Still, one thing has to be said. AoE III goes out of its way to hit you with differing objectives. The maps are littered with bonuses, which either your explorer – a hero character with upgradeable bonus characteristics – or your settlers can pick up. These are nearly always guarded, and in some campaign missions gathering these items becomes the primary objective of the game. In fact, it’s almost as if Ensemble is at pains to say that it’s not all just conquest this time around. In some missions, you may need to impress a pirate captain by building a reputation around Cuba. In another, you might need to find three navigational charts, or protect an Aztec temple.
And it’s here that my misgivings start creeping in. For the most part, these treasures and objectives are little more than window dressing. It’s nice to get the gold, the experience points, the additional resources, but hardly essential. What’s more, it actually lends the game a slightly silly touch. How long will those three jaguars surround that stranded native before one has the sense to climb the rock he’s clinging to? Months? Years? What about the two settler girls tied to stakes by pirates? Why does every broken-down wagon bearing treasure provide a perfect home for alligators, wolves, or another selection of fierce predators?
Worse, where these objectives are tied into completing the mission, they can actually be a pain. In one early mission I had destroyed every enemy unit and building on the map, and all that was holding me back was one lousy treasure cache, which for some reason wasn’t showing up on the mini-map. Half an hour of checking every section of every island for the missing item isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.
And once you take the alternative objectives and the Home city away, you’re stuck with – essentially – the same old historical RTS gameplay that you’ve already experienced a hundred times before. It looks great, it’s mostly good fun, but you can’t help feeling that you’ve already built this base, sent those units out to harvest, built the basic units and fortifications for defence, expanded and developed new bases, manufactured heavy units, then ganged up to trample the enemy and wipe their bases out. In fact, you’ve already done it in umpteen other games, and while it probably never looked as good, it was probably just as much fun, and sometimes more than that.