Age of Empires III is the first true follow-up to Age of Empires II, after developers Ensemble Studios had taken a fairly lengthy vacation from the series to work on the Age of Mythology spin-off and its expansion. While AOE III stays true to its roots in some respects and has changed significantly in others, it still represents an RTS done well, and is helped by some stunning presentation and lasting value.
AOE III moves the series forward a few hundred years to a colonial setting. The major European nations are battling it out over the New World, with the conflict taking place over five ages, culminating in the industrial age and all that goes with it (the first locomotives, mass production etc). While each age offers improvements, the step from one to the next isn't as drastic or as notable as in previous games. Right from the start you have gun powder and even your settlers can use guns to hunt. Still, moving through the ages is a vital part to the game.
Eight European civilizations all want a piece of the New World, with the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Russians, the Portuguese, the Germans, and the Ottomans all involved in the conflict. A few others will make short appearances and Native Americans can be allied with and used to bolster armies. Each civilisation has its differences in terms of economy and military. For example, the British gain new workers when a house is built, the Russians can train light infantry quickly and the Ottomans have some of the biggest guns in the game. In truth, the differences aren't huge, but they are enough to be noticeable as you play through the campaign.
The single-player campaign is lengthy and set over three acts; each is a generation apart and connected to the last. Before you start you can take part in a very useful tutorial that will guide you through the basics of the game, teaching you how to set up colonies and gain resources. Early levels are pretty simple with your opposition not putting up much of a fight, but as you progress your enemy will increase in size, often taking up a number of locations on the map, making your task considerably more difficult.
Your goal is usually to wipe out the opposition, and this means everyone, not just all the buildings or the army - every last soul. You do have to go on search missions now and again, to look for treasures or important objects, but most objectives are to kill your opponents and to set up colonies. Managing your colony is very simple. After building a town centre your workers can build various other buildings, such as houses and barracks. You can only create men if you have enough houses to support them, so it's important to build up quite a large area of living quarters. You don't want to be left needing to make more soldiers, but can't because you're waiting for more houses to be built.
Early on while you're waiting for your workers to set up a basic settlement you can use your Explorer to uncover new land and set up trading posts with Native Americans. Your Explorer can't be killed, but if attacked he will fall to the ground injured. He'll only recover when friendly troops pass near him and on occasion will need to be ransomed back from the enemy. He can also be used to collect treasure and earn you experience points early on in the game.
Resource gathering has been simplified a lot in AOE III, with workers simply gathering meat, chopping trees or mining for money. Their work is instantly turned into resources, with no ferrying of resources from their source to gathering points. It makes things a lot more streamlined, but purists may dislike how this element has been dumbed down. Later on you can build a marketplace, mills and plantations which mean you can stop worrying about managing your workers. You'll have a constant supply of food and money, letting you concentrate on preparing for battle. Of course, your enemies will want to hamper your preparations by destroying your buildings, but this is where solid defences, such as walls, are vital.
As you move through the ages more advanced infantry become available and you gain access to more powerful weapons such as cannons. Combat is very enjoyable and you can storm in with a screen full of soldiers. Things do become a little confusing when your men are going at it with an equal number of enemies, but the game does its best to keep you in control. You can assign men to groups using a few keyboard presses and even take command of multiple groups at a time. If you're going to be victorious on the higher difficulties careful management is key, so setting up groupings prior to leaving your settlement is a very good idea.
Battles take place on land and at sea, but the AI often fares much better on land. You're rarely troubled as you cross to another island with a boat full of men, but you are occasionally shocked as a flaming boat rams into your ship, smashing it to smithereens and sending your men to an unpleasant and costly watery grave. It's never too much hassle to rebuild your armies though, as long as you've got a solid economy. You can even call for shipments of men, resources and heavy weapons from your Home Town - a town on your own soil, not on the game map. Once you reach certain levels of experience points you can switch to view your Home Town and see what it has to offer. As you move through the ages the available shipments increase and you gain some customisation options, allowing you to choose what shipments are available and change the basic look of the town.
Multiplayer over LAN or online for eight players is great fun for anyone looking for something more challenging than the single-player campaign. The game plays as it does during the campaign, but it's marred by victory conditions. You must wipe out every last enemy before you can be declared the winner. It's a ridiculous rule that is abused by the more selfish players and often stretches games far past the time they should have concluded, pushing your patience to its limit.
If you're up on your military formations you might be a little displeased by the way troops break formation and tend to fight without using their strengths, but it's really only nitpicking. From the point of view of someone who has no idea about military tactics the game looks great. Hundreds of soldiers fight it out, buildings are torched, ships blow holes in defensive walls and the more powerful weapons send men flying in all directions. The water looks particularly stunning and makes naval combat all the more enjoyable. Things do become choppy when a lot is going on, but it's never too bad, and detail can be toned down if need be. The audio is superb too, with some great sound effects and an excellent score.
Age of Empires III is a beautiful and exceedingly competent RTS. It doesn't really do anything to take the genre into a new direction or to differentiate itself too much from its predecessors, but both newcomers to the genre and RTS veterans are unlikely to be disappointed by what it offers. The multiplayer mode is likely to entertain well beyond the campaign and will no doubt keep you busy until the inevitable expansion.