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E3 2005: An In Depth Look at Age of Empires III
game: E3 2005: An In Depth Look at Age of Empires III
posted by: Chris Martin
publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
developer: Ensemble
date posted: 12:00 AM Thu May 26th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Thu May 26th, 2005

Click to read.Microsoft Game Studios revitalized the real-time strategy genre with the original Age of Empires.  The series has consistently worked to push the genre in new and exciting directions.  After discussing gameplay mechanics and graphics with Ensemble Studios' artist David Cherry, there is little doubt in my mind that the third iteration of the series will be nothing short of genre defining.

First, the look of the game is what everyone is raving about, and for good reason; Age III's graphics are nothing short of amazing.  No, this game isn't running of the Half-Life 2 Source engine, but it looks as though it is.  David was flattered when we mentioned this, since the Source engine is apparently the new benchmark.  If that's what people are saying, then I think we've done our job,? said Cherry.  The truth of the graphics is, actually, that the engine is specially built.  The most amazing thing we saw (and there were many amazing things) were the cannonball physics (which Ensemble is rather pleased with); cannonballs will ricochet off the ground if the trajectory is too low, and bounce into and kill unsuspecting soldiers.  After the cannonballs stop, or are stopped, they will roll into divots in a realistic way.  When soldiers are killed by cannon fire, the physics engine takes control and flings them over cliffs, into buildings, or into other soldiers.  Though this rolling effect has little to do with gameplay, it's one of those cool touches we had to mention.

Also, we were shown a demonstration of how light dithering and layering work with clouds and mist.  Although there are no pictures of the effects at the moment, rest assured it will simply floor you when you see it.

Now, it's futile to attack buildings with soldiers.  They, literally, can only make scratches.  Thus, the newly balanced artillery units (the cannons mentioned earlier) are essential to an army.  Of course, there are plenty of ways to counter them (cavalry, charging soldiers, other cannons) so keeping them out of harms way is strategic in itself.  In the demo at E3, we saw cannons fall rather quickly and mercilessly to a small number of bayonet-fixed soldiers.

There are also candy? extras sprinkled throughout the maps to enhance gameplay and provide eye-candy.  One such candy? moment was a when we discovered a youth stuck in a tree, surrounded by wolves.  After we sent in some help, the youth departed and the relations with the locals became better.  Unfortunately, the programming that controls how the settlements and the local populations respond to one another had not been implemented at the time of E3.  However, you can expect to find similar "candy" moments throughout the game.

For infantry, there are a number of robust unit formations.  Volley Mode? allows the front line to absorb projectile damage while allowing both rows to fire back.  Cherry showed off the charge? mode, where his soldiers fixed bayonets and added speed while approaching the enemy.  Victory is very much dependent on the use of your army this time around, not only in countering and attacking, but knowing when to charge, defend, flank, and bring in artillery.

There are three resources in Age of Empires III, all of which have become standard for many real-time strategy games: gold, food, and wood.  Despite being victim to the RTS curse of need for resources, the game has distanced itself from the need of those resources in one drastic way: the new Home City feature.  Home City is a settlement's cultural roots; thus, the Home City is set up to reflect a chosen culture.  At any time during gameplay a player can jump right to his or her Home City and upgrade tech in a way similar to the RPG elements of Diablo 2.  These techs will actually carry over through the single player campaign and even through multiplayer.  Of course, if a new Home City is needed (say you just need one focused on ships) just create a new profile and start leveling up your Home City in the way you want.  Experience will be rewarded for defeating enemies online (and in the campaign) and then can be spent on reinforcements that can be utilized any time during the game.  By far, the Home City addition to Age III will be its standout innovation - disregarding the immense detail in the graphics, of course.  There will be, simply, thousands of different ways to play either alone or with a friend, since different Home Cities can support different types of strategy.

By following a much narrower part of history than Age I or II - effectively the colonization of the Americas 1500 to 1850 - Age of Empires III has its work cut out for it.  Unlike games that attempt to incorporate time spans of dozens of millennia, Age III will not suffer from balancing issues as civilizations span years.  Instead, it allows a much more focused and polished real-time strategy experience.

In the single player, Cherry told us, the game follows the exploits of one family instead of the reign of kings or the history of an empire.  The Black family, after traversing the Atlantic for the solace of the New World, find themselves struggling for safety in a harsh, foreign environment.  As the player follows the Black family through the years, a bond forms between the player and the characters - this is undoubtedly the result of a shorter timeline and seems, from what I saw, to work effectively to draw the player in.  The shorter timeline also allows for greater character development that has been solely the realm of Blizzard's Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.  This historical/fictional focus lends a documentary feel to the game - even though the Black family is fabricated, their actions are set in historical contexts.

Another important aspect of the gameplay are the balanced units.  Ships can no longer be mass produced like toilet paper; they are expensive behemoths that can dish out lots of damage, take lots of damage, and turn the tide of a siege in favor of those in charge.  Just for kicks, David Cherry let us see how they sink (is it strange that some of the coolest animations in this game are of things breaking and exploding?). Masts can break off during battles, sails can tear, and holes can be made in the hulls of ships.  As one test ship at E3 sank, the mast fell apart and planks realistically chipped off into the ocean as the hull dipped to its watery bed.

Age of Empires III is expected to release November 1, 2005.

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