Saturday, September 10, 2005

More on Age of Empires III

Real-time 3-D London

I may have spoken too soon about the Age of Empires III demo. While I gave the demo a decidedly negative first impression in my post two days ago, I’ve had some time since to invest more time in the demo, particularly in the Skirmish games where players start out in a random map against an A.I. and build out from scratch. These types of games are my favorite to play to pass the time and Age of Empires (AoE) III feels very much like AoE II but I’m speaking very generally here since I have not played AoE II for a number of years now. My final verdict is that the demo is actually good!

The interface is not as opaque as I originally commented on, but it still needs a more robust help system in the final build since quite a few things have been changed and it is often not immediately clear what players can do with certain units or buildings. A common complaint I’ve heard is also the fact that the interface is just too big and could probably use some streamlining into fewer buttons.

What is really most impressive so far is the graphics engine. It’s humming along nicely on my slightly aged circa 2003 PC with all the graphics options maxed out. I’ve had as many as upwards of 30 units on screen with no slowdown, but again, not real opportunities to really give it a test with massive armies.

The AI in the skirmish games seems to be a bit too good and very aggressive. This tends to force players down one optimal build queue, one that favors early defense, heavy investments on the military and potentially early rushes. Over time, the AI also becomes predictable and weak to the veteran players. In one of my games, I found that by buying my barracks early and trading in my cards for free troops and mounting an early rush, I was able to effectively put a pinch on the AI by invading their empire and knocking off their workers. As much as I love the conflict aspect of the game however, I was hoping for something a bit more compatible with a builder’s game.

My first few games in the skirmish mode I was slaughtered because I didn’t even have a barracks up when the AI came strolling in with their army of muskets. I was busy actually building an EMPIRE with markets, trading posts and the like. Maybe it’s just the Spanish AI being aggressive, what with the flavored AI and all. Hopefully the other AI civilizations will offer a different experience. So far, all I call say is that strategically and tactically, AoE III is barely evolved from the days of WarCraft II and Starcraft when early militaries and rushing was so prized and effective that players in Starcraft developed a particular affinity with the Zergs and their early power rushes.

Real-time strategy games have never been about subtlety, diplomatic finesses or cold wars interspersed with flashes of open conflict. Real-time strategy as a genre have been accused of being more tactical than strategic in their nature and AoE III so far shows no sign of straying for this successful formula. Maybe it’s for the better, but I was hoping for something more interesting than two civilizations hurling their economies against each other in a perpetual war until the one with better micromanagement skills and larger economy wins. And that’s another thing worth noting. If anyone from Ensemble Studios is to stumble on my post, mitigate micromanaging at all costs. It may sound good on a paper but the reason WarCraft III didn’t fare as well as Starcraft was that micromanaging became a pain in the ass for most players and most simply gave up.

There’s something to be said about the simplicity of a real-time strategy game that lets players lasso a bunch of units and randomly throw them at the enemy. AoE III certainly is more complex and a richer historical game than say Starcraft, but playing the demo, I can almost feel that it is one or two design decision away from being unfun.

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