We'll never turn down a chance to play more Age of Empires, so when Microsoft, Ensemble and Big Huge Games announced a brand new expansion pack for Age of Empires III, we were all for it. The new game adds three new Asian civilizations, each with new units and buildings and their own five-mission campaign. It's not surprising that the expansion maintains the excellent unit balance and exciting presentation that the series is known for. Still, while the new Asian civs are enjoyable, the campaign lacks some of the drama and variety that we'd hoped to see.
Asian Dynasties steps away a bit from the more fictional campaigns of previous games in the series in favor of a slightly more historical approach. Still, the fictional main characters in the campaigns give the designers room to tell a relatively unique story set within a firm historical framework. The Japanese campaign kicks things off by retelling some key events in Tokugawa's efforts to unite Japan. From there, we see a mutiny in the Chinese navy as the Treasure Fleet moves first to India and then to the New World. Finally, the Indian campaign puts players in charge of a British officer who decides to lend his support to the cause of Indian independence.
I miss some of the cool resource-oriented missions of the previous games, but Asian Dynasties has its own charms -- from finding and securing beached treasure ships to stampeding elephants through enemy towns. Naturally, a lot of the missions require players to capture and hold trading posts, destroy enemy town centers, and protect your own structures from enemy attack. The best missions move back and forth between different objectives giving the player a chance to choose how they'll tackle the overall scenario.
Sadly, only a handful of scenarios really present the player with any wide range of approaches. There will sometimes be an option as to which of two paths you're going to take into the enemy base, but there's usually a "right" and a "wrong" answer even here. Most missions do allow players some choice in determining the order in which they take on secondary objectives but in all the campaigns here felt a bit more linear than they have in previous Age games.
And for the life of us, we can't figure out why there wasn't more of an emphasis on sea battles. We built two single docks in the course of the entire 15-mission campaign and once it was just to get to the enemy land base across the water. With the Chinese Treasure Fleet and the British East India Company featuring so heavily in the campaign, it was a bit of a letdown that there wasn't more opportunity for sea fights.
The Asian armies have all the cool units you'd expect, from samurai, to firework rockets, to howdahs. Big Huge Games has really captured the flavor of the combat very nicely with a wide range of colorful units that provide significant enough advantages to encourage players to create a well-rounded army. As with the other Age games, creating small groups of balanced forces that can deal equally well with infantry, cavalry and artillery keeps you from having to micromanage the target priorities in each and every encounter.
Even though nearly all the units are useful in one capacity or another, there are nevertheless a few that really captured our attention. The Japanese Daimyo (available as a home shipment unit) is a powerful warlord that acts both as a walking barracks and a drop off point for all future military shipments from the home city. This really gives the Japanese civilization the opportunity to engage in some truly relentless advances. The trick is to keep the Daimyo close enough to the action to keep the reinforcements flowing fast but far enough away that he's not likely to be in too much danger.
The Indians, of course, rely on a wide variety of elephant units. Those that can trample over archers and melee fighters are interesting enough (and a heck of a lot of fun to watch), but the real stars here are the anti-building elephants. Some come armed with mighty flails attached to their trunks and others have long-range cannons mounted on their backs. It's great to have the option to wreak damage from up close or from far away with these elephants. They suck up a lot of resources population points when you build them but the Indians have a number of home city shipments that can drastically reduce their price and support requirements.
The Chinese are a little different. It's not as obvious to us which of their units are our favorites because you don't actually build single units with the Chinese. Instead, you select one of a number of pre-made groups of mixed units that are, like the single units of the other civilizations, still geared for combat against a particular type of enemy. You can still lead the units individually once the entire group has been produced but the Chinese don't have an option to build just one or two units at a time. This can create some tough situations where you don't have the resources or time to order up a group of units five strong, but it definitely makes it easier to field large armies quickly in the later stages of the game.
Each civilization has its own unique buildings and economic needs. The Indians for instance, benefit from a free villager with nearly every home city shipment. If your economy is booming, you can trade in the villager for two sepoys later on. The Indians will find themselves getting more shipments than most other civilizations, thanks to their unique Sacred Fields structure. Simply placing cows at the Sacred Field will start to generate experience points for the Indians.
Each civilization can also benefit from the new Customs House. This structure allows players to ally themselves with one of a number of European powers to gain a one-time bonus and access to European units. These units are bought with the new "export" resource, which is earned by setting aside a portion of your existing resource gathering efforts to trade with the European ally. Fortunately, setting the percentage of resources you want to trade is as easy as hitting a button in the Customs interface so you won't have to worry over assigning additional workers to the new resource.
The Asians also have plenty of new wonders that can radically alter the pace and flow of the game. Building the Great Buddha lets you spend coin to see everything in your enemies' line of sight. It's probably the coolest power in the game but its cost scales with the number of enemies you have. Going up against a major player with lots of buildings and units, it can easily cost several thousand coin. The Indian Agra is another of our favorites. This massive palace gives you access to a single elite version of each of your unit types. They're incredibly expensive but they multiply the effectiveness of all other similar units in your armies, so they're well worth the investment.
Interestingly, the wonders are also the way that Asian civilizations advance to new Ages. Rather than simply shucking resources out the window to gain access to new technology upgrades, new units and new shipments, the resources you spend to build wonders actually result in a persistent benefit that sticks with you throughout the game. Each time you Age up, you'll have the chance to pick from one of the five wonders available to you civilization.
Finally, the multiplayer side of Age of Empires has been enlarged with a new game type, King of the Hill. In King of the Hill there's a large central fort that the players have to capture and hold. The delicate equation here is whether or not to race to grab it right at the start and hope that your initial force can hold out long enough for you to reinforce it, or to hang back a bit and let the other players bloody themselves in a back and forth battle before coming in with your own fresh armies that you've been building in the meantime. Since Asian Dynasties isn't on a lot of PCs yet, we've only really been able to dig in to the game type in skirmishes against the PC but so far it seems like a game type that's going to be fairly popular.
Finally, the visual and audio work in the expansion are right up there with what we've come to expect from this series. The units and buildings are well designed and full of lots of lively detail. The wonders look particularly awesome with loads of intricate detailing. And while that's where most of your attention is, the small touches here and there really bring the game to life. Seeing green birds drift high above the carnage, or seeing smoke plumes from burning houses just adds that much more believability to the game. Likewise, the excellent voiceovers carry the drama nicely and are supplemented with the types of music and sound effects we've already come to love in the series.