PC Preview

Age of Empires III

Rob offers a glimpse of Ensemble's New World

Preset audio messages are a thing of occasional comedy genius when it comes to videogames. As much a highlight as any is Unreal Tournament's "Engage according to operational parameters." I mean, who in the heat of battle, is ever going to conform to such specifics as operational parameters?

So when Age of Empires introduced to me nearly 40 audio commands I felt a utopian sense of perverse pleasure descend upon me.

"Build a navy," a command that your AI ally will happily endorse even on land locked maps. Age of Empires III

"Raiding party!" chorused by a collection of irritating American accents and a term repeated over and over again by juvenile players just to add that extra level of annoyance. "A monk, I need a monk!" a comment delivered at just the right and entirely random moment can cajole even the most serious gamer into a hearty chuckle.

But the days of such archaic demands for monks, paladins and stone may be behind us. Age Of Empires, after a bit of a mythical backtrack, continues its relentless march towards the modern day with the colonial conflicts of the New World. And a more modern setting contextually will be aided by advancements in the world of videogame technology. Fixed isometric views and simple graphics have been consigned to the bin, while ultra-detailed scenery and rag doll physics are in. Essentially AOE III is going high profile on our asses, hopefully for all the right reasons.

You see, I worry about when games begin to take themselves seriously because of previous and popular success. AOE introduced us to a new breed of approachable strategy games, being more deep and complex than your Command and Conquers of the world, but still intuitive and briskly paced, unlike the strenuous demands of a Civilisation of Total War. The AOE universe exists upon three main principles: establish, expand and conquer. But now it seems the developers want to take AOE III to a new level. That's all very well if it works but will the purity of the franchise be compromised? It's time to do a bit of scrutinising. Age of Empires III

As mentioned previously, AOE III sets itself in the New World, where the Native Americans are just asking to be pillaged and the whole of Europe is fighting amongst each other for the rich and seemingly endless land. But while success in the New World will obviously give you an edge, of equal importance will be your home European city, which will represent one of the eight European powers you choose. The riches you gain in the New World can be ploughed back into your home city, which, in turn, enables access to special units and abilities (which you can hand pick depending on your style of play, whether it be an aggressive warmonger or a reactive defender) to ship over to your fledging overseas empire. It all sounds very RPGish and you’d be right because as you progress through the game your European city will grow in stature. Just imagine London levelling up from 'sprawling urban cesspool' to 'rat infested, traffic congested, high-rise, overpriced quagmire' and you can see where we're heading. As it stands there will be 24 single player missions and the RPG elements acquired within the game will be transferable to online matches too.

As well as the introduction of this external, progressional process, AOE III also hopes to supersede its own RTS benchmarks within the main game. Diplomacy will be introduced in the form of Native American tribes. If you keep them sweet they may assist you by helping to build your settlements or help disrupt enemy settlements with hit and run style attacks. Combat itself has undergone a massive overhaul too. Simply rushing enemy forces with what are perceived to be the most powerful units will no longer work as formations and specific troop orders may give smaller armies a significant edge.

And, lest we forget, the mid-teen centuries setting of AOE III will unavoidably and fundamentally change the way we play the game; the dominance of hand-to-hand combat may be replaced by long distance weapon engagements with muskets and, in particular, artillery pieces. The concern from my point of view in this respect is that long range skirmishing may detach us from the wonderful intimacy of the hack and slash combat we're so used to AOE games. And, of course, the more types of units there are, the more micromanagement we have to deal with. RTS games that suffer from excessive micromanagement can die a death. But let's not get too critical, developers Ensemble Studios have pretty much controlled the genre for nearly a decade so we’re putting own faith in good hands. Age of Empires III

Although we as gamers should try to avoid being coaxed in by graphical beauty as a defining aspect, you can't help but appreciate how stunning AOE III looks. Apparently the lead programmer's remit to the team was simply: make AOE III the best looking game ever. The screenshots available so far would suggests they've just about achieved this. Details go as idiosyncratic as an independent wind system to make the trees sway in the breeze and a natural food chain where bears will shake trees to get to squirrels and scoff them. The water effects are mesmerising and the game boasts Pixel Shader 3 and bloom dynamic shadows – terms I won’t pretend to understand but sound nifty none the less. The home city portraits are in real time, giving you the option to customise their already astonishing appearance. How lower end PCs will cope with such flamboyant artwork is a mystery but the developers have insisted that AOE III is targeted at mainstream users.

While AOE III runs off a brutally mutated Age of Mythology engine, the online code has been rewritten from scratch but at this point its too early to say if and what changes have been made to that aspect of the game. Coupled with the major changes and introductions, many of the basics of AOE franchise are to be refined as well. Examples include less resource gathering (now there will be just wood, coin and food) and night-time levels. The bigger, bolder, better approach will also be adopted by the scale of the game; don't be surprised to find 300-400 units on screen at any given time - this is all well and good if the software and the hardware can handle it, but can we?

When it's released later this year, AOE III will sell by the bucket load irrespective of whether I continually undermine all the new, fancy and potentially fatal features. It's not that I'm bitter or anything like that, it's simply that I worry that Ensemble Studios are tinkering with the very essence of what makes AOE games so great: its approachableness. Still, I bet I end up being completely wrong. AOE III will be awesome and, secretly, I know it.

E3 Trailer