Crispy Gamer

Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties (PC)

One of the great things about strategy games is that they give you the chance to explore those strange ?what if? scenarios, and no series has done a better job than Age of Empires. Since the release of the original more than a decade ago, players have seen Koreans battle Romans, Byzantines invade Britain, and with the third edition there is the opportunity to explore new and even more surreal scenarios such as ?what if the Chinese had colonies in the New World? or ?could the Turks with their heavy siege cannons have conquered the Feudal Japanese under the Shogun??

Unless you?re an obsessive history buff (such as this writer) you?re unlikely to have a deep knowledge, and more importantly any deep appreciation, of the histories of the various powers in Age of Empires III, but fortunately the developers at Ensemble Studios have condensed a tome of the likes of Edward Gibbon?s ?Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? into game form, allowing you to undertake a masters-degree level study of what makes the best power for conquering the world. With the latest expansion, Ensemble even called in help from Big Huge Games to aid players in the digital doctorate-level game studies of the Far East with Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties.

It is also worth noting that this is the first time an Age of Empires expansion was developed by an outside studio, and the first time an Age of Empires game has gotten a second expansion. Possibly this was due to the minor missteps of Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs, which failed to deliver a compelling game. The powers were new, but the natives seemed wildly out of place in a game built around colonial expansion.

As expected, the add-on pack introduces the Chinese, Japanese and Indian powers to the mix, where each has its own specific units with their own advantages and disadvantages. So expect to see a mix of samurai, sepoys and even war elephants for good measure. The expansion delivers much more than new units however, and The Asian Dynasties succeeds by offering what can only be described as a fully unique approach to the typical AoE gameplay mechanics.

The biggest difference is that advancement through the ages takes place by building significant structures, which offer new advantages and in some cases can even create specialized units. The structures can also be built in a different order to further add to the replayability of the game.

More importantly, the basics of the game have been refined, such as the Chinese?s ability to create massed armies instead of individual units, while the rice paddies of the Asian powers can be used for food or coin production from the very beginning of the game. The Chinese, Indians and Japanese also have a new resource called export, which allows for the creation of an alliance with a European power. The Japanese can use this export to save up to call in help from a Portuguese naval force, for example. Just as importantly, the Asian nation can choose the path of isolationism, where the consulate is instead used to produce new and more powerful indigenous military units.

All of this makes for very interesting showdowns, and in skirmish mode matches between the original powers and these newcomers can be rather interesting, more so because the introduction of several new maps. These include both land and naval-based settings, and include a few new twists, thanks to the new insight from Big Huge Games. These actually change the dynamic a bit -- Silk Road doesn?t require players to build a trading post on the trading route, but rather forces players to liberate and hold them from capture. Of course the maps have new native settlements, sometimes with conflicting advantages and dogmas. The Sholin warriors can make for a fine counterbalance to the mounted Jesuits (whose appearance is somewhat amusing in that the Jesuit monks can?t exactly be called ?natives?).

While the heart of the game remains the skirmish mode and multiplayer matches, the expansion includes three single-player campaigns, with one for each of the new civilizations. These feature the typical scripted stories that have always been the weakest link in the Age of Empires series. StarCraft-style storytelling it isn?t, but that?s not what keeps the fans coming back for more, and these stories are actually somewhat superior to the lackluster campaigns from the original Age of Empires III.

It is also worth noting that although this is the second expansion in the series, it?s not required that you own The WarChiefs to play this game. There is even an option to toggle off the content from the first expansion so players can battle together regardless of whether that add-on is only installed by one player.

There are plenty of other little tweaks and improvements to the game, most of which are more subtle, such as the improved visuals of the maps and units. While Age of Empires III already did a good job with better effects, Big Head Games? contribution has been to make everything look just a tad better. This outside input means better maps, more diverse settings and even small improvements such as better hot key control.

About the only complaint is that Big Huge Games clearly doesn?t know how to handle the voice scripting. It ranges from awkwardly silly with bad pidgin English and accents that are more at place in South Park than a serious strategy game. This was always a failing with Age of Empires III, and the Asian Dynasties only brings things down a bit more.

Otherwise, this expansion is surely one of the best add-on packs for the entire Age of Empires series, and The Rise of Rome (which wisely added Rome to the game) is arguably the only add-on that has done more to improve upon the core game. Consider this required study for that master?s degree in the history of the world according to Ensemble!

This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.