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Age of Empires III

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Or indeed on the receiving end of a 12lb cannon ball. The cannon units are the game's big showstoppers, wreaking damage on a scale almost unprecedented in the genre. This is where the Havok physics come into their own, creating a convincing depiction of the effects of being struck by a fast-moving metallic sphere. Fire a cannon into a group of artillery, and rather than slump to the ground in a three-frame animation, they're individually tossed into the air like ragdolls, with their hats going one way and their guns another, while the cannonball itself rolls around the map in a somewhat dangerous fashion.

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The effect on buildings is equally impressive, with a dynamic destruction system that acknowledges that a cannonball doesn't necessarily set fire to anything it hits, in direct contradiction of Hollywood conventions. Instead of the ubiquitous fire animations, enormous chunks of masonry will be blown out of the targeted building, which eventually collapses under its own weight. And should it be on the edge of a cliff, it may well slide into the water below, causing the relevant ripples (well done that man). Plus, suffice to say, while you don't really need to, you can of course rotate the camera to provide the best view of the action.

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YOUR HISTORY
Enough of the technicalities, what's it all about? The Age Of Empires series is renowned for basing the action in vaguely authentic historical settings, and the third outing continues the theme, with something of a twist.

Following directly on from Age Of Empires II: The Age Of Kings, the time span is approximately between 1500-1850, and the scenario is the European colonisation of the Americas. Playing as one of eight civilisations, this effectively involves leaving the sanctity of Europe behind, crossing the ocean to an undiscovered continent and setting up shop there. Covering a huge expanse of land, this has given the art team scope to go to town with the landscapes, covering such diverse terrains as plains full of bison, rainforests, the blue water of the Caribbean, the Colombia river on the North West coast, Patagonia in the South and even the scorched earth of Texas, give or take the odd steak place.

As history recounts, Europeans didn't discover America - it was already there, and inhabited by Native Americans who got something of a raw deal, what with the burning, raping and genocide. Perhaps wisely, Ensemble has decided not to reproduce these details, although the Native Americans haven't been airbrushed from history.

Indeed, some 12 authentic Native American civilisations appear in the game, and instead of butchering them, you can make alliances and use them to your advantage as they impart their knowledge of the New World. For instance, if you get pally with the Aztecs, they teach you how to make cotton armour, and even join in to kick the shit out of the Germans (or whoever). Having local civilisations also gives you reason to explore the map, as opposed to holing yourself up round your town centre and building up your army.

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restless natives
According to lead designer Greg Street: "The Native Americans are strictly a strategy, not an opponent. This isn't a game about going to the New World and burning all the Native American towns. We realise that really happened and we're not denying it, but we just don't think it makes for a very fun experience to have a game that's based around conquering indigenous people. We think the Native Americans are cool and when we did focus groups early on with people in the US and in Europe, the fans were really excited about the Native Americans. They wanted to see them on the battlefield, they wanted to get to have Comanche horse archers or Aztecs as part of their army, so we wanted to make sure that Native Americans were a big part of the game. From a design standpoint, one way to think of the Native Americans is like plug-ins to your main tech tree."

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