Game Name:  Age of Empires III
Developer:  Ensemble Studios
Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios
PC Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  November 2, 2015

Truth be told, I spent quite a lot of time with Age of Empires III in years past.  Ensemble’s wildly popular RTS franchise was always a fun way to waste time with friends, and this entry was no different.  For those like my college housemate, who were turned off by the imaginary creatures in Age of Mythology, this historical return to form was just the medicine to bring them back into the gaming fold.  We waged countless cooperative battles from the comfort of our rooms; shouting across the house to coordinate our march to victory.  Despite this fondly-remembered period of my life, when I tried to craft the perfect Portuguese start sequence, I somehow never bothered to give the story mode a chance.  What better way is there to celebrate a ten-year anniversary, though, than to trade in my favorite civilization’s Organ Guns for a single-player campaign?  It should come as no surprise that the game I returned to was both familiar and fun, given my history with this title and the series more broadly.  However, this sense transcends simple nostalgia.   More evolution than revolution, Age of Empires III is a high water mark for the traditional RTS, and its many refinements to the genre make it more than relevant today.

Picking up right where the second installment of the series left off, Age of Empires III begins at the turn of the 16th century, when bold explorers traveled the world’s oceans in search of new lands.  From there, it winds its way through time to the end of the Industrial Revolution and the broad adoption of steam to power factories and trains, which are both featured in the game as a means of resource generation.  Think about today’s gaming landscape, and try to name a title set in this era, other than Assassin’s Creed, Europa Universalis, or Total War.  Hard to do, is it not?  Sights and sounds from this period, like the imposing size of a tall ship or the sharp whistle of an old locomotive, are rare enough in modern entertainment that the experience feels fresh, despite this particular game’s age.  Ensemble’s decision to go against the grain of its sword-and-board heritage also injects a little more control into a player’s hands.  While combat still boils down to whose mass of troops is larger, the emphasis on muskets and rifles means individual soldiers do not have to walk around other combatants to engage the enemy, making it far easier to micromanage a fight by assigning individual kill targets.

Allowing players absolute control of their game must have been Ensemble’s driving focus, because Age of Empires III’s improvements go well beyond more manageable warfare.  While this is clearly evident in the little changes to the series, like the introduction of plantations to generate coin long after the map has run out of gold deposits, no feature supports this theory as much as the home city.  These seats of power, like London and Amsterdam, may seem like nothing more than fancy and customizable title screens, but each level within the game is actually a mission to North America that originated from these locales.  Completing map objectives or killing enemies rewards experience points that can be used to send additional shipments of men and materiel, from the capital, to aid in the conquest of the hinterlands.  As cool as this all sounds, it gets even better because these deliveries are completely customizable based on a gamer’s playstyle.  Troops can be sent early to aid an aggressive rush, resources can be sent to upgrade a town center faster than otherwise possible, or technologies can be sent to help an economy boom towards the endgame.  It is refreshing to experience an RTS offering actual choices, unlike the formulaic build patterns of StarCraft II.   

Creative mechanics do more than give Age of Empires III players freedom, though; they help suspend disbelief.  Home cities work because they not only fit with typical perceptions of the colonial era, but they solve a common problem for the genre, which is level designers have an impossible task taking art assets from a base-building title and trying to make a city out of it.  No matter how many houses and barracks are set side-by-side, it never looks like an urban center where people actually live and work.  With the action set squarely in the New World, though, there is little need to model the likes of Berlin and Moscow within the game’s world.  On a smaller scale, native tribes are used to similar ends.  Their villages are scattered randomly across a given level, and building a trading post is all that is needed to unlock units and technologies which are unique to each of the tribes.  With that said, their more important function is to ground players with a sense of place and time by reminding them that America was already inhabited before colonization occurred.  Period-specific elements like these are combined with lovely graphics that do not look ten years old, and commonsense details like having wild animals run in the opposite direction of hunting parties, to create an experience that starts pulling gamers into this bygone era.

In addition to solid mechanics and great production value, a sense of pure fun is needed before full immersion can occur.  Thanks in large part to its wildly diverse and inventive map design, Age of Empires III can check that box off as well.  Sure, there are the standard genre staples which are frankly a bit boring, like destroying a particular enemy building or collecting an obscene amount of a particular resource, but there are far more that turn these tropes on their head to great effect.  Want to play some King of the Hill?  Well, the stakes are raised with the placement of a giant capturable cannon, which can be used to devastating effect by whoever currently holds the peak.  Care to defend an ally from attack?  A powerful enemy city stands in the way, and with no way around it, the best gamers can hope to accomplish is a series guerilla attacks to pull troops away from the friendly town.  Scenarios like these are instantly familiar, but still entirely fresh for genre veterans.  Fortunately, they are challenging as well.  While I played the entire game on the default difficulty and had a great time, players are given the option to change how hard the game is before each and every map.

As strong as the overall Age of Empires III package is, Ensemble still took a few missteps that mar an otherwise perfect gaming experience.  Most egregious is the relatively undeveloped plotline of the single player mode, which follows the Black family across three generations as they combat a secret society that is out to gain immortality from the Fountain of Youth.  Epic does not even begin to describe this premise, so while adult gamers like me are appreciative of the reasonable 12 hours it takes to complete the campaign, it does not leave nearly enough time to flesh out each of the main characters and their roles in the struggle.  Other annoying foibles include the decision to hide a third of the beautiful graphics behind a bulky interface, and the perceived need to build an early game that involves mindlessly running an explorer around the map to pick up treasure.  Despite these warts, though, I am reminded how strong a title this is and that I only stopped playing its multiplayer because my friends and I got completely sucked into Company of Heroes.  While I would be tempted to recommend Age of Empires III based solely on the thrill of seeing American flags flying in a historical strategy game, it is just an added bonus because this is arguably the best interpretation of the traditional RTS that I have ever played.

Verdict:  Recommended