Age of Empries III came out late last year to rather solid reviews, and here we are in the Fall of 2006 with the first expansion for the title, Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs.  This time, the focus shifts from the European powers to Native Americans, specifically the Iroquois, the Sioux and the Aztec nations.  The game also adds a number of features to multiplayer, as well as adding new cards for Home City usage and even a free reset for your Home City. 

Ensemble Studios and Microsoft Game Studios have some pretty big shoes to fill here with this expansion, so let’s see if they’re able to keep the standards high, or if their own empire is due to topple.

Note:  As with all PC games, your system means everything.  This game was reviewed on a machine with a Radeon 9800, 1 gig of ram, and an Athlon XP 2400+.

It’s obvious that time has been spent on the graphics for WarChiefs, and it shows, as the game definitely requires some solid processing and graphics power.  On my rather low-end machine, I was barely able to run the game solidly at 1024×768 which meant that I really had to drop it down to 800×600 to keep the game running smoothly. 

While the game requires good graphics power to display everything to full effect, at the lower settings some of the scenery was a bit blurred and lacking in detail.  The units and buildings were very well done, and there are a lot of background animations that help to make the game feel alive, including falling leaves, fish leaping in the streams and the like, but the trees themselves didn’t look that great, and some of the animals were pretty hard to pick out of the scenery, as were the various villiagers.

Cut scenes are done with the game engine, although they appear to be pre-rendered.  They’re zoomed in a bit more with a different camera angle, but the graphics look much the same as it does while playing.  As with Age of Empires III, the Home City (or in the case of the Native Americans, the Tribal Council) grows and evolves over time, and looks really nice.

The music in The WarChiefs is quite nice, although it’s not anything that’s going to have you trying to find a CD with the music.  The music is a mix of stirring martial melodies, dramatic pieces and a number of obviously Native American-styled tracks.  It fits the action quite well, and that’s really all that’s necessary. 

The sound effects are likewise good, with each unit, weapon and type of attack all having quite distinctive sounds.  Also, the sound effects alerting the player to arriving units, the onset of combat, and other instances are well done and easy to pick out, even amid the chaos of combat.

The voice acting is solid, although some of the Native American characters have accents that seemingly are less Native than one might hope, but otherwise the work is quite good all around. 

To be honest, if you’ve played one RTS, you’ve played most of them as far as the control set goes, and The WarChiefs is no exception.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as the genre has gotten to the point, like FPSs before it, where a standard control set is used, making it easy for players to pick up the game.  Dragging a box around units select them, and more can be added with a control-drag.  Left clicking on a single unit selects it, and right clicking an area of the map, building or enemy unit sends your units off to that location. 

Moving the map works pretty much as you expect it to, by pressing the arrow keys on the keyboard or simply moving your mouse pointer to the side of the screen.  The sensitivity seems to be quite high here, however, causing a much greater rate of scroll than one might expect.  Also, in the heat of battle, at times trying to select units with pinpoint accuracy was rather difficult, although that may well be attributed to the system this game was reviewed on, and not any fault of the game itself. 

Each type of unit to create or building has its own hotkey, and you can also allocate groups of units to keyboard hotkeys.  Basically, if you’ve played just about any RTS since Starcraft, you can pretty quickly get a feel for the controls in this game, which gives you much more time to dive into the strategy and less trying to figure out an arcane control system.  Kudos to Ensemble here for not fixing what wasn’t broken. 

As this is an expansion to Age of Empires III, The WarChiefs really doesn’t change the core concepts of the game.  That is, in single-player, your goal is to achieve all the objectives of the map, which generally involve defeating the enemy either by killing all of their units and removing their ability to make more, or by simply destroying their Town Center. 

The WarChiefs has a brand new single-player campaign that deals with the Native Americans, shifting timewise from just before the American Revolution and moving through the Civil War era, and is rather meaty in size. 

Multiplayer recieves an added boost as well, not only with the inclusion of the Sioux, the Aztec and the Iroquois nations, but with advancements to the European powers as well.  As far as the Native Americans go, unlike the Europeans, each of the three Native American powers all control quite differently.  The Aztec, for example, have no calvary at all, but the infantry is extremely powerful.  The Sioux are almost the opposite, consisting almost totally of calvary units.  As far as the Iriquois go, they’re more balanced, although they have their own artillary units as well as the ability to put up buildings fast. 

Another advantage that the Natives have is Warchiefs.  Unlike the European explorers, which seem to be little more than scouts, Warchiefs are powerful hero units as well, generally having special powers that range from taking out opposing units in one shot to area-effect shots.  Many of them also have the ability to convert the treasure guardians to their side, which is a nice way to gain a free unit at little cost. 

Additionally, the Natives have a building which is unique to their civilizations:  the Fire Pit.  With one of these, you can put up to 25 of your citizens in it, dancing around a fire.  You can then tailor the fire pit to either amp up the birth rate, increase the damage your troops do in battle, or other options, which helps to make your strategy a bit deeper, depending on where you are in the game. 

Europeans aren’t left out in the cold either.  For one thing, upon installing the game, players are given the ability in multiplayer to reset their Home City and deck, which allows them to gain some of the new cards in the expansion without having to start all over again.  Another addition is the saloon, which allows players to recruit mercenaries of various types.  Also, the European powers gain spies, which can be very helpful in counteracting the Native Americans’ Warchief, for example.

A number of new maps are included in The WarChiefs, as are new methods of victory, the most notable of which is Trade Monopoly.  If four trading post nodes are in a certain map, once a majority are controlled by one player, a timer comes into effect.  If at least half of the nodes are controlled by the same player at the end of five minutes, they win automatically.  This mode will cause players to really defend their trading posts, especially once that timer comes into play.  Also, once the timer is in, the player with control can no longer create new trading posts.

Another option in multiplayer is Revolution, whereby a player can turn all of their citizens into soldiers with the drawback of then being unable to create any more citizens, receive shipments from their Home City, or generate any economy.  This is basically best used when you’ve gotten a technological lead, and are trying to keep your opponent from catching up.

The WarChiefs is really a very solid expansion, containing a lot of content for both singleplayer as well as rejuvinating the multiplayer experience.  One can expect the single player campaign to take away at least twenty to thirty hours of your life, depending on how good (or bad) a player you are.  Getting used to the new units, learning some of the new systems and just enjoying the system is well worth the $30 this expansion runs.

Multiplayer gets a serious boost both with the three new powers to choose from and the ability to reset your deck to allow you to use the new cards.  The additional units for the Europeans as well as the vastly differing strategies employed by the various Native Americans will mean that fans of multiplayer will have to seriously shift gears and up their game to remain competitive. 

This expansion has goods for both the fans of the single player experience as well as the multiplayer afficianado and at the ‘standard’ expansion price of $30 is definitely worth a pick-up.

Up front, I wasn’t too excited about reviewing this title, for the simple reason that I stink at RTS games.  That being said, The WarChiefs is a very solid expansion to a solid game, and if I was into the genre at all, I would probably enjoy it quite a bit.

For fans of the genre, or for people who enjoyed AOEIII, this is a good expansion, and well worth the money.  Many hours will probably be lost at LAN parties and on the net to multiplayer games of this worthy expansion.