After a six-year hiatus, the third instalment of the popular Age of Empires series has finally arrived, and this time you take control of one of eight European nations attempting to conquer the New World - the Americas - from discovery through to the Industrial Age. As with the previous games, you must create and expand your colony, sustain and defend it, then defeat your enemy before they do the same to you.
There are some noticeable changes in this version - most for the better. No longer do workers have to go out and find wood, food and stone (now replaced by coin), then return to drop-off points to unload. Instead, workers now automatically accrue resources as they wander and work the land, along with creating markets and mills that become one-stop resupply points for your town (no more vegetable patches - hooray!). Damaged buildings can now be repaired without the aid of a worker (just an outlay of cash), but on the downside, troops can no longer be manually put into defence or attack formations. This is now done automatically, which makes some skirmishes less exciting than they could be.
At various times throughout each level, you can return to your European home city to resupply your town with "cards". These are a mixture of soldiers, workers and resources that are essential to your survival in the wilds of the New World. Only a certain amount of cards are available per level, so they must be used wisely.
When the enemy inevitably shows up at your doorstep ready to rumble, you're basically left with two choices: overwhelm your opponents with superior numbers and accept huge (and at times, unbelievable) losses, or tactically choose specialised soldiers to take them on. For example, a crossbowman is no match for an ottoman with a big gun at distance, but a pikeman can attack up close where the ottoman cannot manoeuvre weapons quite so well. When you're not fighting, it's very easy to get carried away in creating your colony, but that's all part of the fun. On more than one occasion, I've spent hours creating the perfect colonial town, only to discover I only needed to set up a base camp to continue further into the map.
Graphically, the game looks great (Click here to view a screenshot). Water effects are amazing, as is a lot of the scenery. The game does suffer from the odd graphical glitch though - stagecoaches have no problem rolling straight through groups of people, soldiers can shoot through various defences and in some cases, workers can even walk under the map! These are forgivable for such a good-looking game, and once you've seen (in great detail) your cannons lay out an entire enemy attack like a bowling ball to tenpins, any minor issues will be forgiven.
The game doesn't really break new ground in the Age of Empires franchise, but there's more than enough to keep existing fans happy whilst attracting new players to the RTS genre.
Visuals: Apart from a few minor issues, this game looks great. You'll go exploring just to check out the scenery.
Audio: Could have done with a little more attention. Not much difference from previous instalments.
Gameplay: Get your microwave meals ready - this game could keep you away from home cooking for a while!
Developer: Ensemble Studios