Graphics & Physics
One of the most obvious innovations comes in the form of AOE3’s graphics and physics. “I think one of the things that invigorated the genre is the graphics,” says Street. “We could finally do some of the things that first-person shooters and RPGs have been doing for a while. We don’t have to tell the artists, ‘Oh, you can’t put that unit in the game, it has too many polys’ or ‘We can’t have shadows casting under shadows because the game will crash.’ It’s been nice not to tell people that.”
It turns out that the game’s stellar look benefited from an Xbox 360 game that was scrapped. “There was a prototyped engine shown to Bill Gates,” Shelley explains, “with lighting stuff that hadn’t been in many games at that point—it was a 360 game. We decided to put some of our assets—essentially, the home city—into that engine to see what it looked like. When that game got canceled, it freed up really high-end art and graphics guys, and we saw it was a good opportunity to pull them in, and pull that technology in.”
“That” technology reads like a laundry list of the best graphics tools out there: High dynamic range lighting makes scenes look more natural because it allows for the representation of the sun’s beams bouncing off reflective surfaces. Bump-mapping and specular mapping mean that shiny substances like water and metal glisten as they should. One programmer’s entire job was ensuring that water effects were portrayed realistically, with details like flotsam and jetsam, foam near the shore, and accurate water motion. And shadows are now “naturally” cast according to where the sun is. It all adds up to environments that are incredibly detailed and realistic looking.
That realism is also mirrored in physics effects. The Havok engine at work results in rag-doll physics that throw bodies during battles, and in structural damage that far more accurately mirrors the actual results of, say, a cannonball striking a building. Even the trees are physics enabled, so an errant cannonball can hit them and knock them down.
At the end of our time together, Bruce Shelley reminds me that “[CGW] wrote about how the age of the RTS is dead, how Age of Mythology was the last great RTS game,” (which we did, in our December 2002 cover story). “This has been a struggle for us: trying to innovate but [still] hold on to making an Age game.” It’s possible that after a full review of Age of Empires III, we may end up rescinding our earlier pronouncement—but for now, we can say that if the goal was innovation within the realm of the game we know and love, the AOE3 team should already be celebrating its success.