31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Very Fun... But Doesn't Last,
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This review is from: Age of Empires III: Complete Collection - PC (CD-ROM)
For some reason, I never had my expectations set very high when it came to this game, and so, I held out on buying it until recently, when I noticed I could get this complete collection at such a great price. Perhaps it was because of the industrialization- something I detest whenever it somehow sneaks into a fantasy RPG which I often play. Maybe it was just because the formula for the Age series was already done, done again, then done again after that. Or most likely, I have always been terrible at real-time strategy games and found them frustrating, but fun at the same time. I guess I wanted something new, but still wanted something I knew I'd have fun with.
And I did get that. When I first started, I was very pleased at a lot of the new features that added more depth to the Age series' formula. The game is largely played in the same way as previous Age games, but with more depth and strategy. While a lot tend to compare it to Age of Empires 2, this game has most in common with Age of Mythology. You choose sides when you advance in age, create more special units based on your civilization, focus more on bonuses and units, etc. My favorite new addition was the home city shipment system, which allows you to choose units, upgrades, etc. to be sent to your town center throughout the round. You must choose which shipments will be available before each round starts, so there is careful planning involved before the game actually starts. This is mostly emphasized in skirmish and multi-player modes instead of campaign, but after the game starts is where the focus of the campaign should be anyway.
The game's main campaign series follows the Black family, starting with Morgan Black, set in around the 16th or 17th century (can't remember exactly). This part of the campaign was the most fun for me, simply because the story felt more like a medieval fantasy, chasing after the legendary "fountain of youth". However, my favorite mission was the one where you only have a set amount of units and have to move them through a dangerous mountain pass in the Andes (can't remember which one that was either, but I think it was the third act). In the War Chiefs expansion campaign, you continue to follow the Black family's adventures, including fighting in the American Revolution. The Asian Dynasties campaigns stray from the Blacks and follow three different Asian rulers, first Japan, then China, then India. There are many campaign scenarios to keep you occupied for a long time, or a very long time if you play like I do (poorly).
But then, there is skirmish mode, which allows you to play, practice, have fun in any way you want. I had to use this repeatedly just to get the hang of the game all over again, so that I could complete the campaign on "moderate" mode instead of "easy." But eventually, I gave up on that, and I just wanted the campaign to be over because skirmish mode can be much more interesting than the campaign anyway. One of the main reasons is the large number of maps to choose from, all with nicely detailed environments that are a huge improvement over the previous Age of Mythology. Another is the fact that you can choose any civilization you want, which means you will be able to choose from many different home city shipment sets, provided you have enough experience points from winning skirmish battles.
All that said about skirmish mode also applies to online multi-player, which is basically skirmishing against other players as well as computers, if you so choose. I tried it only once, but once I got stomped within ten minutes, I decided it wasn't worth practicing to join the ranks. But for those who are competitive, it's there for you. Online mode also allows players to share, duke it out, work together, or just screw around on custom player-made scenarios. Whether you go online or not, custom scenarios are fun to create and play on, and it's good to see this feature return again. I have only glanced at it, but if it's anything like the previous scenario builders, it should be great.
All that being said, once you try just about everything the game has to offer once, it is hardly worth doing it all again. The game's newfound depth is undermined by the fact that battling is extremely unbalanced. Does it break the game? No, I don't think so. It's still fun to battle, but when you play computer players, there is a surefire route to defeat them no matter what map you play, what difficulty they are set to, or what you choose to be in the beginning. The strategy is all the same because combat is unbalanced to where units' offensive power is overpowered, no matter what type they are. All you need to do is hold off your town with the best units you can create for a small amount of time until you have a larger army of your own, and this army can be of anything. Need to break into your enemy's town and raze his town center? 50 archers should do the trick. Seriously.
I don't mind the realism in other areas- gunshots are supposed to be harmful, but units can die so quickly, it becomes a game of quick numbers instead of battle strategy. Of course, that's only if they're not going against defensive buildings. In Age of Empires 2, the castle was a valuable defense. In Age of Mythology, they weakened buildings quite badly, making the forts easily destroyable, and this game continued that idea, which I believe is a bit of a flub. Not only that, you are severely limited on how many defensive buildings you can create. Most teams are only allowed ONE fortress and some (around seven or so) watch towers. Natives are allowed a slightly larger set number of war huts, which provide the same (but weaker) defensive function, but Asians are only allowed a measly five castles, which are not even close to the grand, powerful castles of Age of Empires 2, instead being as functional as obese watch towers.
