Nov 1, 2007
After two years on shelves, Age of Empires III was beginning to look like it was locked in predictability. So The Asian Dynasties expansion from developer Big Huge Games (best known for creating Rise of Nations) arrives at just the right time, like new menus showing up at your favorite Chinese place just when you're getting sick of the same old sweet-and-sour chicken balls. New civilizations that play unlike any of their predecessors, a host of revamped features, and a return to AoE's past with the revival of Wonders spice up the core gameplay in a much-needed way.
As expected from the title, Asian Dynasties moves the focus of the RTS series from the European settlement of the New World to the Far East. So say a sad sayonara to the Cherokee and Aztecs and a sunny konichi-wa to the Japanese, Chinese, and Indians. Each new civ is represented in three abbreviated five-scenario campaigns telling the story of the Japanese shogunate in the 16th century, a Chinese fleet that discovers the west coast of North America in the early 15th century (don't laugh - the 1421 theory is pretty popular these days), and the Indian rebellion against the British in the 19th century. The new civs are more than fresh faces, too, although they also look a lot different than their European and Native American rivals thanks to unique visuals. You certainly haven't seen the likes of the Chinese flying crow, Japanese samurai, and Taj Mahal-like Indian temples elsewhere in the AoE III series.
Playing any one of this trio is like learning a whole new game. The Japanese have quasi-mystical shrines that summon animals for food and mobile armies based around daimyo generals able to receive home-city shipments and train soldiers. Indians buy villagers with wood instead of food and send huge elephants into the field of battle. And the Chinese field whole mixed-unit armies through the War Academy building, which really helps when you need to fight fast.
Other across-the-board tweaks impact on all three civilizations. The biggest of these is the new Export resource. It is collected automatically based on a percentage of the traditional wood, food, and coin, and is then utilized to order help from European allies. Store up enough Export, build a Consulate, and you can soon be whistling up armies from the Dutch or English, or buying units and weapons. What's more, foreign armies count as just a single unit against your unit cap, meaning that you can add an entire army of redcoats with just a single available space.
And old-timers should be happy about the return of Wonders. This blast from the past makes its first appearance in AoE III, with their construction now being a prerequisite for age advancement. Basing historical ages on building the likes of the Great Buddha or the Confucian Academy seems artificial in addition to the usual resource demands, although you can't argue with the flavor they add. Each of the 15 Wonders (five per civ) grants powerhouse abilities like boosted attack damage and hit points (the Indian Tower of Victory) or the ability to instantly heal all units (the Chinese Temple of Heaven). These historical and mythological elements add character and tactical considerations to the choice of what Wonder to build and when.
About the only thing that this expansion doesn't get entirely right is multiplayer. The new Regicide and King of the Hill games are been-there, done-that, and new maps like Honshu and Silk Road are merely variations on old themes (even if the latter's focus on controlling trade depots is sort of nifty). Still, you can't complain too much because the new civs and gameplay features mix up the old multiplayer maps so much that it's like playing online for the first time.
It's hard to believe that any two-year-old game could be livened up this much with an expansion pack, but Big Huge Games has pulled off this trick just about perfectly with The Asian Dynasties. While the core gameplay is still recognizable, this is a great facelift that makes an old friend look young again.