Genre: Real-time Strategy
Publisher: VU Games
Developer: Mad Doc Software
Release Date: April 26, 2005
Mmmm, real-time strategy. For a genre that really hasn't changed much in the last few years barring modern advances in graphics and sound, real-time strategy games have done fairly well for themselves. Granted, there are mainly two camps of RTS titles; those that feel "right," and those that simply don't. The latter are the titles that you play for maybe a couple of days and never touch again, and the former are made up of those select few titles that are addictive to the point of serious gaming time-warps (it's 4am already?!). Empire Earth was not only an addictive game in its own right but it helped flesh out the scale of combat seen in the likes of other quality titles such as the Age of Empires series. Empire Earth's main shtick was that nearly every facet of combat from prehistoric times to the near future was realized in a single title, with a full-bore game able to see players evolve their civilization from prehistoric cave dwellers wielding rocks and sticks to the swords and shields of the bronze age, to the wooden bi-planes and rudimentary machine guns of World War I, to the Mech pilots and nanotech of the near future.
Empire Earth 2 is the same thing in that once again, the full spectrum of combat is playable, all the way from mankind's first inkling to smash things in the heads with blunt objects. Far from being a rip-off of itself though, Empire Earth 2 not only adds to itself from content and technological standpoints, but it also adds a couple of new features that just might become standard in RTS titles to come. Aside from a few balance issues in the preview build, Empire Earth 2 is just as addictive as the original, only with a little more depth to keep you playing even longer.
The single player aspect of Empire Earth 2 is similar to the original in that there are three distinct branches of the campaign mode, each spanning their own era and filled with historically sound battles, but feels much more cohesive overall. One thing the original title suffered from was simply too much fluff in the campaign mode department, and it was much more fun to enter the skirmish mode and do things as you saw fit. Empire Earth 2's single player isn't quite as freeform as a skirmish mode match of course, but it does offer much in the way of storyline and reasons for your actions, but not at the expense of the entertainment factor as a whole.
In the previous Empire Earth, your epoch (time period) was changed by gathering up x amount of y resources and spending them to advance your people into the next age. Units were furthered via universities and other places of knowledge, and on the units themselves via clicking on specific things that you wanted to improve, such as attack range or movement speed. In Empire Earth 2, you no longer advance by paying resources directly, but rather must first garrison citizens inside universities and priests inside of temples to have them research tech points. Tech points can be spent on a variety of advances in your epoch, from building upgrades to unit improvements, and to advance to the next epoch, a certain amount of the current available technologies must be researched. Certain technologies require specific structures to be available before research can begin, such as cavalry advances needing a stable, etc.
A key change to the Empire Earth formula is the inclusion of territories on the map. Each territory has its own share of resources, but it must first have a city center built within its borders before a foothold can really be maintained. Each area only supports a certain number of specific types of buildings (such as only one university or temple per region), making the large, sprawling mega-cities of RTS titles more of a thing of the past in lieu of a medium-sized main city and a smattering of smaller cities that are far from disposable. This opens up the gameplay somewhat, as it's now less a matter of creating an army of overwhelming force and more of attacking where the enemy is weak and striking where it will hurt the most.
Empire Earth 2 has just as a diverse array of land, air, and sea units as the original title, and though they are structured largely the same, the mechanics between them are a bit different. The advantages of one type of a unit over another are much more readily apparent and are stressed a bit harder than it was in the original title. You really don't want to send swordsmen against mounted infantry, but your spearmen or archers will have a field day perforating horse and man alike. One thing that seemed a bit unbalanced in the preview build is the naval combat, mainly due to the fact that shore guns are almost completely worthless against ships, as ships often outrange them, and a small fleet can often destroy the shore guns with ease. This isn't a problem in itself per se, but you can only build six of such guns per territory, making any area bordered by a large amount of water practically defenseless against seaborne invaders. Ordering air units seems to have become needlessly complicated as well, and though you can still order all planes to attack the same location fairly easily, it is rather difficult to send certain fighters to specific locations. Still, all of these problems are something that can and might have already been fixed, and are far from anything that would condemn the title.
The very act of building things itself has been improved, which is surprising and yet rather odd, considering how little that facet of real-time strategy games has evolved. Units no longer snap onto an invisible grid, but are rather free to be placed however you want, free of any snap-to-grid restrictions. The biggest benefit to this is walls, as you can now place them exactly as you want in whatever angle you prefer, with your only limitation being that construction has to occur on buildable terrain. Once a building has been built, you can "snap" other construction plans to the side of it if you want, giving the user the ability to place a nice tidy row of houses. A rather interesting addition to the build menu is the option to create roads anywhere you want, across rivers (via constructed bridges), through gates, and across any friendly or neutral territory. Have an ally? Make a road between the two of you to facilitate quicker response times and trading, as units move significantly faster when on roads. However, once a road is constructed all units gain that benefit, meaning the same road that allows your armies to quickly reach distant territories can be the same one that not only leads the enemy right back to your base, but makes their arrival more expedient.
Another interesting contribution to the RTS landscape is the little picture-in-picture display in the bottom right, which is rather cool for two reasons. Firstly, it can be set to any location that you want, and when the mouse is placed over it the controls that normally zoom and pan your main view now zoom and pan the PIP, allowing you to keep tabs on one area while your main screen focuses on another. Secondly, the two screens can be swapped at any time, and you can store up to 10 bookmark positions for the PIP. Out attacking an enemy city center when your territories get counter-attacked? Activate the bookmarked view for the PIP then switch the PIP with your main view, letting you have an expanded view of the defense actions in a matter of seconds while your eyes can still see your attacking force plugging away on the PIP.
One thing that is really a nice addition to the mix is the war plans screen, which is essentially a very large and ridiculously detailed minimap of sorts where you can not only see the positions of all of your units and buildings on the known world map, but you can also see the positions of all known resource deposits. In addition, in multiplayer games, you could draw up attack plans for your allies, using arrows to indicate the direction of attack, circles for known enemy positions, or text to give detailed information on an area.
The graphics engine has been ridiculously overhauled, to the point that you will almost need as powerful a PC to push the title to its fullest extent as you would the same for any modern FPS. The units themselves are now not only higher poly and have higher resolution textures on them, but utilize shading to really make them look like actual units on a battlefield as opposed to plastic play pieces sliding about. The same applies for the landscape itself, which looks much more detailed, varied and vibrant, thanks to the increase in texture quality. The look of water in-game is downright impressive, as it is no longer an expanse of monotonous blue but now accurately reflects shore-side units, ships, smoke, and even clouds above. Speaking of smoke, the look and volume of the variety of smoke, explosions, and dust plumes is rather detailed this time around, down to minute particle effects amongst the debris.
The original Empire Earth was a great game all points considered, and was really a noteworthy addition to the genre upon its release. Empire Earth 2 doesn't quite follow the same footsteps as its predecessor, and while it is less groundbreaking in terms of gameplay, it undoubtedly makes its mark using the features it brings to the table, such as the war plans screen and the ridiculously useful picture-in-picture. There are a few kinks to work out before the title is released, and even those kinks notwithstanding, it looks like an Empire Earth title will once again be the reason RTS fans will spend quite a few evenings building up their empires and crushing those who oppose it.
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