[GAME MASTER]Age of Empires III

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[GAME MASTER]Age of Empires III

This is the story of simple boy, whose high school hero was the Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz and whose college dream was to decipher the ancient Minoan Linear A writing system. Despite such ambitions, that boy was nearly brought to ruin by a computer game.
That game was Age of Empires, which I discovered my first year in college and which is partly responsible for my horrible grade point average. It was followed in my junior year with Age of Kings, a strategy game so sublime that it balanced 18 historical civilizations. I spent hours overrunning opponents’ cities with Goth soldiers and pillaging virtual hamlets with Mongol horsemen.
I began to withdraw from society, school, and finally, reality. I was too busy inching my Teutonic knights across the snow to care about little things like planning my future.
It’s fortunate for me, then, that the newest game in the series, Age of Empires: III (or AOEIII), is a mess.
The first AOE release spanned from the Stone Age to the Classical Age, with players commanding Greek hoplites and Assyrian chariots. The second game was Medieval to Renaissance, so the interplay of knights, samurai and camel-riders had an undeniable appeal to history buffs of whatever continent. What’s the new game about? Colonialism, featuring no one’s favorite warriors, such as Dutch ruyters and Russian strelets.
Adding to the non-thrill of commanding obscure military units is the awkward combat system, in which soldiers only stay in formation when moving somewhere. The result is that even British redcoats aren’t always red and never fight as the historical redcoats did. Not even the choice of civilization has a major influence on a player’s strategy. The game has a “card” system, in which your “home city” gains experience and allows you to select new cards, which can be used in the middle of the game to call for reinforcements. The system is supposed to allow for strategic flexibility, but it’s an example of how the bonuses attributed to each civilization add up to nothing. Russians, for instance, train in groups instead of individuals, although at the same overall cost. French villagers cost more but are tougher. There’s no tactical advantage that compels a player to adopt feints, false routs or ambushes.
Not that the programmers were lazy. They still found time to sanitize the game, preventing me from renaming my home city, St. Petersburg, to something that sounds very similar but much dirtier.
These are quibbles. The real problem with Age of Empires III is that this style of game has been rendered obsolete by advances in technology. Even low-end computers can now handle battles with 10,000 soldiers on the field; the most a player can command in AOEIII is 200. Graphics cards allow players to swoop the camera angle wherever they want, but AOEIII’s engine limits the camera to moving up, down or in circles. Worst of all, the absence of morale and the inability to make your cavalry run (unless attacking) means every fight is a fight to the death - there is really no chance to retreat and regroup.
The end result is a strategy game in which strategy counts for little, although it offers quick bouts of detailed violence. It has none of the qualities that turned the first two games into addictive drugs for history freaks.
Lucky me.


by Burke Josslin
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