To paraphrase The Who, meet the New World, same as the Old World.
Of course, it doesn’t look the same. Three years on from the stunning Age of Mythology, Ensemble have once again raised the bar for strategy game visuals. Age of Empires III is beautiful to look at. Attractive in still screenshots, in motion it’s really something else. Just look at the gorgeous, shimmering water, the rugged contours of that unexplored landscape. Admire the detailed, brilliantly animated units, the settlers chopping trees, planting crops or hunting deer, the way that buildings splinter and shatter when they receive one cannon ball too many. Zoom in and check out the detail – the jumping fish, the wildlife, the smoke, the vegetation. Watch ships gliding along a channel between two tropical islands. Few games, full stop, have looked this good.
And on first impressions, the game underneath has undergone a transformation. It’s still an RTS, it’s still concerned with the old themes of base building, resource gathering and enemy crushing, but those themes have taken something of a twist. Firstly, like Age of Mythology, AoE III takes a story-based approach to the main single-player campaign. Tracking a family saga across three acts, taking in different historical eras and running from Malta through the Caribbean before settling down in the Americas, it gives you more than just conquest for motivation, with characters, cut-scenes and some nifty spots of conspiracy and betrayal to get your teeth into.
Secondly, the AoE III exploits its “European powers in the new world” theme by maintaining strong links between your colonizing forces and the homeland. In fact, the game’s biggest innovation is a new Home City screen, which will differ according to your chosen civilization: Spanish, British, French, Portuguese, Russian, Ottoman, German or Dutch. During campaign missions, single player skirmishes or even multi-player games, players can request shipments from their home cities, containing resources, troops, bonus abilities, and that general sort of thing. This is of enormous assistance, particularly when you need some help to shore up your defences in a hurry, or turn the tide of battle in your favour.
In return, victories won in the new world mean upgrades for the Home City, adding new shipping options to your selection. If you fancy, you can even make cosmetic changes to your city, transforming the look of buildings or choosing characters to bustle around in the background. Now, the Home City isn’t quite the killer feature Ensemble seem to think it is – it’s more a cool feature than a reason to keep playing – but it both ties the game together and gives you good reason to really get to grips with your choice of civilization. Naturally, this in itself has a downside: it practically discourages you from taking other civilizations for a spin, which when each has a slightly different flavour and different units and capabilities to enjoy, would be a shame.