Age of Empires 3
Strategy games have neverm claimed to be at the forefront of the graphical revolution. While each new FPS strives to win an audience through blinding science, the RTS has traditionally preferred to wow with complex gameplay - until now. Ensemble Studios has just announced the return of a legend, and one of its major improvements is the all-new 3D engine, with dynamic shadows and lighting, support for Pixel Shader 3.0, and real-life physics, courtesy of the Havok system.
Divide And Conquer
The single-player campaign is stretched over 24 scenarios and A each one has been designed to be played through in about 40 minutes, so you're looking at around 16 hours total. Details are still extremely sketchy, but Ensemble has revealed that one of these will involve you stopping your opponent from travelling through the Rocky Mountains by blocking his path with rubble from explosive charges. It's a good indication of the impact the new physics capabilities are going to have on the game, beyond the obligatory ragdolls.
The game starts in the year 1500. Playing a Scottish settler called Morgan Black, your job is to conquer America through exploration, establishing trade routes, forging alliances with the 12 Native American tribes and building armies. The story takes you through to 1850, just before the Civil War, and traces the lineage of Mr Black, through cutscenes and in-game cinematics.
As well as a single-player skirmish, the full multiplayer game lets you select one of eight different European civilisations, including the French, Spanish and British. Each has different strengths and weaknesses, although rather than unfettered arrogance, Ensemble has decided to imbue the French with a powerful military and a better relationship with Native Americans. Go figure... You can win by crushing the enemy, but also by triggering other events, such as allying with four Native American tribes.
Playing At Home
The other major new feature that's been disclosed is the Home City. This is your base in Europe, which effectively levels up' as you progress through the game, providing you with new upgrades, and a visual representation of how you're faring. You can save a number of these Home Cities as characters (similar to a MMOG) and use the built-in matching system to find opponents online with a similar level of experience'.
Ensemble's buzzword though is fun'. In addition to playtesting to ensure the campaign is finely balanced, this is the excuse given for the no-show of the more distasteful elements of the time (slavery anyone?). The same goes for weather and day/night cycles, which will affect the way the game looks, but won't impact on gameplay. Keep an eye out for an in-depth preview soon.
"The Goal is to make the best fuc... game ever, says Ensemble technical director Dave Potty Mouth' Pottinger, before adding the caveat, in terms of graphics. Considering that he's talking about a real-time strategy game, this is a particularly bold statement. For so long considered the ugly red-haired stepchild of the gaming family, Ensemble has decided that it's time for the RTS to fight back. Traditionally hidden away in the back of magazines near the personal ads, the developer has set out to create a game so visually stunning as to command front covers. And while we haven't quite afforded it that privilege, we did deign to visit its studios in Dallas, in between eating our own weight in dead cow.
While conforming to the stereotype of pasty men surrounded by action figures, the Ensemble office differs in one key area, in so much as the lobby is designed to look like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, with designs taken directly from the Star Trek Hilton in Vegas. Depending on your viewpoint, this either makes Ensemble a real fun place to work" or deeply tragic.
The team seem happy enough though, and for the last two and a half years have been beavering away on Age Of Empires III, the latest incarnation of the classic strategy series. According to Ensemble lore, they were bucked into action by a magazine article claiming that the RTS is dead. As one of the pioneers of the genre, this was clearly perturbing, and so the team set about proving that rumours of its death were exaggerated. Following much internal discussion, the developer decided the way forward was to create a game as visually compelling as the likes of Half-Life 2 or Doom 3, while retaining the trademark Age Of Empires gameplay.
Taking on the first-person shooters on their own terms could be deemed madness, but Ensemble has gone about the task with fervour. Starting out with the engine from most recent release Age Of Mythology, a slew of programmers have been employed to improve the graphics, including one committed individual who's spent an entire year on the water effects. Throw in the Havok physics engine and the ability to support over 100 characters on screen simultaneously, and it appears that Ensemble means business.
We've seen it in action with our own bleary eyes, and despite reeling from a triple-whammy of jetlag, meat and hard liquor, have to admit to being impressed. The Ensemble team are pretty thrilled too, and during the presentation there were no less than ten mentions of the various levels of excitement, be it really excited, the occasional super-excited" and even a rogue uber-excited".
Their collective excitement is fair enough, and the game has to be seen to be appreciated. Whereas the average RTS could have been made any time in the last five years, AOE3 looks bang up-to-date, despite the historical setting.
