The Asian Dynasties is the second expansion for Ensemble Studio's strategy Age Of Empires III, however curiously enough the development has been farmed out to Rise of Nations gurus Big Huge Games. AOE III never really captured the popular appeal that AOE II had, so perhaps this is an attempt to draw new blood to an old title? Either way, they've done a pretty good job.

Much like the first expansion, The Warchiefs, it's really a case of padding out the game and introducing new cultures and new winning scenarios. What separates Asian Dynasties from The Warchiefs is a sense of purpose and practicality. The new factions included, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Indians, are far better executed than the American Indian tribes previously added to the game.

Towns are vibrant, buzzing places with well detailed improvements, and lack the sterility of their European & American Indian counterparts. There also appears to be less overall movement between buildings to apply these improvements - in the fifth age, for example, there is no "Capitol" as its function has been relegated to your town centre, and upgrading units can be done exclusively from the building producing the unit rather than an arsenal.

Probably the biggest difference however is the use of World Wonders to advance an age. Previously, once the required resources had been stockpiled, you could simply elect to advance and wait for the status bar to reach the end. In The Asian Dynasties, you now choose a Wonder to build that equals the value of those resources. Again, these structures are meticulously detailed, and as you have to assign your own villagers to construct them there is a real sense of achievement when you advance to the next age.

The Wonders also have the advantage of providing you with additional benefits; the Taj Mahal will give you a brief period of cease fire, whilst the Japanese Buddha gives you the equivalent of a temporary "Spies" improvement. Some other structures will provide you with a supply of food, or perhaps constantly pump out artillery - choosing the right Wonder to build at the right age is now an integral part of the game, and destroying your opponents collection of Wonders could be a game-winning strategy.

Another addition to the game is "Export", which has been added as a resource in its own right. Once you build a consulate, you can ally yourself with one of four Western or Asian powers, allowing you to receive shipments of resources or even weapons from them. Combine this with your home shipments, and you can almost replace an entire army in a matter of seconds, although the export can take a long time to replace.

Along with a bunch of new maps, The Asian Dynasties also includes the new strategy of "King Of The Hill", in which one player occupies a fort in the centre of the map, and all other players attempt to capture it. It's not exactly novel, but it does give you something else to try, although even on "expert" it seemed a bit of a walkover. Also making an appearance is the old "Regicide" game strategy, which is essentially the same deal as AOE II in that you have one "king" unit that must be defended at all costs whilst you send your armies out to destroy the other players regents.

The campaign mode is fairly typical fare for AOE III. If you can sit through the excessive and often fairly tedious dialogue, you'll most likely enjoy the various additions present in The Asian Dynasties. But the real replay factor has always been the skirmish mode. There are a couple of bugs still present, namely villagers can finish chopping a tree and fail to move on to a tree next to them, and for some inexplicable reason the AI still do not build walls. The Chinese, too, are insanely overpowered, however I understand the latest patch addresses this issue. The game did get noticeably choppy on our high-end review PC in the heat of battle, but this is to be expected with the amount of activity present.

Expansions are great for RTS games, and provided the developer doesn't push it too far and introduce an excess of new content that confuses the gamer, they're almost always successful. The Asian Dynasties is a worthwhile addition to the AOE franchise and one that will provide many hours of entertainment for seasoned RTS players as well as newcomers. If you want a detailed list of the improvements, the Wikipedia page is fairly spot-on, but to be honest the most fun I had with this game was just jumping straight in and finding out for myself.