck†of up to 20 cards, each of which has restrictions on use (number of times used, limited to a certain Age). As you earn experience points in the game, you accumulate credit toward your next “shipment.â€

30_1When you reach the next threshold, you earn a shipment, which allows you to play a card. Some shipments are special units that are only available this way, and can only be sent once. Because you can build multiple decks and can choose which to use after you’ve seen the map, you have a lot of room to try different strategies. You unlock better cards by “leveling up†your cities, which can be done in solo play or multiplayer. It gives you far more reason to keep playing than the story-driven campaign, and provides the kind of extra-game choices rarely seen in RTS skirmish play.

The game even uses the experience-for-shipments mechanic to drive gameplay in interesting new directions. Many maps have “trade routes†of various lengths on which players can build trading posts. These earn experience over time, which helps get more cards into play faster. There are Indian settlements scattered around the map, which allow players to gain units and bonuses with the proper buildings. These settlements and trade routes cannot be destroyed (although the players’ buildings on them can be) which can make the game an interesting chess match to gain economic advantage.

This is the kind of design innovation that could make this game great, yet ends up demonstrating the game’s schizophrenia. For example, the home city shipments arrive at a designated building and, if they are economic resources, have to be unpacked by settlers. This means that resource shipments need to go to settler-populated and protected regions, while military units are often sent to front-line outposts. But there’s no way to differentiate between military shipments and economic shipments, so you have to re-designate the target building each time you change the type of shipment. Because you can save up shipments and send them in quick succession, which is useful when you’re waiting for some advanced Age-specific cards to become available, this requires a lot of pointless clicking. Which is something the game is really good at.

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There is so much missing from the interface that you could go on about it forever. And what’s worse, the game pretends it isn’t happening. To even see basic (yet essential) information like how many settlers you have doing what, you have to enable something called the “advanced†UI. It’s as though the game wants you to relax and enjoy the forest even though the whole design demands that you ignore it to focus on every single tree individually.

4_1Age of Empires III tries to change its genre’s design direction while pretending Rise of Nations doesn’t exist. Idle settlers stand around unless you specifically tell them what to do. Mines run out of gold and you really have to be paying attention to realize it. And the number of times players can pause in multiplayer games is limited, with no way to change the settings. In fact, there are a lot of settings you can’t change, like the game speed in the campaign. Someone really dropped the ball on the interface, and the game suffers quite a lot because of this.

In the end, it’s a real shame. Even if you have no idea what a Finnish Hakapell is, Ensemble has done a great job of making you want to find out. The combination of unlocking cards, arranging decks, and all the varied civilization abilities—the different factions are well defined and well differentiated—would make for a very compelling game if only there was a chance to appreciate it. With so many choices and strategies available, the whole thing is about who builds the most peons and makes sure each is doing his individual settler job best. And that’s a weird way to make a game about New World discovery.

System Requirements: Pentium III 1 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 2 GB HDD, WinXP

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