Age of Empires III- Viva la evolution!

Just back from a session of AOE III at SS2. But first, some first takes on this title…
Jaded. Tired. Other adjectives failed me when the first shrink transparent wrap around the dull package that comes with AOE III  presented itself. Another RTS? Who needs another RTS? It’s gone to a point of being a milk and cash cow for some game comps making a quick financial boost to their coffers. And with the title screaming AOE III from Microsoft, the most maligned company as far as software is concerned, I was prepared to give it a usual miss.
On the other hand, I’m not such a bad sport. Back in 2001, there was ‘Cossacks- European Wars’ from CDV, an unknown vehicle from Germany. I looked at the ant-like graphics at the cover and my heart did calisthenics. If this does not give my eyes a severe hit on the contact lenses’ power, it’ll be another hole burned on expenses to garner a new pair. Still, one to try, I installed it, played it and fell madly in love with the title. It’s got howitzers, mortars, musketeers and the like all in one package and there were the Russian strelets (streltsy). Add to that a comprehensive and complete history lesson book on HTML and I was sold and hooked on it for months.
Okay, back to this new toy. Further back in late 1997, Microsoft released the pioneer copy of AOE. It was stupid to say the least. Population cap is like telling you ‘Boys, I know you’re good, but don’t play too rough or kids may cry back to their ugly mothers’. Sissies do exist in abundance, believe you me. And what’s worse? If you forgot to upgrade some weapons or some tech before you decide to herald in a new era of timeline, you’re stuck with the mediocre upgrade for the rest of the game session. OK, it wasn’t that all bad. The naval battles can be pretty realistic and somewhat balanced. Think Red Alert to get the picture.
There were several civilizations to choose from but I can’t tell the heck of a difference amongst all of them, so I won’t try to bother. There are things that may warrant a closer look but not this one.

So, imagine when I decided to forgo AOE II and then AOE III was looking doe-eyed at me, ready to be putty in my arms. Right, why not? If it’s bad, just dump it like a sack of deadwood. At least, it’s still a war game and war games are somewhat true barometers of a person’s guts and determination and not the new species of male walking pussies in the world today.
What first impresses me was the fact that a mediocre system can actually run the game. The installer was huge and came in DVD format, and after all the Direct X installations were done, the game mechanics did some diags on my meager notebook and informed that the new game require at least a stronger processor than I already have. Well, what is there to fear? In games, indulge me- but video card memory, physical RAM and not processor will matter much in performance. The processor speeds up the data processing in the initial stages but after the game on time, all RAMs will take center-stage. Simple rule of thumb- games up to this time of writing still accepts 64MB video ram and 512 MB of physical RAM. You may need not know of other technical stuff but as long as it’s not a first person shooter (FPS), bet on it that it can run on your ancient notebook or electric warhorse.
8 civilizations this time round. The Germans, Spanish, English, Turks, Portuguese, Dutch, Russians and the French make a limited cozy company but they are sufficiently different to make you feel that there IS a difference in this game. First off…the title menu. You’ll see Seville definitely and then comes the option to change the home city. Now this is where the fun begins.
Home cities deliver cargo vital to your conquest of the New World as many of your expoits are in Americas. AOE III has tailored the game mechanics to a point that all civilizations rely somewhere on home city deliveries. They’ll pull fat from the fire when times get really rough.
Another plus point is where trade routes are placed strategically on the tactical map. They give loads of XP for your home city. More XPs meant that your home city is gaining prestige and huzzahs from the populace. This allows you to buy new cards from a predesignated set of cards you’re going to send to the New World and tailor them as you see fit.
But the game itself is engaging from the outset. The AI is incredibly skilful and aggressive. Since no military units may be built before the Colonial era, the race is on to collect as much treasures as possible with your explorer. When in a MP session with friends, this can get a little messy as to who has rightful claims to the loot when resources are lean and hard to get by. When the AI does reach the Colonial age, it is just a matter of 2 or so minutes before they come probing your defenses. When they do catch you buck naked, they just know the art of humiliating you further for being so slow. Ditto for Starcraft yea? But funny thing is, it was done so realistically that you have even the time to evac the whole base and set up camp on you allies’ turf. We did that so many times that simply giving up the game is never in our agenda.
AOE III’s gfx are quite awesome. Roof tiles and bricks splatter off structures as soldiers torch them. Puny troops fly off mountain tops if a cannon ball drills right through the infantry ranks. Tracer fire hits at enemies with grim accuracy while XP counters rings all round.
But you sure have to look at the artillery at its best. Howitzers, field guns and culverins sounds frightening and defeaning on a reasonably high volume. One of my human allies used a Great Bombard as the Turkish janissaries complement force and the utter destruction of enemy troops brings a great feeling of satisfaction.
At the end of the skirmish, if you’ve done enough to gain a level for your home city, you may choose new cards for your existing deck.
I may be gushing with enthusiasm at this new installment but it lents itself keenly to ready-made flaws. First, the population cap of 200 is still laughable. Why 200 units on the field? Can’t it take more? I’m pretty darn sure that Napoleonic Wars engage far more troops on the hallowed battlefields in Europe than all the units in a single game session combine. That’s why this franchise still lacks behind ‘Cossacks’.
Next, why on earth are the buildings and units of most of the Western Europe forces are strikingly similar. This is playing ‘curi ayam’ in terms of game programming. All uniforms of the European theater wear distinctly different uniforms. The only way to differentiate is to look at the units in different colors but then, the admiration is gone. They may as well use chess markers or checker tokens in place of the poorly drawn crude models. Shameless.
If the thought of choosing new cards to enhance your conquest sounds fantastic, you may be pleased to also know that one civilization does not differ very much from another. Very likely one card for one country is also present for another in the same hierarchy. I know, I know…this is in the spirit of balanced gameplay but this is also lazy work for the game designers. C’mon, one bit of variable here and there does not sway the gameplay that much. Add that to the fact that certain musketeers or rifle units of some countries are curiously poor, that does not tip the balance of the equation to one of unfairness. Church upgrades of certain countries are suspiciously nothing more than a little modding on the present units with upgraded abilities and certain variables tweaked. Another shameless act of perverse handling of the game mechanics. Done to death…and boring!
Still, this game makes great MP sessions and may provoke post-battle forums over the mamak stall tables. Not many embrace this game readily. Can’t say I’d blame them. They are missing out battles where everything against the odds are thrown into the fray. Enemy AI taunts you continually. Their massive fortresses churn out troops like turning on the water faucet on higher difficulties. Enough to make a decent guy mad. Still, it’s good practice. For fierce fighting in RTS, this has never came that close in my personal ratings. A flawed product but still a beautiful one.  

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