You see, the problems run deeper than not taking this tired genre somewhere new, in that Age of Empires III doesn’t fix many of the existing problems that have dogged the RTS since its inception. Resource management has been streamlined and it works a million times more effectively than in some RTS games I can mention, but it’s still a chore to have to reassign jobs to idle settlers when they run out of turkeys to slaughter or trees to cut down. Don’t these plucky pioneers have minds of their own? And what about the troops? They’ll still happily stand around in the centre of your colony, possibly discussing last night’s dinner or the girls back home, while an enemy force is busy torching vital buildings to the south, all within sight and hearing. Come on chaps, use your initiative!
Actually, troop behaviour is a real bugbear all round, because it’s almost impossible to apply any sort of form or discipline to your units. Yes, in time-honoured fashion you can group units together, assign those groups to hotkeys and try and coordinate attacking forces or defensive lines that way, but in practice these guys either want to do nothing, or they want to steam in and wreck everyone and everything. As a result, every battle, no matter how big, degrades into a mob scuffle. It’s peculiar – the game clearly has a huge variety of troop types and some kind of regard for movement speed and terrain, yet there still seems precious little room for real combat strategy. The guy with more and bigger guns – or at least the resources to get more guns to the frontline if he needs to – wins every time. Something tells me that they won’t be using AoE III for the next series of Time Commanders.
Now I don’t want to do Ensemble’s latest down too much. It’s still a slick, enjoyable, lengthy RTS with a huge range of units to try out, a clear, player-friendly interface and a respectable learning curve. And it is really, really lovely to look at. That’s a lot more than you can say for, say, Alexander or Empire Earth II. But that is all you can say about it. The shame of it is that we thought it would take us on a journey of discovery, but instead we’ve just found a nicer looking version of the same old lands we’ve conquered so many times before.