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Skip the campaign but the stay for the skirmishing
Published on May 4, 2007 By warreni In Real-Time
Recently, I finished the Age of Empires III single-player campaign and I have played through a few skirmish matches. What follows are my impressions of the game on its own and in comparison with its predecessors, Age of Mythology and Age of Empires 2.

AoEIII does represent, as my title suggests an evolution in the concept of the real-time strategy game. Many reviewers have commented on this; specifically, I choose to use this term because of the implementation of the concept of the "home city." Before I played the game, this wasn't an easy concept to get my head around. Essentially, for single-player skirmish maps and multiplayer scenarios (I don't really have many comments to make specifically about multiplayer because I'm pretty much a 100% offline game-player), the home city and card shipment paradigms create a "meta-game," where the player can create as many different home cities and decks as (s)he desires to apply to whatever scenario may arise (e.g., if you know you are about to fight on a map that is mostly water, you can pick a deck that has a lot of naval improvements and unit shipments). If you're not familiar with these concepts, and you too are scratching your head about now, this is basically how it works: you pick a civilization from the available eight and create a home city; this city has a warehouse which can hold up to twenty "cards"; the cards represent improvements or extra units that can be sent while you are playing a skirmish or multiplayer game as that civilization; each city may also have multiple "decks" of cards for different scenarios (like the water-map example above), and you may designate which deck you are using in a given match when you receive your first shipment; shipments are earned in matches by gaining a certain number of experience points, which accrue from gathering resources, creating units and structures, collecting treasures, and, mainly, engaging in combat. The home city thus allows for some more complex strategies than would be otherwise allowed in the context of standard RTS play. This feature makes the game an evolutionary step forward in the design of RTS games.

Overall gameplay is compelling. Personally, real-time strategy games are my second-favorite kind of computer game, after Bioware/Obsidian-style RPGs, so I probably have a bit of genre bias. Nevertheless, the rush to get more cards and unlock home city customizations (tweaks you can gain through experience points that don't affect gameplay, but make your city more attractive and novel to look at) drives you to keep playing. If you've played any Ensemble RTS games before, and most everyone has, then you know the basic rock-paper-scissors counterpoints to the different unit types and basic gameplay has changed little from the two most recent titles in this line, AoE2 and AoM. The major differences include the following: 1) mills and plantations, buildings that generate food and coin, respectively, which do not have to be reseeded periodically like the farms in AoE2 but rather must be tended by settlers [peasants] like the Greek temples in AoM; 2) a lot more gunpowder weapons, as befits the later time period; and 3) the addition of Explorer units, who are not dissimilar to the heroes from AoE2 but who cannot actually be killed [even when hit points are reduced to zero, the Explorer continues to regenerate health and will spring back to life as soon as the Explorer is surrounded by friendly units] and is the only military unit that can collect "treasures" from the map [the treasures are akin to the artifacts that AoE2 monks could carry or retrieve but once a faction obtains a treasure, it belongs to that faction for the duration of play on that map].

AoEIII's single-player campaign tells the story of the Black family as they move to the New World from Europe, exploring and developing America. Specifically, the narrator (the last playable Black in the campaign, Amelia Black) tells her story and the stories of two of her ancestors, John and Morgan Black. Another Black, Stuart, appears in the second part of the campaign, but only in two missions as a nonplayable character and he is portrayed as something of an effete buffoon. In the middle of the 17th century, Morgan Black, a member of the Order of the Knights of St. John travels from Malta to Cuba to Florida in an effort to stop a mysterious group known as the Circle of Ossus from obtaining water from an area alleged to be the "Fountain of Youth." In the middle of the 18th century, John Black, his grandson, and his Native American companion, Kanyenke are also attempting to stop the Circle as it (this part didn't make much sense to me) attempts to launch an invasion of America using Russian forces. The action then moves into the early part of the 19th century, where Amelia recounts her adventures battling the Circle as it attempts to recover Spanish gold lost in Florida when Morgan defeated them.

