Age of Empires 3 Preview
By: Alex D.

Close to eight years ago, Microsoft collaborated with Ensemble Studios to create the blockbuster RTS series Age of Empires. It has been almost six years since the last iteration, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings saw the retail-induced light of day on store shelves—but fear not, as Ensemble has been hard at work between then and now. Next month will see the eagerly awaited release of the third installment in the Age of Empires series, and thankfully we’ve been able to get our grubby paws on an early build. As it stands, we are thrilled to report that Age of Empires III is the best-looking RTS title to date, if not one of the prettiest overall videogames, and it still manages to maintain the same feel that made the preceding games famous—albeit with a few added innovations to keep a fresh pacing.

For veterans of the series, the gameplay style of Age of Empires III is very similar to previous titles, or generally any other RTS game. This means that players can expect the same tried and trusted control method composed of right mouse button and the mandatory resource gathering, researching, technological advancements, civilizations—and everything else that goes along with a standard real-time strategy game. Resources can be collected thanks to the villagers, who can amass food, chop wood and other simple yet useful tasks. Once sufficiently stocked, players can use the resources to create structures or upgrade their economy, military, etc.

Of course, Age of Empires III isn’t merely a graphically updated version of its predecessors, Ensemble Studios has also thrown a few new and interesting features into the mix. The first, and most noticeable inclusion is immediately apparent from the main menu; it’s your Home City. The metropolis represents the capitol of your empire back in Europe and it will continually evolve as you progress through the game and gain more experience points to customize your city in a variety of fashions.

Of course, the town isn’t purely aesthetic in nature; it plays a vital role throughout the entirety of the game’s campaign. As you play, you are awarded experience points for the actions you perform. These points collect in a circular meter at the bottom of your ‘HUD’ and, once full, clicking on it returns you to the Home City, where you can select a reward to send to your colony in the ‘New World’. These rewards range from military units, technology, or more settlers. Selecting one and then re-clicking on the meter will return you to your game where the package(s) will arrive shortly thereafter—directly from Europe with love! Though this may seem complicated initially—and it surely will be to newcomers—there is a tutorial to help alleviate the intricate evolution of your metropolis.

A noted improvement in Age of Empires III exists in how the resource gathering settlers no longer need to shuffle back and forth to a drop off point. Regardless of what they’re collecting, the resources will slowly but automatically add to your expanding stockpile. Alongside the ‘gathering’ peasants, players will also begin with a new ‘hero’ unit. Tougher and more capable than regular units, the hero is the only one who can acquire the treasures that are peppered around the environment. These treasures range from specific items for your hero, additional experience points, or even more resources for the colony. On top of that, your hero is ultimately infallible in terms of sustained damage—meaning he can’t be killed. In the event he is seriously wounded, he will simply heal and rejoin the fight.

Story wise, Age of Empires III focuses on the colonial ages, a time where the European powers were at one another’s throats for stakes in the New World. This results in players being able to choose from the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russians, and even the Ottoman Empire, as they all struggle by any means necessary to participate in the colonization of the Americas.

Much like the previous titles, Age of Empires III features a series of ‘ages’ that players can progress through, covering a good 300 years of actual history. All five included ages are as follows: the Discovery age, which begins at the end of the Middle Ages, the Colonial age, the Fortress age, the Industrial age, and finally the Imperial age. Following progression throughout the years is extremely interesting as you watch everything from the gradual disappearance of pikes and crossbows in favor of muskets, to the early technological advancements of the train in the Industrial and Imperial ages.

As in earlier series installments, players will be pressured by opponents to advance as quickly as possible through the five stages in order to remain a competitive power within the game. As ever, doing so requires an important amount of your resources, but new to Age of Empires III is the ability to choose which politician leads your colony, though this has no direct effect on your method of playing. Depending on whom you choose, you receive different bonuses from the assigned political leader, ranging from extra resources and settlers to military related enhancements.

The combat in Age of Empires III is similar to that of its older brethren, meaning gamers will still be required to build a strong defensive base to successfully fend off nefarious opponents while maintaining a strong offensive outfit. The buildings that can be erected range from barracks to stables, (depending on which age you’re currently in) and a variety of other structures that will produce military units for your army. Defensively, walls, forts, outposts, and much more can be constructed to promote and maintain a safe environment for your troops and settlers, all of which can be upgraded through a little shrewd research and the right resource management.

Visually, Age of Empires III is breathtaking. That is the first word that comes to mind when playing the game. Those consumers with a high-end system will also benefit from the presence of HDR lighting (High Dynamic Range), which creates a more natural and soft looking light on everything it touches. Sadly, this is only a feature that can be found on more modern video cards. That said, don’t let this discourage you, even on an old Radeon 9600XT, the game still looks spectacular, and performance is rarely an issue of detraction, even with a higher resolution, all details enabled, and an older system. New to the series is the use of physics, although it could still be implemented a little better as it seems to serve only as eye candy at this juncture. The best example of the elusive physics can be seen while unleashing artillery on enemy structures; the bombarded buildings always crumble in a realistic and unscripted fashion, no matter how many times you fire upon them.

Even though our preview build represented an early development stage, it’s impossible to deny the potential held by Age of Empires III. The amount of depth present in all three modes (campaign, skirmish, and multiplayer) is sure to have players hooked, as it will definitely be one of the biggest games of the year. It’s also one of the prettiest games we’ve ever seen and manages to hold onto the same feel and gameplay present throughout the older titles—making the six-year hiatus completely worthwhile. Make sure you keep an eye out when Age of Empires III hits retail stores in October, and don’t forget to check the GamersHell