Originally created 12/26/05

Strategy games let you build an empire

Even in a video game, global domination is no easy feat. Religion, politics, culture and geography are among many interwoven factors that can be a help and hindrance.

We tested our sociopolitical savvy in two new titles for personal computers - "Age of Empires III" and "Civilization IV" and found they both provide a compelling, highly addictive challenge.

Both titles fall in the historical strategy genre. Your task involves taking a paltry band of settlers and building an empire through various means. The similarities end there.

Combat is the only real tactic in single-minded "Age of Empires III" (Rated T, $49.99).

It's a straightforward, sometimes maddening real-time strategy game which features the era of European expansion in the New World as a backdrop.

You start out creating a town center, then use some townsfolk to gather resources. These minions fuel the engine of your empire and create specialized structures like barracks for armies and docks for ships.

Winning usually comes down to controlling the most resources, building the largest army and having an answer to anything your foes may throw at you. This tricky balance sometimes gets bogged down in micromanagement, but winning is a rewarding experience nonetheless.

It's a significantly different feel from "Civilization IV," (Rated E-10+, $49.99).

Like a chess game, you take turns adjusting tactics, positioning forces and constructing cities in a quest to rule the world.

There's just so much more depth here than can be squeezed into a short review.

Fans of the enduring series, which spans the Stone Age to the Space Age, will find a lot to like in this new version from game guru Sid Meier. Novices, consider yourself warned: Once you get past the game's somewhat steep learning curve, prepare for many sleepless nights.

Die-hards will find the core gameplay has received some welcome tweaks that really streamline the incredible complexity here.

A major plus (and no doubt my wife will concur) is the ability to adjust game speed. Though I still enjoy the occasional eight-hour marathon session, you can now speed things up and win the world (or lose) in as little as an hour or so.

I can't say enough about the excellent soundtrack and superb voiceovers by none other than Leonard Nimoy, Spock of "Star Trek" fame.

Both games offer online modes for endless replay value.

"Age of Empire III" sports a three-dimensional world that's very easy on the eyes but sometimes slowed to a crawl on my PC. "Civilization IV" has a cleaner, deceptively simple interface that's less flashy but ran without any hiccups. The godlike ability to zoom out into the stratosphere and see the entire world is truly breathtaking.

Both titles offer something for history buffs and gamers with some serious managerial skills, but "Civilization IV" ultimately wins this battle with its engrossing mix of seemingly infinite depth and variety.

Four stars out of four for "Civilization IV," two and a half for "Age of Empires III."

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