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Age of Empires III

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Familiarity breeds contentment. That seems to be the message from Ensemble Studios, the creators of strategy games whose successes are measured in millions of copies.

This is the fourth Age game, and still its fundamental structure is the same: build structures, collect resources, churn out soldiers, attack the enemy.

"We wanted it to be familiar but not the same," admits Bruce Shelley, Age senior designer. "It's the Age of Empires II gameplay that'll keep you coming back." It's surprisingly honest stuff from the creator of a sequel, but it's also slightly disingenuous.

While many developers deny any resemblance of their game to its prequel because there are hardly any differences, Ensemble freely admit they're building on the monumental success of the series so far. But they're not telling the whole truth.

Experience points? Home cities? Trading routes? Elite native units? A deck of 'cards' enabling you to formulate and implement cunning strategies? There are plenty of new features lurking beneath Age of Empires III's shiny facade.

Take the concept of experience points: for every unit of resource you collect, structure you build or enemy you kill, you get a few points. Level up, and you can select an immediate boost to be delivered from your home city: more settlers, a shipment of resources or a military unit.

In this way, you can modify your strategy, whether to quickly develop an economic structure or focus on military strength early in the game.

The home city is a unique and stylised concept. Essentially, it represents the support of your home nation. As you progress through the single-player campaign, your home city will gradually develop, gaining levels and power itself.

With this growth and development through the ages (eras marking technological/cultural leaps: in AoE3 they're Exploration, Colonisation, Fortress, Industrial and Imperial), you'll have a customised kick-start when founding a new settlement on a new map.

The action takes place throughout the Americas between 1500 and 1850. Taking control of one of the colonising nations, you'll encounter a wide variety of terrain and natives.

Fortunately for the latter, you can neither infect them with killer diseases nor massacre them in their thousands. In fact, you can ally with them, build trading posts on their turf and even encourage them to lend a hand in your armies, as they offer unique units and technologies, such as speedy Apache horses.

The dirty business of fighting only takes place between rival settling nations, and each side has pleasingly distinctive units such as Cuirassiers and Scots Guardsmen.

Scraps are bread-and-butter stuff, lacking unit formations or any of the subtlety we've come to know and love in the Total War games, but they're certainly spectacular, with bodies and buildings sent flying when hit by cannon.

If RTS fans have been starved of multiplayer nutrition since Warcraft III and Rise of Nations, the feast begins soon. Head-to-head and team scraps are again certain to be popular, and we won't bet against Ensemble balancing the nations with aplomb.

You can develop a separate home city for your multiplayer outings, enabling you to hone your strategy down to the last settler.

If polish meant prizes, Ensemble and Age of Empires would win every time. Sun-Tzu probably wouldn't approve of its tactical simplicity, but there's still plenty to win over critics and gamers alike.

Age of Empires III will be out for PC in November

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