In the broad strokes, Age of Empires III doesn’t deviate much from other real-time strategy games of the same era. Left-click to select units, right-click to move or attack, mini map and command buttons across the bottom of the screen.
The main new feature introduced in Age of Empires III is the home cities. They are off-map locations from which the player can request a limited number of supplies and reinforcements. Home cities are persistent across all matches. Players can spend experience points on cosmetic upgrades or unlocking new and better shipments to send to their colonies.
It’s an interesting mechanic that creates a sense of continuity from one skirmish game or multiplayer match to the next. However, its actual impact on gameplay is minimal. Some offer substantial perks. But most shipments are things like a few hundred units of raw materials or a squad of infantry. They’re nice to have, but not something I’d miss if they were gone. That’s a problem for the new feature supposed to set Age of Empires III apart from its predecessors.
There are far fewer civilizations than in the previous game. However, more effort has gone into making each one feel distinct. For example, Russia has a higher population cap than most other empires. Also, it trains infantry and cavalry in squads instead of individually. It focuses more on quantity over quality when it comes to individual units. Meanwhile, Spain has a broader range of non-gunpowder units. French workers are more expensive but gather resources faster and have a higher attack and defense. For the most part, Ensemble did a great job. However, some empires, like the Ottomans, suffer from overspecialization to the point of being difficult to play as.
Speaking of balance issues, rifle-equipped infantry have such a massive advantage over melee units as to render the latter next to useless. Even the elite Swiss mercenaries available only through home city shipments, tend to crumple up when faced with a line of musketeers. True, this is the reason people don’t still swordfight in real life, but what’s the point of having over one hundred distinct units if a quarter of them are virtually useless? This is especially apparent with the campaign-only Boneguard Swordsman unit, which is devastating in the early missions, where the player’s ability to train gunpowder units is restricted but become laughably ineffective once that handicap has been removed.
None of this is helped by the AI somehow being less intelligent than in the previous installment. While I understand that it’s challenging to program a computer to employ long term strategy, the AI fails to grasp simple concepts like using ships to move troops across bodies of water. More than once, I witnessed an AI player spawn on an island and just sit there training a vast army that they never get around to using, their ships sitting idle in the harbor. While the AI in Age of Empires has never been perfect, in previous games it was at least capable of moving its unit across the map.
Even if you strictly play Age of Empires for the multiplayer content, the third installment still offers a lot less variation in each match. While Age of Empires II featured a variety of skirmish and multiplayer modes with different victory conditions, Age of Empires III only has two. One is called Deathmatch and should be self-explanatory. The other is Supremacy, which allows victory either by conquest or by monopolizing trade routes. Diplomacy mechanics are also absent, removing another variable that contributed to the previous game’s replayability. While each session with Age of Empire II had the potential to feel like a unique experience, the same cannot be said for its sequel. It does not take all that long for Age of empire III to start feeling repetitive.
Single Player Missions
The one area where the game excels is in the single player campaign missions. I say the missions, not the campaign, since the most flattering thing one can say about the writing is that it gets the job done. This is the first game in the main series to feature an entirely fictional narrative. Having seen what the team at Ensemble came up with, I much prefer that they had stuck to historical reenactment. The missions, however, are mostly fun and nicely varied. While some play the same as any standard match, much more effort went into designing the maps, and when the game does shake things up, it does so in unexpected ways. It’s just too bad that some of the more inventive ideas, like hunting for maps, triggering landslides and surviving blizzards, didn’t make it into other areas of the game.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about changes made to the formula set by the previous game, and I think that speaks to the main problem with Age of Empire III. There are plenty of changes, but not much in the way of innovations. Home cities were the most prominent new idea, but they don’t feel like they matter all that much, and without them, the game has lost its unique selling point. Age of Empires III might be worth trying out if you’re desperate for an old school RTS. But Age of Empires II hasn’t gone anywhere, still has a large and active multiplayer community, and will probably hold your interest a lot longer.