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Publisher: MacSoft    Genre: Strategy & War
Min OS X: Any Version

Age of Empires III
January 9, 2007 | Michael Phillips

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I'll be honest, I haven't truly loved a real-time strategy (RTS) game in quite some time. There have been a few that held my attention for a spell, but nothing that lasted long. None compelled me to keep playing, none topped the overall polish and grandeur of Blizzard Entertainment's WarCraft III. To me, WarCraft III is the high-water mark in modern RTS gaming. It had it all; lush visuals, solid gameplay, a good mix of units and strategies in which to use them, streamlined multiplayer support and an intriguingly fun single-player campaign. There are a few games since that have hit the mark here and there, much like a drunk chimp can do with an AK-47, or President Bush pronouncing multi-syllabic words, but none have consistently carried the weight of WarCraft III. I even began to accept the fact that I might have to await WarCraft IV, or even, perish the thought, StarCraft II, a game that only exists in our dreams. Thankfully, finally, somebody has firmly nailed the coffin on the idea that only Blizzard can throw down a genuinely all around fun RTS experience. I'm talking about Ensemble Studios and their latest offering, Age of Empires III (AoE3).

Developed by Ensemble Studios and published for Mac OS X courtesy of the crew at MacSoft, Age of Empires III brings Mac gamers everything they expect from previous Age games and possibly so much more. Read on as I outline what to expect from this RTS powerhouse.

Gameplay: How Am I Different?
At its core, Age of Empires III maintains the essence of its best-selling predecessors. Armies begin as simple men killing each other with bows and swords, only to advance to more efficient implements of war, such as cannons and rifles. Peasants gather resources, such as food and gold. All that was loved about the previous Age of titles remains intact, with a host of refinement and additions to make things even better. Among the host of new features not offered in past Age of incarnations we have a 24-mission, 3-act single-player campaign, a unique Home City feature, role-playing game (RPG) elements that work, adequate multiplayer support, 8 playable civilizations and stunning 3D visuals. That's right, no more 2D sprites in Age of Empires III.

First, let's delve into the game's single-player campaign. For those who have absolute faith in my opinion (I think there's 3 of you) and enjoy brevity, I offer three words regarding the campaign: It's Actually Fun. The campaign begins with the tale of Morgan Black and the Knights of Saint John. With his order on the brink of extinction, Morgan struggles to push the invading Ottomans from Malta. Through the course of battle Morgan discovers what could be a map pointing to the Lake of the Moon, a mysterious body of water that is said to contain the fountain of youth. The Knights of Saint John could never allow such a thing to fall into the hands of the Ottomans, or worse, The Circle. Existing only at the edges of reality, The Circle is said to have infiltrated all levels of society, making the world their decadent playground. With this in mind, Morgan and his knights board their tall ships and set sail for the new world and the possibility of eternal youth, or death at the hands of their enemies, known and unknown.

The campaign spans 24-missions, spread across 3-acts, each following a member of the Black family through history. For instance, act 2 centers on Morgan's grandson, John Black, and his struggles in the French and Indian War. The campaign's story is mainly told through nicely detailed in-engine cutscenes, with a full cinematic at the end of each act. I enjoyed AoE3's story quite a lot, definitely enough to keep saying, "Okay, just one more mission, then I'll write my review."

The missions themselves offer more than the usual RTS fare in several ways. Age of Empires III offers players various RPG elements that actually work in an RTS. The game is built around one's "Home City," which becomes more powerful as the player progresses. For instance, as the player kills enemy soldiers and razes enemy buildings, they gain experience points. As experience points are gained, the player earns shipmentes from the Home City. Shipments can range from simple resource crates to military reinforcements. As their city levels up, players unlock new shipment types to be available in later missions. Some shipments, like resource crates, may be called upon more than once, whereas deadly combat reinforcements must be used sparingly.

Furthermore, most campaign missions offer secondary objectives (think sidequests) that provide a bundle of extra experience points, but completion isn't required for overall victory. For example, one might have to free a group of imprisoned allies, or protect a nearby settlement from enemy attack. These secondary objectives add a certain level of depth and intrigue to the single-player campaign that I find enjoyable.

Age of Empires III also features a single-player Skirmish mode in which the player chooses a civilization, starts with a level one Home City and does battle to the death against AI controlled opponents. At the start of Skirmish mode, the player is asked to give their civilization's leader and Home City a name, this allows for said city's progress to be tracked throughout the player's Skirmish career. Thus, a player can found Berlin at level one, win 20 battles over a week of play and end with Berlin at level forty. Skirmish mode is an excellent to see all that a powerful Home City has to offer.


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