The first thought that springs to my mind when tackling an established console/PC franchise on the mobile is normally ‘is this going to be anything like the original?’
With mobiles being less powerful and possessing a keypad instead of a gamepad/mouse, alterations are inevitable, with most titles usually ending up with a game that looks, but doesn’t play, like its larger cousins.
Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties surprised me, not just because it’s a fully-functioning real-time strategy game like its bigger brethren, but also because it’s a very good fully-functioning real-time strategy game.
AOE III: TAD’s main campaign takes place during the second Japanese invasion of Korea, spanning the years 1597-98, which is probably the smallest time-span of any AOE game released.
There are three playable nations in the game – Japan, China, and India – each with their own separate units, wonders, and architecture. While the units are quite small on screen, the graphics do a good job of differentiating the various cultures’ units, even if there’s not really that much practical difference between the countries.
As with earlier versions of AOE, TAD (are these acronyms getting annoying?) tasks you with building up a town, harvesting resources, researching technology and roughing up enemy forces with a stick or gun.
The lengthy campaign is excellent, with historical nuggets setting up each mission and a wide variety of developing objectives. Unfortunately, there's the occasional damp squib of a mission, but on the whole the missions are good fun and challenging.
In true RTS fashion, TAD also comes with a Skirmish mode for up to three players and with a variety of game modes, although disappointingly there’s no option for a second human player to join in proceedings.
Using a keypad for controlling an RTS sounds completely barmy, but somehow it works gloriously. The ability to initiate commands while paused and a quick-jump key for idle workers and news alerts are neat features, but the main reason for the controls working is down to how the game handles multiple selections.
Rather than click-dragging as with a mouse, or flailing about helplessly with buttons as with the consoles, multiple selections are performed by selecting a unit two or three times. Two taps selects similar units nearby, such as idle workers or archers, while three selects all units of that type (military or civilian) in the region.
It works extremely well for the most part, with masses of units easily controllable and when combined with the 'pause' button it allows for sneaky tactical choices like picking out your cavalry from a large group and charging them at the enemy artillery.
Fire at will!
Unit and combat AI has been dramatically improved since the previous iteration of the series. No longer will your massive army be slain because you weren’t looking in the right direction, as your troops now automatically engage enemies that rush into their vicinity.
Happily, micromanagement elsewhere is kept to a minimum as civilians automatically go looking for more of the same resource nearby should their initial tree/gold vein/bush fully deplete. If they happen to completely run out, a quick stab of the ‘0’ key jumps the camera across so you can reassign them within seconds.
It all works very well, controls and gameplay moving in tandem to create a very absorbing game where hours can fly by in a blink of an eye. The computer is tough without ever feeling unfair, and the amount of content on offer should satisfy for months.
So while Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties is ‘just’ a mobile version of a big franchise, it rises above the competition by recreating the feel and gameplay of its forebears and making complete use of the mobile’s unique control layout.