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SummaryNothing groundbreaking, but a solid game
The GoodThe best thing I can say about AoE3 is that it's very playable and polished. Many of the basic game concepts have been used plenty of times before, so it's not surprising they work well again this time around. For example, unlike Inderanta claims in his review, you STILL build barracks, stables and workshops to "build" infantry, cavalry and artillery units. You build houses to raise your unit limit, you build farms to increase your food income ... all not entirely new to the genre should know the drill. As in the predecessors, you still advance through the ages, and doing so grants you more powerful units and gives you access to upgrades and buildings (and more of the cards mentioned below).
However, some details have been changed compared to the previous games. For example you now have cards, a bit like in 7th Legion (but a lot less unbalancing). These are earned during the single player campaign or for gaining experience in skirmish or multiplayer matches. During the game, you gain XP in a number of ways, a small base income is granted automatically, then you gain more for killing enemy units and buildings, through trade routes (read below) etc. Every time you have amassed a certain amount of XP, you can play out a card, activating it's effect. There are a lot of cards with very varied effects, for example you can get resource shipments, troop reinforcements, unique buildings such as factories (allowing you to produce resources) and forts (forward bases with strong defense and a wide array of units available for recruitment), you can improve the rate your settlers gather certain resources, increase the stats of some of your units or even recruit powerful mercenaries (having to pay for them with shiny coin). Each of the nations in AoE3 has it's own set of cards from which you can choose, allowing for different tactics and granting each nation a certain degree of distinctiveness.
Then there are the natives. On most of the maps, one or more native tribes have villages. The player can build trading posts there, which forms an alliance with that village, allowing him to recruit a number of native units and research technologies, once again a unique set for each tribe. Native units don't add to the population, so having a lot of allied tribes can give a player quite an edge, even though native units are usually a bit weaker and a bit more expensive than ordinary units.
Additionally, there are trading post sites along trade routes. Claiming those grants a constant XP income, awarded in regular intervals when traders travel the route. Upgrading allows to gain resources instead and increases the frequency of income.
The BadQuite honestly, my biggest gripe with AoE3 is that it's from a line of "historical" games, but the single player campaign is based on a completely fictional story - which isn't very believable to start with. I mean, come on, a Knight of St. John following some Arab cult to the Americas only to find out there's yet ANOTHER cult, and that one is the one which is really bad, then having to chase that bad, bad cult through half of south and north America to stop them from finding the fountain of youth, doing things like fighting Russian soldiers in the grand canyon in the process... gimme a break. From what I recall, there were certain historical events during the colonization of America which could have been made into some interesting campaigns, so I fail to see why they had to pull such an abomination of a rabbit out of their hat.
There are treasure sites scattered across most maps, and I have to say almost all of them are really useless. The are usually guarded, often WELL GUARDED, by a number of hostile animals or rogue troops, and more often than not, you'll get something like 25 wood from them. A few offer interesting findings, for example some enhance stats of your explorer, but these are few and far between. Sure, you can ignore the sites altogether, but I deemed it worth mentioning.
Oh, and the explorer. It's some sort of hero unit, but of pretty limited use. He has some skills allowing him to kill animals with one shot (later even single enemy units) and can build trading posts (and later even town centers), but is pretty useless otherwise, at least IMO. He can be handy in the first few minutes of a game, but then can be parked in the backyard of one's base and forgotten about. I think it's safe to say the hero concept has been realized better by other games - for example the somewhat related AoM.
And then there's the AI. Let's just say it's not very bright. Ok, granted, most computer game AIs aren't, but it's really severe in AoE3. Most of the single player missions get around this by making heavy use of scripts, but in skirmish, you can't miss the flaws. For example, the AI doesn't build walls. Never. And it's really easy for players to confuse the AI by using walls himself. They can almost be channeled like water, and will only attack a wall on very rare occasions. Similarly, while the AI DOES build towers, they are usually not very well placed and a rare sight as well. The AI is also very ignorant in some ways. It's not uncommon it will cleverly amass a perfectly mixed assault force to effectively penetrate your defenses (analyzing defenses actually works well, to a degree) and then has the force march towards your base, past it's own farms, houses and town center - which are being reduced to ruins by YOUR assault force the very minute. That's right, the force will not lift a finger to defend it's own home unless you attack them first. Sometimes the force will reconsider somewhere on their way to your base, sometimes it won't ... and if you think the AI is actually being really clever planning to crush the player's base as the player crushes hers ... the forces are usually too weak to do this on their own, especially without further reinforcements. Additionally, it's not rare for the AI to simply cease and desist, without any obvious reason. It just won't build any more buildings and units, even if in perfect shape.
Some final thing I'd like to mention: I found the selection of maps for skirmish/multiplayer very bland. They are named after regions in America, like Texas, the Caribbean or Patagonia, and each sport a different mix of terrain, natives and trade routes, but despite being random per se, each generated map will be VERY similar to the last one in this region. For example, if some region for 2 players will have 2 trade routes, one north, one south, and 4 native tribes, and a canyon in the middle, and a lake in the east once, next time you play that region with the same amount of players, the map will likely have all those features again. You can download a couple of user maps to counter this, but this isn't a review of user maps, so ...
Speaking of user content ... there is no possibility to create custom campaigns, which I consider a stupid decision. Definitely takes away a lot possibilities for aspiring scenario designers.
The Bottom LineA few more things worth mentioning, but neither really positive nor really negative to me, personally. For example, a number of limits have been introduced to influence gameplay in a certain direction. Thus, you can now only build a limited amount of towers (7, I think), to stop players from turtleing in, I'd presume. Similarly, navies are severely limited, the most powerful ships allow less than a handful of them being in service at any time. So fleets of more than a dozen vessels are a rare sight. Also, workers never need to return to storage buildings again. They'll just stand there gathering wood or gold or food until they can't find any more of the resource. You could basically have your workers gather wood on the far side of the enemies base, and unless he discovered and actively attacked them, it wouldn't be a problem for you - they would act like the trees were standing next to your town center.
Now, for the real bottom line. I steered clear of AoE3 for a long time because I was skeptical whether I could enjoy the fictional campaign. And I found I was right, at least to a degree, when I finally picked up the game much later when it had hit the bargain bin. However, ignoring most mission briefings and ingame movies, it provided me with a fair amount of hours of good old RTS fun, with hero-centric missions being in a clear minority. After that, there's the skirmish mode, which - despite it's weaknesses - can provide a good amount of fun by encouraging you to play on for a good while by allowing you to unlock new cards with the XP you earn for each battle fought. And you can play the game online...
so, it's still an AoE game at it's heart. Some changes have been made, most of which I tried to outline above, and you should take these into consideration. Gameplay has shifted focus a bit, with melee units playing a minor role and masses of rifleman being the way to go instead, but I think that's quite historical. At bargain bin price, I don't think purchasing this game can be a mistake. And at the time of this writing, an expansion is in the works, who knows, maybe it'll relieve the game of some of it's flaws.
I mainly wrote this because Inderanta's review seemed a bit biased to me, and I wanted to present a more balanced review. I hope I succeeded.