We won't bore you with the technical details - mainly because we don't understand them - but suffice to say that it achieves some impressive levels of realism. The sun beats down, the shadows are in the right place and the water reflects and ripples like a year's worth of tweaking suggests. Moreover, there's a unified wind system, whereby everything reacts to the wind consistently, be it fluttering flags, billowing smoke, the aforementioned water or a discarded packet of cheese & onion crisps. With tiny graphical details such as a man in a tree being menaced by a bear, it's a particularly rich and vibrant place. As senior designer and Ensemble founder Bruce Shelley says, It's a world you want to be in, if not necessarily while stuck up a tree being pawed by a grizzly.
Or indeed on the receiving end of a 12lb cannon ball. The cannon units are the game's big showstoppers, wreaking damage on a scale almost unprecedented in the genre. This is where the Havok physics come into their own, creating a convincing depiction of the effects of being struck by a fast-moving metallic sphere. Fire a cannon into a group of artillery, and rather than slump to the ground in a three-frame animation, they're individually tossed into the air like ragdolls, with their hats going one way and their guns another, while the cannonball itself rolls around the map in a somewhat dangerous fashion.
The effect on buildings is equally impressive, with a dynamic destruction system that acknowledges that a cannonball doesn't necessarily set fire to anything it hits, in direct contradiction of Hollywood conventions. Instead of the ubiquitous fire animations, enormous chunks of masonry will be blown out of the targeted building, which eventually collapses under its own weight. And should it be on the edge of a cliff, it may well slide into the water below, causing the relevant ripples (well done that man). Plus, suffice to say, while you don't really need to, you can of course rotate the camera to provide the best view of the action.
Enough of the technicalities, what's it all about? The Age Of Empires series is renowned for basing the action in vaguely authentic historical settings, and the third outing continues the theme, with something of a twist.
Following directly on from Age Of Empires II: The Age Of Kings, the time span is approximately between 1500-1850, and the scenario is the European colonisation of the Americas. Playing as one of eight civilisations, this effectively involves leaving the sanctity of Europe behind, crossing the ocean to an undiscovered continent and setting up shop there. Covering a huge expanse of land, this has given the art team scope to go to town with the landscapes, covering such diverse terrains as plains full of bison, rainforests, the blue water of the Caribbean, the Colombia river on the North West coast, Patagonia in the South and even the scorched earth of Texas, give or take the odd steak place.
As history recounts, Europeans didn't discover America - it was already there, and inhabited by Native Americans who got something of a raw deal, what with the burning, raping and genocide. Perhaps wisely, Ensemble has decided not to reproduce these details, although the Native Americans haven't been airbrushed from history.
Indeed, some 12 authentic Native American civilisations appear in the game, and instead of butchering them, you can make alliances and use them to your advantage as they impart their knowledge of the New World. For instance, if you get pally with the Aztecs, they teach you how to make cotton armour, and even join in to kick the shit out of the Germans (or whoever). Having local civilisations also gives you reason to explore the map, as opposed to holing yourself up round your town centre and building up your army.
According to lead designer Greg Street: The Native Americans are strictly a strategy, not an opponent. This isn't a game about going to the New World and burning all the Native American towns. We realise that really happened and we're not denying it, but we just don't think it makes for a very fun experience to have a game that's based around conquering indigenous people. We think the Native Americans are cool and when we did focus groups early on with people in the US and in Europe, the fans were really excited about the Native Americans. They wanted to see them on the battlefield, they wanted to get to have Comanche horse archers or Aztecs as part of their army, so we wanted to make sure that Native Americans were a big part of the game. From a design standpoint, one way to think of the Native Americans is like plug-ins to your main tech tree.
We're not sure how Native Americans feel about being plug-ins to a tech tree, but experts in the field were consulted to ensure the authenticity of the various tribes. Furthermore, the relevant voices were recorded by genuine Native Americans, who were then taken outside and shot in the head (not really).
So if you're not killing Indians, who are you killing? Other Europeans, obviously, (including the Germans), who have similar designs on conquering the New World. You'd think an entire continent would provide enough to go round, but this wouldn't make for much of a game, and keeping the Germans (or whoever) off your patch is one of the key tenets of the Age Of Empires III experience.
Combat in RTS games has always been something of a contentious issue, often making a mockery of the strategy that it claims to represent. Ensemble is big enough to admit that its previous games have often been guilty of this, with combat reduced to what it officially refers to as a swirling mass of crap, whereby everyone simply steams into each other like a cartoon playground scrap, making a mockery of painstakingly building up a comprehensive army.
