Sep 29, 2011
Platform: Mac, Windows
Genre: Real-time Strategy
Release Date: 2005
Note: Sadly, the Complete Collection is available for Windows only. To get the full experience on Mac OS X, you have to buy the base game and expansions separately.
Once in a while, a game comes along and makes you so thoroughly glad to have spent your money on it that you wish there could have been more of it to buy. Age of Empires III and its two expansions — The WarChiefs and The Asian Dynasties – are like that for me. I loved the original game so much that I bought the expansions immediately when they came out. Unlike some expansions, which merely add more stuff to a game, The WarChiefs and The Asian Dynasties actually made the game better.
Age of Empires III (2005)
Age of Empires III was my first real-time strategy game. I understand that the game has received some criticism from Age of Empires II fans, so I should note that I never played the previous games in the series. Before AOEIII, I didn’t understand the point of RTS games and preferred turn-based strategy. Too much to micromanage, I thought. I liked to think about my move before giving the other guy his chance. As it turns out, you can do completely different things when designing a RTS game, and I had been missing out on a lot of fun.
The game begins in the New World during the Age of Discovery around the late 15th century and takes you through the Imperial Age around the Victorian era. During that time, you’ll see your civilization grow in technological prowess; you’ll start as a colony of hunters and gatherers with pikes and longbows for defense, and at the end you’ll see technologies such as artillery, steam locomotives and factory production begin to emerge.
To produce settlers and military units, build buildings and advance your civilization’s technology, you need plenty of resources, which you assign settlers to collect. The three primary resources are food, wood and coin. Wood comes primarily from trees spread around each map, while some alternative forms of production are available for food and coin. Settlers can get food from hunting or gathering at berry bushes — which are fast, but eventually run out — or from mills, which are slow but provide infinite food. You can also raise livestock, which cost food to produce and must be fattened before they yield maximum food. There are similar methods of production available for coin. This is one of the earliest strategic aspects you’ll encounter while playing; if you want to collect food and coin the fastest, you’ll have to send your settlers increasingly further away from your base of power, leaving them vulnerable to being picked off by the enemy.
The next tactical decision you’ll make is deciding when to age up. AOEIII allows you to advance from the Discovery Age to the Colonial Age, the Fortress Age, the Industrial Age and finally the Imperial Age. Advancing in age costs a massive amount of food and coin, and if you advance too soon without leaving resources to continue producing military units, you may leave yourself vulnerable to attack. However, advancing gives you access to new unit and building types as well as technological improvements that increase your resource gather rates and improve the strength of your military units. Advance too late, and no amount of military units will be able to defend you from an attack by a more advanced civilization.
Resource allocation and balancing your civilization’s production between settlers and military units are the keys to winning AOEIII. If you produce too few settlers, you won’t be able to save the massive resources that you need to age up, and your military will be weak in the late stages of the game. If you produce too few military, the enemy can rush your colony and win early. You’ll always have fewer resources than you’d like, because improvements become increasingly expensive as the game goes on.
The base AOEIII game gives you eight civilizations to choose from: the British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Russians, the Germans and the Ottomans. Although each civilization plays more or less the same, they have little differences that will affect your overall strategy. For example, you receive a free settler each time you build a house while playing as the British. The Germans get free cavalry units with most home city shipments, enabling them to quickly build up a large army on horseback. The Russians produce cheap, weak units in large batches to swarm the enemy. Every civilization has a few unique units and buildings.
Home city shipments are a new feature of AOEIII that was not present in previous Age of Empires games. Every time you produce a unit or building — or destroy something your enemy owns — you receive experience points. Each time you reach a certain number of experience points, depicted by a meter at the bottom of the screen, your home city — London, for example, if you play as the British — sends a shipment to your colony. Shipments include resources, military units and technological improvements, and they come in the form of a deck of cards that you select. At first, your deck can consist of up to 20 cards, but you can add a few more as you advance in experience points. After each game, your home city gains “levels” based on the number of experience points that you earned, and you can select a new card from the pool each time you gain a level. Although no single home city shipment is a game-changer on its own, some cards are available only after you have reached a high level. So, a person with a level 40 home city is at a bit of an advantage against a player who has just started.
