Developer: Ensemble Studios
Release Date: Q3 2006
"White man came across the sea
He brought us pain and misery
He killed our tribes, He killed our creed
He took our game for his own need
We fought him hard we fought him well
Out on the plains we gave him hell
But many came too much for Cree
Oh will we ever be set free?" - Iron Maiden, "Run To The Hills"
Age of Empires is certainly a successful franchise. I've been hearing about it for (pardon my turn of phrase) ages, but up until now, I've never had any direct experience with it. The ugly fact of the matter is, I'm not very good at real-time strategy games, so I don't often get myself all worked up over them, but now that I've taken on this preview for the first Age of Empires 3 expansion, The War Chiefs, I can finally get a grasp on what all the hype is about. Looks like I came in at a good time, as this preview build has some pretty cool stuff to it.
Age of Empires 3 tells an epic tale of the new world and the conflicts that shaped its development. I haven't had a chance to get through all of the game yet, what with The War Chiefs on my desk taunting me away from its progenitor. As a result, I can't really comment on how well the storylines between the two mesh. What I can say is that The War Chiefs looks to add new depth to the experience by allowing players to more proactively engage the Native Americans; now you'll be able to select the Iroquois, the Sioux, or the Aztecs to play on top of the original eight old-world civilizations. No longer just abstract NPCs drawn to your European colonies by the allure of beads and pox-infected blankets, you finally get a chance to go beyond and see what it was like from the point of view of the ones who were there first.
The native cultures tend to approach things differently than veterans of Age of Empires will be used to. For starters, they have a fire pit, where Europeans have fireplaces. Trust me, this is a cool idea! It works like this: You apply villager units to it, and they dance around it. From there, you choose what dance they do and which effect that dance will apply to your civilization. Before you ask, no, you can't get them to rain dance, but you can increase the flow of your experience, or the damage your warrior-braves do in battle, or increase the resource yields your other villagers gain while out collecting. This small boost is a nice tactical tweak that helps make up for the fact that the three Native American civilizations don't have centuries of mechanized warfare behind them. Of course, you'll have to balance how many villagers are dancing and how many are out gathering resources or building new structures, but finding that balance is half the fun.
The Native Americans also have a much more "hands on" leadership structure. Each tribe has a war chief who acts like a hero in battle, can collect treasure like a settler/villager can, and who can provide various passive effects to units within range, such as increased damage, range, or hit-points. These avatars also grow in power over time, making the veterans very imposing figures indeed. Finally, the natives don't have home cities in quite the same way that Europeans do; they instead have the Tribal Council. These are functionally the same, allowing for economic and military shipments as well as the customization and deck-building that helps make Age of Empires 3 such a unique RTS experience.
There are some new multiplayer features being offered such as new maps, Revolutions, and Trade Monopolies. However, this preview build of The War Chiefs doesn't support multiplayer yet, so I can't really comment on these last three gems other than to say "on paper, they look really interesting." I especially like the idea of the Revolution: A colony that revolts immediately converts all settlers into militia and can no longer recruit more settlers; however, they can train more militia. They also get a new home city (more like a big army camp, really) that can only supply weapons. It seems like it will add a lightning-war strategy to online games, whereby those who face off against a revolutionist colony had best hope they have the defenses to outlast the increased military might of the rebels.
There is really very little Ensemble could do to improve the graphics without a serious overhaul of the entire engine, so The War Chiefs doesn't do too much differently than Age of Empires 3 insofar as the visuals are concerned. However, when you consider the source, The War Chiefs expansion has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Building upon a solid foundation of fantastic models, textures, and reflective surfaces, all the developers really needed to do was maintain historical accuracy and their previously established artistic style. So far, I have seen nothing to tell me that they've deviated from these two points. However, for all I know this is a feint and there really is a complete overhaul of the graphics engine in store. Much can happen between beta and gold. As it stands right now, it's just more of the same good stuff.
Suffice it to say that, from what I can see, anyone who is a fan of Age of Empires 3 should be salivating uncontrollably in anticipation of The War Chiefs. It adds several new features that enhance the experience, but doesn't try to push itself too far and doesn't change the play mechanics so drastically that the feeling and mood are lost. Keep an eye on this release; it's going to breathe new life into your game as well as get Iron Maiden songs stuck in your head.
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