Age of Empires III: Details and shots conquered

Like the location of London's BT tower, the famed UFO base Area 51 and Lockheed Martin's jet-building Skunk Works*, the existence of realtime strategy game Age of Empires III has been an open secret for quite a while. We weren't all meant to know about it but somehow we all did.

At least we can now take Ensemble Studios' RTS off that forbidden list because the famed developers have finally decided to step out of the shadows and they've brought a whole heap of screenshots to prove that their game will be ready for release later in the year.

Set between the 16th and 19th centuries, this third instalment of the 16 million-selling series transplants the battle away from the medieval mayhem of Europe and into the imperial scramble for the New World. So while the Americans are still a bunch of tea-drinking, tri-cornered hat-wearing British loyalists, you can play as one of eight empires marching in to enslave the local population and colonise the continent for your favourite cheese-eating European power.

With the solo game stretching across 300 years of almost accurate history, the developers have dramatically enhanced every aspect of these emergent civilisations to boast better trade and technology alongside the ever-improving weaponry and architecture.

So while the invention of gunpowder will allow you to attack armadas of tall ships and use artillery on redcoat riflemen, your soldiers will still stand and fight alongside with cavalry, swordsmen and bowmen. Whichever way you choose to go, be it technology or tradition, you can expect the armies to be larger than ever before while at the same time each unit and formation should boast greater battlefield flexibility.

Take a second to cast your eyes across the selection of sumptuous screens on offer and you'll quickly see why Ensemble are also keen to push the visual quality of this game. For while the musket rounds will now scatter and shred flesh, a brand new physics system will ensure that the cannon balls will convincingly collapse battered buildings and hole ships' wooden hulls.

*The people behind the top secret development of US fighter jets - aircraft history ed

Age of Empires III will be released for PC in the second half of 2005