Age of Empires is a classic real time strategy series - one that many other games aspire to be. The premise of Age of Empires and similar RTS titles is that you start off your civilization with some basic resources, construct a town hall and from there you send out your villagers to gather resources such as wood, food and gold. From this you can constuct other essential buildings such as farms, houses, barracks, stables and armouries. Then you build up military units to take on your opponents.
The release of Age of Empires III was a major step forward for the franchise as it brought the series from ancient times into the horse and musket era. The game not only introduced players to the colonisation of the Americas but it also introduces some exciting new game concepts. Little wonder then that the game has attracted such a following from strategy game players.
This first expansion: Age of Empires: Warchiefs really picks up from where the original game left off. It introduces into the mix three new civilizations. The Sioux, who are said to have been the greatest exponents of light cavalry in history, the Iroquois who were a surprising well organised league of tribal nations that quickly adopted the weapons of the settlers, and finally the Aztecs, whose mass armies and religious fervour gave many a European trained army a run for their money.
The new campaign takes you through the life and times of Captain Nathaniel Black and the American Revolution, and then his son Clayton Black - a half-breed who is torn between his feelings of nationhood and the plight and future of the native Americans. The country is in turmoil with the colonists seeking independence, the French keen to foster the ideals of le revolution and Mother England trying desperately to hang onto its Empire. All of this is fertile ground for the scenario designers and there are some terrific and challenging battles as a result. We particularly enjoyed revisiting Bunker Hill and Yorktown. It is great to see that this time around there is less of the fanciful plot of the original game and a more historical grounding to the story.
It would have been easy for the game deigners to take these plot designs and wrap them in the usual American rhetoric; however we were pleasantly surprised by how realistic the campaign was in respect to the story, and how it portrayed the greed of the gold prospectors and the lack of understanding of native Americans' affinitiy to the land.
An interesting side note is that the campaign skips from the War of Independence to the Indian Wars. There is only a passing reference to the American Civil War. We wonder if this points to a possible additional expansion pack in the future.
There is a swag of new units both in the new and existing civilizations. The Indians have some very effective light cavalry that are cheap to produce. This opens up some interesting new tactics in multiplayer games. There is also a new light horse-drawn artillery unit which can be particularly devastating in numbers. There are also some more fanciful units such as the trained bears and jaguars.
Added to all of this are some new town improvements including the Native Fire Pit. By getting villages to dance around the fires your town can gain special bonuses such as increased population, medicine men or greater fighting strength. This can be a challenge as you need to balance your economic needs against how many villages you have around the fire pit. Such additions and the inclusion of all-new skirmish and multiplayer maps makes this a very nice package indeed. The only issue we have is that there is still no improvement on the formation options for your units. Other RTS games have included the ability to set up units in formations of march, line, square or column of attack and the inclusion of this in the game would have been the icing on the cake.
The game enigine itself is largely unchanged from Age of Empires III and the graphics, sound effects and music are of the usual high standard you would expect from Ensemble Studios and Microsoft.
Overall, this was a really enjoyable expansion pack. The new features and units appear to have been well thought out and balanced. If you enjoyed the original game you will find the Age of Empires: Warchiefs expansion pack lifts the game up a further notch.