Age of Empires Makes a Triumphant Return

After a seemingly endless six years for real-time strategy enthusiasts and fans of the "Age" series, Age of Empires III marks the return of the franchise, and so far the Microsoft Game Studios title is dominating the PC charts. The combination of amazing visuals and realistic physics made the colonial setting in AoE III come to life in ways that previous games in the RTS genre never did.

Microsoft's long-running Age of Empires franchise lost none of its impact among the PC gaming community during its long, six-year hibernation. Developer Ensemble Studios' latest, Age of Empires III, has been the best selling PC title week to week since its release in mid-October (according to NPD data), handily beating PC strategy mainstay Civilization IV, despite being released a week earlier.

AoE III enjoyed significant pre-release hype because it updates the setting several hundred years to the days of cannons and muskets, and upgraded the graphics to a level gamers have rarely experienced. It's one of the best looking games ever released -- a bullet point that will always get gamers talking.

Incredible Technical Achievement

If looks could kill AoE III would have been responsible for the death of thousands of message board posters the world over. The game's release was met with a large and smart ad campaign, but the high-res screenshots that made their way around the Internet during production proved to be a far better marketing tool than any piece of advertising Microsoft Game Studios could have devised.

"The past never looked so great, or at least, not in the last 500 years. With Microsoft backing them, Ensemble Studios had the funding and know-how to put together one of the best looking games ever. Complete with HDR Lighting and many, many other acronyms for 'damn pretty,' this just might be the most beautiful anyone under an inch tall has ever looked," Greg Atkinson said in his GameDAILY review.

Strategic Physics

As the debate over "best graphics" becomes closer and closer to becoming moot thanks to sheer hardware power, a shift, especially in the PC realm, has taken place. More and more emphasis is being put on physics, and how the fundamentals learned in that much-dreaded high school science class can drastically enhance a game's realism. After all, looking realistic doesn't really matter if the object or person doesn't move or behave in a realistic manner.

"With the Havok physics engine imbedded in the game, this is a strategy game in which things shot by a cannon know it...Buildings don't just light with an increasingly large flame, they crack and splinter with an almost visceral pain at each blow," Atkinson said.

Traditionally physics advancements have only taken center stage in the FPS genre, with Half-Life 2 being the last great physics tour-de-force. When Ensemble applied these advanced physics to their strategy title the results were explosive, and significantly helped sell the already impressive graphics.

"Physics are just fun. It's a combo of a highly technical piece of math, art done just right so that it breaks apart properly, and a game design that gets lots of units on the field at once so they can be blown to hell. We've done a ton of demos for Age 3. Once people stop gawking at the overall graphical impact of the game, physics is the money shot that closes the deal," Ensemble Director of Technology Dave Pottinger told GameSpot back in March.

Special Edition Tempts Hardcore

The breakdown of normal vs. collector's edition AoE III sets is unknown, but the game's strong fan base, extremely strong debut, and solid legs all seem to indicate that the $70 premium package most likely was gobbled up by a large percentage of eager early buyers.

The package represented a real reason for gamers to jump onto the AoE III train early as it contains real value for fans -- especially since many Xbox 360 titles carry a suggested MSRP of only $10 less. The collector's edition includes a 210 page "Art of Empires" book, a making-of DVD, the game's soundtrack, and a concept art poster.

Many publishers are releasing "special editions" of titles that might not warrant such special treatment, just to cash-in, but MGS' long-anticipated sequel is a big event for strategy enthusiasts. The collector's edition represented a win/win situation for everyone involved.

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