Doyens of the genre will be more than familiar with this concept, and may be pleased to learn that Ensemble is seeking to rectify the situation with AOE3. In fairness, other RTS games have promised this, but Ensemble is researching the area heavily and was happy to show off early prototypes of group-based combat.
Brave New World
Although far from finalised, Ensemble is currently playing with ideas whereby cavalry automatically arrange themselves into chevron formation, or infantry adopt a cover mode that makes them more resistant to artillery barrage. Furthermore, we were witness to a front row of musketeers kneeling down while the back row fired over their heads (not the other way round, that wouldn't work).
Ensemble's stated aim is that it wants to do for battle what Age Of Kings did for movement and formation. Whereas that game featured arguably more glamorous units, the focus in Age Of Empires III is on huge armies of professional soldiers who attempt to retain some kind of formation. The idea is to make the combat more movie-like, with cavalry charges and musketeers loading and firing in the heat of battle. Each unit features a host of animations, with cavalry horses rearing up on their hind legs, for instance. Troops will also react accordingly depending on the method of attack - being shot in the head with a musket is a markedly different to being hacked at with a tomahawk.
Moving On Up
What's more, the animations will alter depending on the situation: so at range, a musketeer will loose off a few shots, whereas closer in he'll stick the offending German (or whoever) with his bayonet, or even club him around the back of the neck with the stock. Ensemble is chuffed with the animation of the melee units, with a brace of swordsman stabbing, slashing and blocking as if in a real duel.
Although much of the combat can be automated, more hardcore tactical micro-management options for bedroom commanders will be included too, such as ordering your boys to fix bayonets and charge the artillery or defend cannons at all costs. Whereas the combat ideas looked feasible in the demo, the version we played still featured an amount of swirling crap. But with six months of development time left, we can only hope Ensemble gets it right for release.
Age Of Empires III is clearly a massive undertaking, as you'd expect from a game that seeks to span 350 years of civilisation. Kicking off at the end of the medieval era, the five ages will incorporate such milestones as the first European breaching of Americas, the French-Indian war and the inception of the industrial revolution, including the railroads, with trains able to transport your troops across the map.
As ever, Ensemble will play fast and loose with history". This doesn't mean it will deliberately get things wrong, but as Greg Street says: We use history as our setting. We try to work in historical detail where we can, but whenever history and gameplay collide, gameplay wins.
Besides, so much of so-called history is little more than idle speculation, and as far as we're concerned, if it hasn't been on TV (preferably in colour) then it probably never happened. As such, we're prepared to take Ensemble's version at face value, and won't be writing in to complain, unlike the Portuguese fan who's been barracking the company for years over the apparent misspelling of a unit type.
So we've covered the graphics, the physics, the setting, the combat... Orchestral score, anyone? Check. A detailed soundscape incorporating recordings of firearms and artillery from Gettysburg re-enactments? Correct.
A tri-generational arcing story in campaign mode interspersed with epic cinematics? Yep. We've even seen a bit of it, involving someone going on the trail of the Frenchman Beaumont, and something about the fountain of youth and lost Spanish gold in Florida. Not a clue.
It doesn't matter. Wfe've played it (honourably losing to a dishonest German), we liked it, we think you might too. As Potty Mouth Pottinger says: It's Age Of f*...Empires III - buy it!"
Safe European Home
Bring Glory To Your Capital City
In something of a departure for the genre, every civilisation in AOE3 will feature what Ensemble is calling a Home City' that exists away from the main game and can't be attacked. Typically the capital (although it can be renamed), this represents your home back in Europe, and in many ways can be perceived as analogous to a persistent RPG character. Success in the New World will be reflected back home, and your city can effectively level up with good old-fashioned experience points which you can gain in numerous ways, from winning a battle to killing a bear.
The benefits are tangible and you'll be able to send troops, settlers, wood, food, sheep and so on to the New World from the Home City without any drain on resources. Shipments become available intermittently and take about 20 seconds to arrive. Choosing what to send will have a large bearing on your strategy, giving you the opportunity to play aggressively for instance, by sending loads of troops early on, or to adopt a reactive tactic, by sending whatever resources you're lacking. As the city improves, bonuses are unlocked such as new units. Each geographically-themed city will also exist physically' as a singlescreened entity that changes over time. Teeming with people, the buildings can also be upgraded and you can even show off your creation to your online friends.
Download Age of Empires 3
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode