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Age of Empires III

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We're not sure how Native Americans feel about being plug-ins to a tech tree, but experts in the field were consulted to ensure the authenticity of the various tribes. Furthermore, the relevant voices were recorded by genuine Native Americans, who were then taken outside and shot in the head (not really).

INDIAN GIVER
So if you're not killing Indians, who are you killing? Other Europeans, obviously, (including the Germans), who have similar designs on conquering the New World. You'd think an entire continent would provide enough to go round, but this wouldn't make for much of a game, and keeping the Germans (or whoever) off your patch is one of the key tenets of the Age Of Empires III experience.

Combat in RTS games has always been something of a contentious issue, often making a mockery of the strategy that it claims to represent. Ensemble is big enough to admit that its previous games have often been guilty of this, with combat reduced to what it officially refers to as a "swirling mass of crap", whereby everyone simply steams into each other like a cartoon playground scrap, making a mockery of painstakingly building up a comprehensive army. Doyens of the genre will be more than familiar with this concept, and may be pleased to learn that Ensemble is seeking to rectify the situation with AOE3. In fairness, other RTS games have promised this, but Ensemble is researching the area heavily and was happy to show off early prototypes of group-based combat.

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BRAVE NEW WORLD
Although far from finalised, Ensemble is currently playing with ideas whereby cavalry automatically arrange themselves into chevron formation, or infantry adopt a cover mode that makes them more resistant to artillery barrage. Furthermore, we were witness to a front row of musketeers kneeling down while the back row fired over their heads (not the other way round, that wouldn't work).

Ensemble's stated aim is that it wants to do for battle what Age Of Kings did for movement and formation. Whereas that game featured arguably more glamorous units, the focus in Age Of Empires III is on huge armies of professional soldiers who attempt to retain some kind of formation. The idea is to make the combat more movie-like, with cavalry charges and musketeers loading and firing in the heat of battle. Each unit features a host of animations, with cavalry horses rearing up on their hind legs, for instance. Troops will also react accordingly depending on the method of attack - being shot in the head with a musket is a markedly different to being hacked at with a tomahawk.

MOVING ON UP
What's more, the animations will alter depending on the situation: so at range, a musketeer will loose off a few shots, whereas closer in he'll stick the offending German (or whoever) with his bayonet, or even club him around the back of the neck with the stock. Ensemble is chuffed with the animation of the melee units, with a brace of swordsman stabbing, slashing and blocking as if in a real duel.

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Although much of the combat can be automated, more hardcore tactical micro-management options for bedroom commanders will be included too, such as ordering your boys to fix bayonets and charge the artillery or defend cannons at all costs. Whereas the combat ideas looked feasible in the demo, the version we played still featured an amount of swirling crap. But with six months of development time left, we can only hope Ensemble gets it right for release.

Age Of Empires III is clearly a massive undertaking, as you'd expect from a game that seeks to span 350 years of civilisation. Kicking off at the end of the medieval era, the five ages will incorporate such milestones as the first European breaching of Americas, the French-Indian war and the inception of the industrial revolution, including the railroads, with trains able to transport your troops across the map. As ever, Ensemble will "play fast and loose with history". This doesn't mean it will deliberately get things wrong, but as Greg Street says: "We use history as our setting. We try to work in historical detail where we can, but whenever history and gameplay collide, gameplay wins."

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