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Great Underappreciated RTS and a Note on CDs
Published on March 5, 2006 By mittens In Real-Time
Age of Empires 3 came out in fall 2005, but it seemed to come and go with little-to-no fanfare. The came received decent reviews and apparently was considered a letdown to RTS gamers who were looking forward to it. I actually played it when it first came out and got a nice bit through the first of three acts in the single-player campaign, and thought it was a very well-done game. I quit playing it at some point shortly afterwards, mainly due to a fairly annoying campaign mission, and haven't touched it since.

And, by that, I mean I hadn't touched the game up to a week ago. Those who read my stuff on occasion may know that I had fallen in love with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Well, I had played through the campaign on that and then moved on to its expansion pack and played through that in three-four days (it was excellent, by the way). After that, I found that I still had AoE3 installed on my system. I patched the little guy up to its latest version (1.04 at the time; it's now up to 1.05), and found a no-CD patch for the game.

Little sub-rant before I continue, though. What was is with games requiring a CD to be in the drive in order to play the game? I understand that it's one step towards creating more "secure" games, but it's beginning to have a real effect on two things for me: the amount of time I spend playing a game and my ability to even play the game. When Civilization 4 first came out, the game refused to work with my game CD at all. I had to find a no-CD crack just to get the game to work. Epic did something really awesome in that they required a CD to be present in order to play Unreal Tournament 2004, but after a month or two, they released a patch that, among other things, eliminated the need for the CD to be present to play. The game got a lot more attention than it would have otherwise simply for this trivial point. Trying to track down a CD to play a game that I already have installed just seems absolutely asinine to me (kudos to Stardock for not requiring a CD to play Galactic Civilizations 2).

Anyway, once I got the game up and running, I sat down and tried playing the campaign mission that annoyed me so much before. After a few minutes playing it, I quit out of the game, went into the campaign menu, set the difficulty to "Easy," and just blew through the mission. I then set the difficulty back to "Normal" and am currently making my way through the campaign. It's told through three "acts" which separate three generations of the Black family line. It starts off in the new world following a Scottish knight, then goes to his grandson and his native-American buddy, and in the third act of the game it follows the grand-daughter of that guy.

The generational storyline is a really neat mechanism to tell the game's tale, and something that I haven't seem employed very well since Phantasy Star 3 (or was it 4?). I was surprised with how interested I was in the game's actual storyline; it wasn't an aspect of the game that I was expecting to really be… well, worthwhile at all. The missions of the game are also very well-done. As usual with an RTS, I wish there were more missions that simply let me build a base from scratch and mass an army with which to crush my foes, but I guess variety is a spice of life too. And there is quite a nice bit of variety to the mission structures.

In fact, Age of Empires 3 contains one of the most entertaining "Defend the Fort" kind of missions; the game provides you with a well-constructed fort with two layers of walls (which can be upgraded to stone walls). You're not provided with resources, but through the game's "trade routes" you can request shipments of resources to come in at short intervals by carriage or train (depending on your upgrades). The fun part of the mission, though, is that you don't actually need units at all in order to make it through. You can simply build guard towers after you take notice of where the enemies attack, line up a pair of the eight cannons you're provided with near it, and then just tear down the enemies with the cannons. This is one of the first games I've played where artillery actually feels like it should: the stuff just bowls over enemies. It doesn't instantly kill all units, but for ranged infantry, a couple cannons can simply tear through a large formation (so long as you have some units to guard the very susceptible cannons). The physics in this game, as a whole, are actually quite amazing. I also really enjoy the very well-done balancing between units; it's one of the better implementations of a rock, paper, scissors system in combat (it's not quite that simple, but it works for a metaphor) which a lot of strategy games employ.

And, of course, Age of Empires 3's graphics are the best I've ever seen in an RTS. The animations leave a lot to be desired, but after playing Dawn of War I think any game would have difficulty following in its footsteps. The bloom in the game is… Interesting; in the screenshots of the game, I always think that it is really, really overdone. In-game, though, it makes the world seem really alive and any of the special-effects in any game which employ a screen-wide bloom always look far better in my eyes. The character and building models are also surprisingly detailed for an RTS.

In the end, I think that Age of Empires 3 got the short end of the stick in terms of its popularity. It, along with Dawn of War and Rise of Nations are the best RTSs that I have played since Warcraft III was released three and a half years ago. The overall gameplay, along with the campaign, graphics, and storyline, are really quite outstanding.

Once I finish up the campaign I'll give multiplayer a try and update this article with information on that along with the experience system and the "home cities" (which aren't given a fair shake in the campaign).

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