Military units fall into three basic types: infantry, cavalry and artillery. Generally speaking, artillery units are strong against infantry and buildings, infantry units are strong against cavalry and cavalry units are strong against artillery. You can build units tailored specifically to defeat certain types of units, though. For example, the pikeman — an infantry unit — is strong against cavalry. This allows you to customize your military building strategy after learning what your opponent is producing. A balanced and varied army is generally strongest, and the most powerful units are often useless on their own. For example, a cannon is easily defeated with nothing protecting it.
With all of the variety and depth available in Age of Empires III, you could probably play for months without craving new content. However, unlike in many computer game series, the expansions actually make the game significantly better and I recommend purchasing and installing them right from the start. Each expansion adds new civilizations, maps and other goodies, and each one changes the game for the better.
Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs (2006)
The WarChiefs adds three Native American civilizations to the mix: the Iroquois, the Sioux and the Aztecs. It also adds a critical user interface feature that the original game lacked: the ability to send all of your military units anywhere on the map with a single button. This was a real challenge with the original game, because AOEIII – and both of its expansions — only allow to manually select and command up to 50 units at a time. The Native American civilizations have a new unique building called the Fire Pit, which you can task up to 25 settlers to. Settlers at the Fire Pit perform dances that enhance various aspects of your civilization, such as your experience trickle rate, unit production rate or attack damage.
Beginning with The WarChiefs, AOEIII also has an additional way in which you can win the game: the Trade Monopoly. Every map has a certain number of spots where you can build trading posts. If the posts are along a trade route, they periodically provide experience or resources. In addition, maps may have Native American settlements that you can trade with and receive military units or technological improvements in return. In The WarChiefs, these trading posts have an additional purpose: if you control more than half of them and have advanced your colony to the Industrial Age, you can initiate a Trade Monopoly. If you can control the trading posts for another five minutes after initiating the Trade Monopoly, you win the game.
The expansion also adds additional content for the original civilizations. Once you reach the Industrial Age, you now have two options: you can continue saving resources and advance to the Imperial Age, which costs 4,000 food and 4,000 coin, or you can revolt against your home country, which costs 1,000 each of food, wood and coin. While advancing to the Imperial Age gives you access to the game’s best technological improvements, revolting is cheaper and converts all of your settlers to a basic military unit called the Colonial Militia. In addition, it gives you access to gatling guns and ironclad ships. Revolting is a good way to create a powerful attack force quickly, but it essentially shuts down your economy, so you are almost certain to lose the game if the attack fails. It is usually best not to revolt if your opponent has already reached the Imperial Age.
Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties (2007)
The Asian Dynasties adds another three civilizations to the AOEIII mix — the Chinese, Japanese and Indians — along with a new resource called export that only the three new civilizations can produce. Unlike food, wood and coin, you cannot task settlers to produce export. Instead, the export resource ticks up as you collect the other three resources. You can increase your export rate by gathering more resources, or by adjusting the percentage of goods that you export through your consulate building.
Each Asian civilization can build a consulate and use it to ally with one of a few different European civilizations. When you ally with a civilization, you receive a small bonus. For example, allying with the British gives your units increased hit points, while allying with the Russians decreases your settler training time. You can also spend your export points to build a few of your ally’s buildings and units. Anything that you build remains in your control even after changing allies, so it can sometimes be advantageous to switch your allegiance during a game.
Asian civilizations also age up by building wonders rather than through the town center. The more settlers you task to building the wonder, the faster it is completed, once completed, a wonder may give you a special ability or produce something. For example, the Chinese civilization has a wonder that produces the Flying Crow, an artillery unit that shoots rockets. Another wonder heals all military units — but the ability can only be used once every few minutes. To make up for the fact that you have to use settlers to build wonders, you can continue training new settlers at the town center while aging up — something the other civilizations can’t do.
Although AOEIII could have easily worked with another expansion, the series moved to an online-only format with the release of Age of Empires Online in 2011. Like so many of today’s games, it uses the free-to-play business model and earns income through the purchasing of add-on packs. I haven’t played the online game; in comparison to the uniformly excellent graphics of Age of Empires III – which still look great after six years — Age of Empires Online looks a bit cartoony.