What comes to mind when you think of legendary RTS games? The Warcraft series would surely be on that list. The Command and Conquer series would most definitely be on that list. I personally liked the Kohan series. The Age of Empires series is definitely one of those RTS series that established itself early on, and helped shape the genre itself.

Age of Empires III takes off from where AoE: Age of Kings left off, but that was what, four or five years ago? The gap has been filled by another great series from Ensemble Studios, Age of Mythology. Both of these series have brought great happiness and gameplay to RTS gamers everywhere, and Age of Empires III doesn’t let any of that history down.

HDR lighting, dynamic shadows, realistic water effects, and pre-rendered in-game cinematics round out the graphics package in Age of Empires III (which will be referred to as “AoE III” for the rest of the article). Add to that the Havoc physics engine, and you get one hell of a game. Is this an FPS or RTS? You would think it was an FPS or RPG with all that graphical goodness. The original AoE raised the bar for cutting edge RTS graphics, and AoE III continues the tradition.

I was blown away, no pun intended, by the stunning way in which battles were carried out. The detail of the Musketeers firing and then reloading, and the realistic puffs of smoke as they fired again was simply amazing. The puffs of smoke from chimneys were just as realistic. The cannons recoiled when they fired, and the troops would jump up and down when they were victorious.

There are many animations to watch as your workers/villagers hunt their prey and obtain fresh meat, mining gold at a nearby deposit, or chopping wood from a local forest. On the military side, units will form firing lines and swap with each other while reloading. The Calvary looked really great as they galloped into battle. If an object like a tree or rock obscures any of your units they will turn a solid color so that you can see them more easily. The amount of detail put into this game was simply astonishing.

Shadows of birds would slide across the playing field, and if you looked out into the water you would see fish jumping in and out causing little splashes.

A new addition to AoE is the Home City, which was equally impressive. It acts as your home base, and the graphics looked more like a Hollywood movie set than a video game. There are many more animations to be seen here as well. The hustle and bustle of city life carries on before your very eyes.

The in-game cinematics round out the stunning graphics with movie quality brilliance. We were told that a farm of 15+ machines working all-night created these masterpieces. Ensemble spared nothing to make AoE III to be one of the best graphically designed RTSs ever.

All these graphics have a price tag however, and that’s a pretty beefy system in order to enjoy them. A system with a 3 GHz processor, a GB of RAM, and an ATi 9800, x800, x850, or GeForce 6800 video card is highly recommended.

The sound effects and musical score are equally as impressive as the graphics in AoE III. The background music sounded like a full orchestra was playing it. It reminded me of the Boston Pops on the 4th of July from when I lived back in Massachusetts. Each piece played in full grandeur during certain parts of the game. It definitely made you feel like you were playing an epic.

The sound effects were equally impressive. Cannon and mortar fire blasting down buildings or opposing troops could be heard as distinctly as the sound of muskets firing their volleys. The clanging of swords and bayonets can be heard as well, and it sounded like real metal on metal.

Many of the NPCs have their little anecdotes to let you know that they are going into action, or going off to work for you and in which capacity. Each civilization speaks with distinct accents to bring home the realism. The tutorial speech was crisp and clear as well. The attention to detail in the score and sound effects was the equal to the graphics.

There have been some reports regarding crashes with systems that have Creative Sound Blaster cards, but turning off the hardware acceleration will remedy the crashes if it happens to you. I use on-board sound and did not have any issues.

AoE III is still an RTS, and not much new here as the controls are typical of what you would find in most quality RTS games. But hey, why re-invent the wheel when what you have works well? This will be brief, as I want to save some room for the Gameplay section.

Ensemble requires all their employees to spend time play testing so the default shortcuts and hotkeys are pretty much all you need. Believe me they work out everything before it goes out the door. You can use “CTRL + letter” keys to quickly find your buildings and fields, and many of the punctuation keys are set to allow you to efficiently cycle through idle NPCs. The “ALT” key will allow you to check out the details of any unit. There are even keys set up to allow the quick creation of new buildings if you have a villager selected. The rest of the game control is a simple point and click procedure.

The UI is customizable and the robust ESO (Ensemble Studios Online) multi-player interface rivals what you would see in GameSpy Arcade or Battlefield 2.

Like I stated in the “Controls” section, AoE III is still a standard RTS under all the bells and whistles. You still manage resource gathering, build some buildings, gather more resources, create some troops, upgrade buildings and troops as you go, rinse, lather, and repeat. How they implemented all that with some new features is what makes AoE III a cut above the rest. You can choose to play as one of eight colonial powers like the British or Spanish, and the campaign mode follows three generations of the Scottish immigrant family, the Blacks.

I alluded to the concept of the “Home City” earlier, and it is one of the main strategic focuses you will have. Your Home City must be created at the beginning of the game and will act as your base of operation in Europe. Your Home City will help to feed your colonies supplies, troops and specialty items. As your games progress you will be alerted by a flashing flag that you can obtain resources from your Home City, and you can also choose which outpost they show up at. You also gain cards as you complete games that allow more strategic options later on. The Home City is also customizable and you could say that it is analogous to an RPG avatar you would create and customize for a Role Playing game. Your Home City also gains experience and levels throughout the games.

AoE III is about building relationships more than anything else. You can establish relationships with Native American settlements, which are permanent fixtures of the playing field and cannot be destroyed. Setting up outposts and trade centers are fundamental to building those relationships as well as establishing trade routes. Trading posts will provide valuable resources and experience and cannot be attacked.

Gathering resources couldn’t be easier as you just pick a villager and choose a resource you want them to collect. They will continue to do so until the resource is depleted. If they are hunting for example, they will kill the first deer you select, kill it, and then harvest the meat. They will go on their own to kill other deer in the immediate area until you tell them to stop, reassign them, or run out of deer.

You can also acquire special treasures that are guarded by bears or wolves. All you have to do is kill the beasts and send your Explorer or Settler in to collect the loot. Wagons will allow you to set up shop in the remote areas that you have discovered, and essentially are holding the materials to create the buildings.

The value would have been given a 100 if it had not been for the inability to play the multi-player through the ESO. It comes with the ability to auto-detect your network, but if you have a firewall or NAT running you are going to have severe difficulty. I had a review copy so I don’t know if the release version is any different. Turning my firewall off allowed the auto-detect function to work, but even after I opened up the ports on my router I could not get the multi-player to work.

This seems to be a very common issue with games that are published by Microsoft. I play many other games without having to touch a thing on my network, and I just don’t understand why a company like Microsoft would have these issues. I don’t want to sound like an MS basher because I really enjoy all their products, but I have to call a spade, a spade. If you have a direct connection with no firewall everything works fairly well.

Outside of my networking gripe, AoE III is well worth the price for the single player campaign alone. 24 missions will take you quite a bit of time to beat, especially if you increase the difficulty setting.

Age of Empires III is a phenomenally awesome RTS, and stays true to all the games before it. The blend of rich graphics, professional quality sound tracks, accurately molded environments and settings, and “kick your feet back and watch” cinematics make this game a real treat. Add to that the outstanding gameplay and you just can’t lose.

You may have some issues with playing multi-player, so get ready to start untangling wires and/or configuring your router to act as a switch, or just flat out playing on a unsecured network and you’ll be fine. Don’t let that get you down because your experience with the multi-player may differ from my experience, and like I stated earlier, the single player campaign is worth the $$ any day of the week.