Perhaps part of the reasoning behind these otherwise arbitrary limits is the fact that maps are TINY. I thought the game was about EXPLORING THE NEW WORLD? This, this was my biggest peeve with the game, that the maps are so cramped, you can sometimes see your enemies' buildings just by using your own buildings' line of sight. This should not happen. Even what they call the "large" maps are not large at all, for they feel like only a quarter of the size of the "giant" map setting on Age of Empires 2. Not only that, you cannot choose the size of your map in skirmish mode- "large" maps are preset only for a few certain regions, which is a shame because many of the other maps are beautifully rendered and deserve more glory (especially northwest territory, Honshu and the lovely turkey day-themed Plymouth). I know this is mainly a strategy game, but the map size limits strategy as well. Want to make a larger town that encompasses a few trade posts? Nope, "You cannot build too close to an enemy's first town center." The radius of that restriction would be fair if it didn't ban you from a third of the map. Wanna build two different towns on the same map to use a two-pronged attack technique? Why bother? Unless you play on a "large" map, your towns will be so close together, it will still basically be one town. The maps' size hurts the campaign drastically as well. The mission I mentioned where you fight mother nature through the blizzardy Andes mountain maze is fun, but so short just because of how small the map is. It's almost as if the developers wanted to limit themselves. Too many campaign maps are so claustrophobia-inducing, forcing you to cram your city into a corner (figuratively, since the maps are circles) or otherwise risk exposing your buildings to the multiple different directions your enemies can attack from. For an obsessive town-builder like me, this is a nightmare on almost every mission. But that's not all. If you have allies, the game clumps you right next to each other. Now, on a small map, that literally means "right next to each other". This is very annoying, especially if you are playing as the Japanese, who use animals to gather at shrines to generate resources. Your teammates will constantly try to hunt these animals, but can't because the game won't let them, and their angry mobs of hunter villagers will stand around in your town for pretty much the rest of the game unless you destroy your shrine and let them hunt.
Other things annoyed me about the maps other than the size too. Whenever the game pits your town center close to a trade route, you can't manually put a wall/gate over it, leaving a big gap for enemies to march right into your town. If you don't want to deal with this, you are forced to choose one side of the route of the other.
The edges of the map are still represented by a black abyss. I don't see why there can't be an endless sea, perhaps one with ravaging waves, raging river rapids, or waterfalls to prevent you from entering. Or why not surround the land ares with cliffs, never-ending forests, or something like that. The black abyss needs to go; it's outdated, unattractive and disengaging once you learn you can construct buildings that float halfway over this dark nothing.
When the cliffs do get high, it starts to feel very awkward trying to move around when there are varying heights. I don't know what causes this- maybe it's just me.
The maps didn't have to be exclusive to the Americas and Asia. Why not let us fight each other in the Mediterranean, Greenland, South Africa, Australia, Oceania (this one would be fun!), etc., at least in skirmishes?
(Potential Spoilers)As for the campaign, the antagonists (Circle of Ossus) seemed to shrink in relevance and (potential) power as the game progresses, which made the story quite disengaging. By the time the original campaign was nearing the end, the Circle was hardly an overpowered Frenchman, a round-up of mercenaries, boneguard (their knights) and a few forts, hardly anything compared to the power they held in the first act. It also didn't help that the characters were quite flat, none of them interesting enough to care about except for Morgan Black, who was the only one I felt sorry for in the end. The War Chiefs campaign is even worse since it's hardly about War Chiefs at all. Instead, it follows the American Revolution first, which was pretty fun on some missions. The second act is an awful cliché that has been done over and over again, berating the "evil industrialist" obsessed with looting gold who ends up betraying the main character's intentions just to get his hands on more bullion. I couldn't go on with the Asian campaigns after this tripe, but I read that they are much better, so I'll probably get to them soon enough. (end spoilers)
I do, however, have to give a huge thumbs-up to the sound effects and music departments. I don't normally pay much attention to these, but they shine very well in this game. The voices, on the other hand, are typical for the series, unintelligible spurts of wat whenever you give them commands, and there are a lot more varieties of them, just enough to keep me from turning the voice volume off completely. Some sound really forced, but at least they do sound like foreign languages. Even worse are the lines of voice acting, which often sound like fake-accented lines read from a teleprompter at the White House (the only difference is the characters in the game speak sense). The adventurous music is great, and makes up for the lack of adventurous content, but only a little because you will notice that the music loops many times per game. The sounds are great too, and it's especially neat to hear the echoing sounds when a cannon fires off-screen. There are annoying sounds too, such as an annoying clicking/cricket noise that happens over and over during gameplay, and I can't seem to figure out what the heck it is. Also, the alarm noise when you are getting attacked by the enemy is no different than the one when you're getting attacked by an animal. This was different in Age of Mythology, and I wish they had kept it.
Overall, I was really glad to see that the game was not simplified, which seems to be the trend for other modern game series'. I would not mind to see even more variety and complexity, but when it comes to RTS games as well as RPG's, they MUST be balanced, or else the game's replay value drops dramatically. I would personally NOT recommend this game to people new to the series. Instead, I'd say to start with Age of Mythology, which is much more balanced and much easier to grasp, or Age of Empires 2 if they are looking for a tougher challenge. But all of this doesn't mean the third Empires is not worth getting. I may have sounded ranty (I was tired, I admit), but I truly did enjoy this game, and you will too if you like these kind of games. It just does not have the lasting value that Age of Empires 2 or Age of Mythology had.
IMPORTANT: Just remember that when you do play this version, use the Asian Dynasties disc ONLY to play. If you start a campaign while using the other discs, you cannot load it on the other versions, and you will have to restart.