Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Big Huge Games
Release Date: October 23 2007
Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties offers more of the same intricately balanced real-time strategy gaming that defines both the series and the genre, but now in three new Asian flavors. The civilizations — Japan, China and India — come with a variety of new units, buildings and story-driven campaigns that will afford you many hours of fresh gameplay.
The central concept of Age of Empires is the same as it always was. You recruit large numbers of villagers to gather the three key resources: coin, food and wood. These are spent on constructing strategic buildings, researching new technologies and creating military units to defend your civilization … or to conquer others. Through a tricky juggling act, you manage all of this while devoting resources to progressing to a new age to unlock the benefits that each advance offers.
Asian Dynasties expands on this core game model by offering three Asian-themed single-player campaigns as well as some new multiplayer maps and modes. The Japanese campaign follows the efforts of the shogun Tokugawa as he fights to unite Japan during the Warring States period. The Chinese campaign focuses on the hypothesis that a massive fleet of Chinese treasure junks sailed west to discover the Americas in 1421. The final campaign deals with India's efforts to throw off the yoke of British colonial power.
While the events may be based in history, the characters involved are not, and this gives the writers license to turn up the drama dial with betrayals and deception galore. Unfortunately, despite some spirited voice acting performances from some colorful characters, the stories tend to divide a little bit too neatly along the lines of good versus evil. The dialogue is fairly unsubtle such that you can usually see the plot twist coming like a herd of stampeding war elephants.
This, however, doesn't detract from some great campaign gameplay. There are a total of 15 missions, and the designers have made every effort to make sure that you're not simply repeating the same cycle of gather, build and conquer. In one Chinese scenario, we had to use stealth to bring a small vulnerable party through a cave system by ducking into darkened passages to avoid regular enemy patrols. A Japanese mission required that we defend villagers from an enemy onslaught as they attempted to flee a castle siege.
The best missions provide a variety of optional secondary objectives that, if completed, strengthen your numbers for the final assault. Each campaign can be played at one of three different difficulty levels, and Big Huge Games appears to have nailed the difficulty factor with a knife-edge precision.
The one big hole in the game is the noticeable lack of sea battles. The Chinese in particular have a great range of impressive-looking ships, from the war junk to the suicide bomber fire ship that explodes on contact with anything on the water. There are unfortunately very few campaign missions that take advantage of the potential for epic naval warfare.
The graphics have been almost entirely redone to reflect an Asian aesthetic. The buildings, units and wonders have a colorful architecture that indicates great attention to detail and an appreciation of historical uniforms and style. In addition, the home cities of each civilization have been redrawn and look historically grand.
Asian Dynasties delivers a huge variety of incredibly satisfying new units that all feel very distinct from each other. The Chinese have some deadly specialized artillery units, such as the Flying Crow, which is like an ancient missile launcher, and the flame thrower unit that shoots out burning jets of pain to wipe out enemy infantry. Unlike other civilizations, the Chinese cannot build individual units at their barracks but instead put out small armies comprised of mixed infantry, artillery and cavalry units. The added cost in terms of time and resources creates a different strategic dynamic because you'll have to plan out your armies in advance when playing as the Chinese.
My favorite Indian unit was undoubtedly the war elephants with their awesome stopping power. They come in anti-infantry and anti-building models, the latter of which have long-range cannons strapped to their backs. These are backed up by the speedy but weaker camels and a wide range of differently gifted infantry units.
The Japanese make the game complete with their lethal samurai and stealthy ninja units. In addition, they have the formidable Daimyo who is both a walking barracks as well as a military gather point. This means, if you play your cards right and keep your Daimyo safe, you'll be able to maintain the offensive momentum a long way into the battle field.
Every civilization has unique buildings that confer different benefits. The Indians, for example, have the sacred field to which you can yoke holy cows that automatically generate experience points. The rapid rate at which you accumulate experience in this way means home city shipments and the cards you've chosen in your deck become a lot more important. Instead of building houses to support population, the Japanese build shrines close to herd animals that generate a continuous trickle of resources.
All civilizations can build the consulate to form an alliance with European powers. Export is the fourth resources represented by a mysterious-looking leaf, and it is collected automatically depending on the rate at which you gather the other resources. Exports can be spent toward unique European technologies that will be familiar from the original game, such as powerful artillery cannons, or monks with healing powers. Players can also choose to ally with other Asian powers in order to benefit from their unique units. Finally, you can choose which percentage of your resources is converted into export, depending on the importance you place on recruiting foreign powers.
To advance to the next age, you must build one of five available wonders. While they consume wondrous amounts of resources, they tend to be entirely good value for the money, as they have wide-ranging universal effects on your units. The Chinese Temple of Heaven, for example, grants the transcendence ability, a rechargeable power that immediately heals all of your units at the press of a button. The building of India's Taj Mahal initiates a cease-fire for a period of time, which could be just what you need to get back on your feet.
The card deck that determines which shipments will be available to you in which age is again entirely customizable. There are many unique bonuses available only through home shipments, such as the Japanese dojo building, which automatically generates the military units of your choice thereby removing the need for micromanagement. The delivery of 30 Shaolin monks, on the other hand, could make or break any closely contested battle. While the default deck is fine for a casual gamer, serious gamers will have plenty to do in tweaking their decks to suit their own gameplay styles.
The single-player campaign is somewhat short-lived and can be completed over the course of a weekend. Happily, there are 11 new multiplayer skirmish maps covering a range of Asian locations, including the Himalayas, jungles of Borneo, Silk Road and Yellow River valley. In addition to the normal Supremacy and Deathmatch modes, there is a new King of the Hill match, with the aim being to capture and defend a centrally located fort for a period of time.
The Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties expansion pack requires the original game to work and is entirely backward compatible so you'll be able to see what would happen if Japanese samurai were to get into a fight with French musketeers on the Louisiana bayou. What's incredible is that Big Huge managed to introduce so many fresh ideas to the game yet still maintain the essentially balanced gameplay that remains as addictive as it always was. In short, there's so much content introduced with the Asian Dynasties expansion pack that it practically breathes a whole new game into the existing one, so it's easily worth the sticker price.
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