The different story arcs are known as Blood, Ice, and Steel, respectively, and this is another mystery. The term "blood" could easily apply to any of the campaign segments, of course, and "steel" appears to be a reference to the significance of railroads in the last campaign, but "ice" only comes into play in the last few missions of the second segment. The names aren't really the only problems with the campaign. First, the campaign doesn't progress gradually to a higher level of difficulty, even within the individual stories. Missions vary widely in the level of difficulty and there appears to be no rhyme or reason in this. Second, the story is not the most coherent or compelling, and specifically, the idea of introducing magic "Fountain of Youth" water into what should have been a historical campaign seems a bit gimmicky, to say the least. Third, the teams or factions that the player controls in the different story arcs actually do not directly match any of the factions available in skirmish or multiplayer modes, which means that the player doesn't get a true feel for how these modes work, which in my mind is the primary purpose of a good single-player campaign. Campaigns should be designed to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of individual factions. Of course, I understand that this is probably linked directly to the design decision to create a campaign more like the story of Arkantos from AoM than the many and varied "hero"-oriented campaigns found in the Age of Kings (AoE2) and Age of Conquerors (AoE2x) games. However, unlike some other reviewers, I strongly disagree with this decision. While I think that strategy worked in AoM, I believe that it worked because the Arkantos campaign allowed the player to spend some time with all three of the available factions and frankly because there were only three factions from which to choose. One of the more enjoyable aspects of AoE2 is the ability to follow a story through one of the numerous campaigns and actually feel like you might accidentally be learning some history, in addition to having fun. This approach could have been adopted in AoEIII; Ensemble evidently chose not to put the effort into developing eight campaigns with eight "hero" figures, but surely it would not have been beyond its ability to do so.

On the whole, it's hard not to recommend AoEIII. Developing one or more home cities with multiple decks to fight against computer-controlled or online opponents is just plain fun. It may not be worth your time, however, to trudge through the campaign mode; you may be better served by reading a few FAQs online and playing skirmish and multiplayer games.

EDIT: (5/14/07) I discovered something rather annoying last week and when I went digging through the Ensemble Studios message boards, I learned that it was an intentional design feature that ES has no intention of changing. Specifically, it is this: if you save a skirmish game or custom scenario, thinking, "Hey, I'll pick this up tomorrow or next weekend," you may be disappointed. While you can load and finish the game, your home city won't get any of the experience points for it. So basically if you want to build your home city or cities through playing offline skirmishes, you have to play the game all the way through or the xps are not recorded. I don't know whether this feature was added to prevent some sort of cheating, but an ES rep stated on the boards how you could work around it by editing your home city file (stored in the game's directory in XML format). It just seems that if people really wanted to cheat so badly, they could just tinker with the files without having played the games to get the appropriate experience.

Comments
on Jun 09, 2007
yeah i agree with your statement. AOEIII is one of the best rts's of all time. i myself managed to succesfully rush opponents online with the british. something even the experts didnt believe i could do. I also agree that AOEIII could have been i bit more histroical, although it does have a database on everyhting historically relevant in the game it really does lack a nice historical story line. Still its a great game and everyone should get it.
on Jun 09, 2007
I disagree with AOE3 being close to evolutionary. The home city is alright, but for me it did not make the game any more fun, or either any of the implemented improvements in the game. Games such as Dawn of War and Company of Heroes I would have to say would could be considered an evolutionary step to RTS, because they absolutely bring in a new dimension of the game with squad combat, the need to play the WHOLE map instead of certain parts, and cover.
on Jun 26, 2007
yeah i agree with your statement. AOEIII is one of the best rts's of all time. i myself managed to succesfully rush opponents online with the british. something even the experts didnt believe i could do. I also agree that AOEIII could have been i bit more histroical, although it does have a database on everyhting historically relevant in the game it really does lack a nice historical story line. Still its a great game and everyone should get it.
on Jun 26, 2007
This one looks interesting, I wish they'd release an expansion that included a metamap-type campaign instead of the linear, go-here-do-this story driven model. I'm not big on MP play and without a replayable, dynamic campaign RTS's just aren't worth my money these days.
on Jul 10, 2007



Tototot said:

"Games such as Dawn of War and Company of Heroes I would have to say would could be considered an evolutionary step to RTS, because they absolutely bring in a new dimension of the game with squad combat, the need to play the WHOLE map instead of certain parts, and cover."

Well, I can't speak to these points specifically because I haven't played these games; I have a copy of Dawn of War at home, but I haven't gotten around to installing it yet. It seems to me, though, that Battle for Middle-Earth and its sequels had something akin to squad combat and many of the missions required your attention to be focussed on various parts of the map.

Vinraith said:

"I'm not big on MP play and without a replayable, dynamic campaign RTS's just aren't worth my money these days. "

Clearly, we're different kinds of players. Personally, I enjoy a good story-driven SP campaign, and I don't really get much out of dynamic campaign models because I literally have more games than I have time to play them; it comes with the territory when you're married. So replaying a game's campaign over and over is something I rarely do.

I don't see Microsoft/Ensemble creating the type of campaign you'd like to see for any Age games. They'll probably stick with what's worked for them thus far. Unfortunately for me, in the case of this particular game, that means a bizarre, character-driven story that may or may not fully explain the different factions and how they work. I just don't believe that focussing on a family history was a wise move in a campaign with so many factions in play.
on Jul 26, 2007
I'm going to have to say that I'm not a fan of the game. While the home city/shipments thing did change things up a bit, the game itself just couldn't keep me hooked. My army could (sometimes) line itself up into a pretty formation before a fight, but they could never hold it during a fight, making the game seem (at least to me) like strats didn't matter, unless it was to have more cannons than the enemy.
on Aug 09, 2007
In my view, there is nothing new or innovative about AoE III. As an avid fan of the AoE series, I was hoping to see a so-called 'next gen' RTS with the release of AoE III. Sadly, AoE III is just "more of the same".

