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Age of Empires is what you might consider a legacy franchise: a hugely successful series which has dominated its genre and set the pattern for rivals to follow. One of my earliest memories of this series dates all the way back to the turn of the century, when I was somewhere on the border of primary school and high school, and – probably as part of the marketing campaign for Age of Empires II – you could get a free CD of Age of Empires I in a box of Nutri-Grain, which I dutifully choked down in order to secure the CD. I also have memories of a term break somewhere in early high school, playing Age of Empires II on the creaking old computer in the cold, draughty back room of my Dad’s house in Karrinyup; that must specifically have been in the winter of 2003, because it’s also linked in my memory with reading the fifth Harry Potter book. That copy of the game was probably bootlegged – not downloaded off the internet, not in Australia in 2003, but probably passed around on burned CDs at school. And again, I recall settling in to play a round against Chris on our notebooks while we were backpacking through China in 2010, one evening in our cavernous room at the hostel in Dali, retreating for a brief spell back into our childhoods from a tiring foreign world.
Thank you for indulging me in that extended trip down memory lane. What I’m getting at is that Age of Empires stirs strong, nostalgic feelings in me, even if I never particularly loved the games. I suppose as a kid, at least at the time, you had fun with what you had access to. That’s probably why I never bothered playing Age of Empires III, because by the time that came out in 2005 I had a Playstation 2, an Xbox, and much more disposable income. So I mostly bought it in the Steam sale out of curiosity, and because the price dropped down to a reasonable level. I honestly cannot fathom how Microsoft thinks it’s reasonable to charge £30 – nearly $60! – for a game that’s almost 10 years old.
While Age of Empires focused on the Roman era and Age of Empires II shifted to the Middle Ages, Age of Empires III covers the Age of Exploration and the colonial expansion of European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is a much more interesting period in history for me, which is why it’s so disappointing that the campaign mode is so bad. I recall Age of Empires II charting a fairly reasonable course across history, pitting you in scenarios based on real battles, with campaigns based on real historical figures like Joan of Arc or Saladin. Any educational merit is tossed overboard in Age of Empires III, which replaces these campaigns with a pseudo-historical load of claptrap about the Fountain of Youth and a secret society of Templars, equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and the Da Vinci Code. The terrible writing and voice acting hardly helps.
I know that by this point the RTS genre had moved on, and had become much more about online gameplay, which is probably more enjoyable anyway; as always, the computer AI in skirmish mode is solidly predictable. But I wasn’t about to bother looking into whether a nine-year-old game still has active servers; even if it does, the only people playing on it would be dedicated fanatics who would slaughter me as soon as I set foot on the map. So I have to judge the game on its single-player mode, and on that front it fails. Oh, it’s addictive for a brief spell, building up little societies and climbing up the technology chains, but it soon wears out its welcome once you reach the top of that ladder. Every scenario plays out the same: hunker down, build up resources, fend off a few half-hearted attacks by the enemy, and eventually build up a big enough army that you can go out and stomp them in the chaotic scrums that inevitably develop whenever two armies encounter each other in this franchise. Rinse, repeat. I enjoy the building and expanding more than anything else, which is maybe why I enjoy simulation games like Sim City more than RTS games like Age of Empires.