The RTS genre is absolutely packed with classic hits or otherwise quality titles. It isn't a genre that is dictated by how powerful the latest videocard is, or what Shader Model revision we're currently at, it is a genre dictated by quality gameplay which is why it is such a popular genre for lengthy, sleep wrecking intervals of gaming. With that said, few could argue against Age of Empires 2 being one of these classic RTS titles responsible for some very addictive gameplay; even to this day it offers excellent RTS action. However, while it is true graphical technology doesn't drive the RTS genre like others, 2D isometric gaming is starting to show its age and it is time for Age of Empires to step into the present - at least, that was the presumption. While 3D graphics have graced the AOE series for the first time, AOE3 does everything else it can to try and remain the same as its predecessor's.
AOE3 follows the same sort of mode choice we've been seeing in RTS gaming for years - you have online play, an offline skirmish mode for "sandbox" games, a custom scenario mode to play user created missions and a campaign mode which follows a set storyline. On top of this, you also have the AOE3 scenario editor, which lets you create maps and missions. None of the modes are necessarily new but the RTS genre as a whole has been pretty static in this regard - there's no need to fix what isn't broken.
While a lot of fun can be had online if you're looking for real human competition, and in the skirmish and custom scenario modes if you're just looking for some quick RTS action, the bulk of the game's features can be experienced in the campaign mode. Basically, AOE3's storyline follows the classic tale - there is a good and evil force, and the good force is trying to stop the evil force from getting what it wants. This premise exists over 3 periods of time (starting at the year 1500), and you will experience each period and the traits that go with them in the missions, which are mostly based in the America region. The missions themselves are pretty standard as far as RTS goes. Most missions in AOE3 consist of you landing in a strange new land requiring you to setup a base and destroy all enemy forces that surround it. You will get the occasional exception, but most follow this formula. As it would happen, this can become a little repetitive at times but the raw AOE gameplay is so damn addictive, often it is hard to shut it down even when you are doing much of the same over and over again.
Unfortunately, the campaign mode isn't all roses, as we did experience a few issues, namely the cutscenes. The cutscenes in AOE3 set the scene for the following scenario and while they are fine at doing that, there are quite a few issues in a technical sense. First of all, at times the audio will cut out randomly. You will also see the narration out of sync and sometimes delayed in response. Another problem stems from the fact the cutscenes seem to be in real time and occasionally require triggers to continue (such as enemy units dieing), and a few times we saw the triggers failing to occur and we were left staring at motionless characters. We even experienced the occasional crash to desktop during cutscenes. This is an odd part to an otherwise very solid and reliable game - it doesn't severely damage the game but you would hope such issues are resolved soon in a patch, as ALT-F4'ing out of the game because of a stalled cutscenes does tend to disrupt the flow somewhat. Usually these issues can be avoided by simply skipping the cutscenes, but again, that does disrupt the game's flow and will leave many parts of the storyline a mystery.
When it comes to the actual in-game action, AOE3 is much like AOE2. While the countries, units and technology has changed (obviously, seeing that AOE3 is based on the colonial age), the same fundamental gameplay remains. You start a base, collect resources such as food, coin and wood as to increase your population, and eventually collect enough resources from your surroundings to start forming an army, all the while making sure you remain safe from enemy attacks. You then take this army and execute attacks or whatever it is the mission wants you to do, and once you're successful (perhaps after a few attempts), the mission is done. It sounds simple and repetitive, but it still provides addictive, enjoyable gameplay, even though it is gameplay you've probably played to death before. It must be said though that this time around, your choice of country where relevant will give you unique benefits during gameplay - for instance, when using the British, settlers automatically spawn when houses are built, and the Russians allow training infantry and settlers in batches. These aren't necessarily game changing but they do add a slight twist.
One area that I hoped would have improved for AOE3 was the combat management, however nothing has really changed here either. While the game touts a physics engine capable of better combat in a real time sense, which it certainly does, you are still basically left to watch as your units battle it out. You can issue a few basic commands to your units such as Guard or Attack on Sight, but when it comes to advanced formation control or better attack AI, the game falls short. You are still basically left sending your units into battle in any old random formation and it is still a bother to evenly spread out your attack amongst multiple enemy units, at least initially. The combat is still a very enjoyable part of the game, but it could use a bit of a facelift.
As far as actual new features go, the only major addition to the gameplay is your "home city". Throughout your missions, you will receive allowances for shipments from home. These can range from a few villagers and food boxes, to cannons and special abilities. As you play throughout the campaign mode, your home town increases in ability and you can start sending even more advanced items directly to your base. The idea here is fine but it really isn't an overly revolutionary feature, and it is probably a feature you could even safely ignore without suffering huge consequences. In the big scheme of things, a few units here and there aren't overly impacting, although as your city becomes more advanced, so will your items on offer, so it is probably best described as a feature that increases in use as you play more.
Visually, AOE3 is a very nice looking game. Gone are the days of 2D graphics, as just about everything this time around is rendered in pure 3D - buildings, people, the environments etc, however when you look at a typical AOE3 in-game scene, you wouldn't know the game was pure 3D straight away as it is rendered in a way that replicates the 2D isometric style of classic AOE. It isn't until you start rotating the camera in a full 360 degree motion (horizontal 360 degrees anyway) that you realize the game is indeed fully 3D, however to do this you'll need to go into game options and turn on the camera rotating function which is off by default, and even after you turn it on, the way in which you rotate the camera is a little awkward - you hold down CTRL and use the arrow keys on the keyboard. While the option says you can use the mouse to rotate, I couldn't manage to do so. However, while the game does feature 3D camera control, placement of objects onto your map is still restricted to one direction - this is only a trivial issue though. Unless you're a firm believer of Feng Shui or a wannabe city planner, the direction in which your buildings are facing in AOE is completely irrelevant.
AOE3 is a good game because it doesn't change the AOE formula too much - the gameplay is essentially identical, and even though 3D graphics are used this time around, they are rendered in a way that makes the game look 2D isometric, even if it isn't. What this creates is an RTS that does feel a little dated bar a few bells and whistles, although the fans of the series will likely feel right at home, which is, after all, the fanbase who made AOE2 a successful title in the first place. However, I still can't help but feel more could have been done to make AOE3 a truly next generation RTS title. AOE3 is still a very enjoyable game, but whether or not it is a true upgrade over AOE2 is questionable.