Most reviews of AoE III that I have read have been lukewarm, at best. Sure, the gameplay can be 'fun', but--guess what?--it's more or less exactly the same game as previous installments of the AoE series. Some reviewers (like the OP here) may trump up the Home City feature (which is the only really 'new' concept in the game), but this features alone hardly makes for a great game.

The basic combat mechanics are virtually identical to AoE II and AoM. Unit 'massing' with simple counters and the same ol' AoE animations. Combat even 'feels' the same as AoE II/AoM. The only significant changes are the graphics and the fact that specific maps play a more vital role (due to trading post nodes, etc.) The War chiefs (and eventually Asian Dynasties) bring some different gamplay (Firepit bug, anyone?), but aside from that, AoE III is nothing to "write home about". It's a 'safe', mild departure into the realm of RTS meta-gaming (thanks to the home screen, shipment cards, etc.), but other games have been working with meta-strategy layers for a while now (Rise of Nations, Empire Earth, Total War, Dawn of War), so this, really, is nothing new.

Don't get me wrong: AoE III can be a fun game (if you love small maps and simplified combat mechancis). On the other hand, if you want new, innovative RTS gameplay, check out Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, Supreme Commander, or the latest Command and Conquer game. In these games you are introduced to comcepts like unit morale, squad-based combat, squad reinforcement, destructive environments, squad cover, supression fire, base building that doesn't require the same ol' AoE villager 'spam', etc.

You have to admire the AoE franchise, for helping to invent the RTS genre (along with Dune II and Warcraft). But, at the same time, you can' help but feel that AoE III was nothing but a giant graphical update ... with very little else. The gameplay still 'feels' like an AoE game, which, after several years, is just a bad thing. How anyone can say AoE III is an innovative, or evolutionary, RTS is beyond me. It's kind of like the Starcraft phenomenon; sure Starcraft was a good game (a million year ago), but it's honestly just a "dated", poor game by today's standards. And yet millions of people consider it one of the best RTS's of all time. (Personally, I find Blizzard's RTS's to be rather 'shallow' and boring, specifically tailored for a multiplayer 'twitch' crowd with ADD.)

AoE III suffers because you expect more from a bunch of creators that helped found the RTS genre in the first place. When a young, upstart company like Relic, THQ, etc. can come into the market, and make Microsoft/Ensemble look like they've been asleep for the past five years, you have to wonder what they're thinking.
on Aug 09, 2007
In my view, there is nothing new or innovative about AoE III. As an avid fan of the AoE series, I was hoping to see a so-called 'next gen' RTS with the release of AoE III. Sadly, AoE III is just "more of the same".


i've never played any of the AoE games before. would you say that for someone like me, AoEIII is a good purchase even if it's not a major strategic improvement over previous incarnations? or would you recommend another game entirely? i'm eager for StarCraft II, but i think it'll be a long while.
on Aug 10, 2007
i'm eager for StarCraft II, but i think it'll be a long while.


You think so? Did you see the movies on Gamespot. It looks to me the game is almost finished.
on Aug 10, 2007
i've never played any of the AoE games before. would you say that for someone like me, AoEIII is a good purchase even if it's not a major strategic improvement over previous incarnations? or would you recommend another game entirely? i'm eager for StarCraft II, but i think it'll be a long while.



Sure, AoE III is a good, 'solid' game in its own right. If you're not familiar with the AoE series, it wouldn't be a 'bad thing' to start with AoE III. Besides, it might be harder to play earlier versions of AoE, if only because the graphics are so 'dated'. AoE II: Age of Kings/Conquerers is still a fun game, 'imbalances' and all, but the graphics could take some getting used to.

Age of Mythology would probably be the game I'd recommend, though, for people new to the "Age of" series; in AoM the gameplay is more strategic due to the large array of special units and the fact that each race plays differently; there is also a meta-game layer built seamlessly into the game that comes with selecting a new minor god with each age advancement, not to mention God Powers, titans, etc. The maps are also better.

If I have to fault AoE III in one area, it's the maps. AoE III's maps look great--but they're so damn small, and rather "uninspired". A game like Dawn of War has maps that lend themselves to the game very well; each map is distinctive and adds a different layer of strategic value. Not so with AoE III.

