THE AGE OF EMPIRES series has been a bit like a friendly uncle to strategy gamers. One of those who wasn't actually related to you, but who'd turn up at Christmas and fill you full of sweets until you vibrated on the spot. In short, it's always been a solid, dependable favourite.
Contrary to popular belief, Age Of Mythology wasn't Age Of Empires III, and was never meant to be. It was more of a short-side diversion to try out some new ideas in preparation for the game that was to follow, focusing on the discovery of the New World. And here it is. Pretty isn't it? In fact graphically, Age Of Empires III is almost unrecognizable from its predecessors. It's only when you observe the game in motion and see all the little gatherers chopping, mining and farming that familiarity filters through.
It's not only things like water, smoke and fog effects that have been added. No, Ensemble has also used the Havok engine to bring ragdoll physics to AOE3. Yes, when you shoot troops with a cannonball they actually do fly through the air and bounce off things.
Perhaps even more impressive is how buildings break down during battles. Again this is through physics rather than animation. When you attack buildings like windmills, even the movement physics of the sails change as they're blown apart. Marvellous stuff.
But the feature Ensemble believes to be the biggest innovation in AOE3 is a card based improvement system, which sounds a bit complex to us. Basically, each civilisation (there are eight in total) has its own home-city screen. As they accumulate experience points through building, gathering and fighting, they earn shipment points from their main city. Then all you need to do is flick to your home-city screen and cash in your points for shipment cards such as troops, technologies and resource packages.
There are many different cards available as you go through the five ages. Unfortunately, you can only use 20 in a game, but you can create different decks of cards for varying situations: naval battle, cavalry-focused, economy-focused and so on.
Your home-city itself is like a giant role-playing character, in that it levels up as you progress through your games, independently of how you level up ages within a single game. Then, as your city evolves, new cards with technologies, buildings and other goodies open up.
This suggests some very intriguing multiplayer battles, as when you go online, you're not just evolving your own gameplay experience but also that of your own city, from a cooing baby township to a sprawling metropolis. Complicated? Probably. Intriguing? Most definitely.