AoE III's maps are just too generic, even down to the placement of trade posts, native villages, etc. Certain maps are better than others, and do provide more strategic depth (morseo than the original AoE maps, which does make AoE III a slightly better game in this regard), but, on the whole, the maps become very 'repetitive' after a while, largely due to their small size and the fact that you will end up using the same strategy for a particular map, over and over and over again. The static placement of trading posts, etc. is a good and bad thing; the maps are better than AoE II, but not as good as the maps in AoM (which also had static placement of things, like cities). And compared to maps in Supreme Commander, Dawn of War, etc., there's just no contest.
on Aug 10, 2007
You think so? Did you see the movies on Gamespot. It looks to me the game is almost finished.


i checked them out a week or two ago. i think the basic game engine looks done, but from what i've read it seems like they want to do a lot of QA to balance everything. and when i said "a while," i was thinking 6 months or so. isn't it tentatively scheduled for Q1 '08?

DoctorLazarus


thank you for the thorough feedback! age of mythology sounds fun. the only 3 civ options the greeks, egyptions and norse.. too bad, i'd love to use hindu gods and myth; it's just zainy.
on Aug 11, 2007
I love Age of Empires III, personally.

Sometimes, in games, I see brilliantly created maps with almost random placement. Then, I see symmetrical arrangements of... well, everything. The AoEIII maps were like this (as were a bunch of maps from GC1). But I really don't mind that much.

As for the campaign situation mentioned in the first post, I argue that the campaign is far from anti-historical or just not historical. It's pretty historical. It just doesn't approach history the way it's predecessors did. For instance, what it does is create a story to the side of history. AoeII had a story that was history. In the first act alone, the history is as follows: (1,2) The Ottomans did attack Malta at one point in history, (3) Pirates did raid ships coming to and from the New World in the Caribbean, (5) The Aztecs had numbers, while the Spanish had advanced weaponry, (7) Pirates attacked the Spanish so-called 'Treasure Fleets'. That is five out of eight scenarios that had 'history to the side' in them. 5/8. If that is true for the other two (I don't remember now)., that means 15/24, or 62 Percent of the scenarios had parts of history in them.

By the way, in WarChiefs, the expansion, the first campaign is almost completely historical, but the main character is in 'every major American Revolution battle' (and I mean that!). The second one is also more historical but not as much as the first. They are named Fire and Shadow.
on Aug 16, 2007

DoctorLazarus: I really haven't played any of the games that you are referencing where the maps themselves add a substantial strategic or tactical layer to the gameplay. So, I can't really comment on that. I have a few of the games you cite tucked on a shelf, but it may be a while before I get to them . . . . Clearly, you disagree with my sentiments regarding the "evolutionary" nature of AoEIII, and, well, that's your right.

dystopic: I would agree with DrLazarus that AoM is a great entry in the series. The single-player campaign is far more engaging and does a terrific job of introducing the factions. On the down side, it is a bit of shame that the one xpack, The Titans, didn't introduce any (well, not really) new civs. As you said, some more diverse myths would have been cool.

Actually, I'm looking forward to StarCraft 2, as well. The movies look incredible, but I agree that we have a bit of a wait for it. I've read several interviews with Blizzard personnel wherein they've refused to commit to even a vague release date. Naturally, they can afford to sit on it a while with the success that WoW is enjoying, and they'll probably take as much time in QA as they want (they can at least be assured that most of Korea will be lined up outside the stores to buy it when it finally does hit the shelves!).

Minor Race: While I don't disagree with your broad point, the fact is that the story told in the SP campaign has two major flaws, in my view, that I don't believe you addressed: 1) it introduces fantastic elements [the "Fountain of Youth" water], which are fine in a game like AoM, but rather out-of-place in a quasi-historical game; and 2) it fails to introduce the player in a meaningful way even to a few of the available factions--instead, the player controls oddly-bastardized versions of the MP/skirmish factions during the campaign mode. That's my main problem with the campaign in AoEIII.

I have a copy of WarChiefs I picked up on the cheap a few months ago at Circuit City sitting on the shelf behind me. When I complete the Beast campaign in Armies of Exigo, I may load it up, although I just have to say: every battle in the American Revolution? Seriously?!

on Oct 01, 2007
Well, not every battle. But all the major ones. Bunker Hill/Breed's Hill, Trenton, Saratoga, Valley Forge, Yorktown. There was also something at a place called Morristown (not sure about it it, and two introducers..

Yes, that is true. I'd much prefer to be using the actual factions, and I'd rather there be no Fountain of Youth. In my opinion, while the first three campaigns were not historical enough, Fire was 'too historical' (combined fictional character and real history), Shadow (Act V) nails it (in my opinion). It uses non-historical and historical characters, with a real background (Sioux versus settlers), and believable motivations. Unfortunately, you are still in a 'mixed-up' empire.

Sometimes, I'd rather play side-historical games. I mean that the very concept of an RTS is a little anti-historical (build a wonder to win a huge battle between armies, train about five hundred new soldiers when you started with twenty...)
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