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PC Review - 'Empire Earth II'

by Reldan on May 11, 2005 @ 12:47 a.m. PDT

Empire Earth 2 will build upon the award-winning formula of its predecessor by adding features requested both by casual game players interested in a brief spin through history and by more hard core gamers who demand a real-time strategy game that will challenge them for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: VU Games
Developer: Mad Doc Software
Release Date: April 26, 2005

Buy 'EMPIRE EARTH II': PC

I'm not going to lie, Empire Earth II is not really my type of RTS. I've always been a fan of the more action-oriented RTS games, such as Starcraft, Warcraft, C&C, and the recent Act of War. This game falls more in line with the Age of Empires line of games, which to me always felt like someone took Sid Meier's classic Civilization and made it run in real time for kicks.

The biggest problem I have with this game is that it feels like more of the same. If you already own Rise of Nations, I can't imagine why you'd want or need this game, as aside from a few gimmicks it plays much the same, only with less diversity between the sides and worse graphics. There are three main new developments that excite me: a picture-in-picture mode, which amounts to giving the player an extra window that displays a selected piece of turf and can be used just like the main game screen; a worker management system that allows you to assign a certain number of workers to various resources, and then takes care of actually micromanaging the workers units themselves (a lifesaver in a game with as many resources as this one); and a 2D tactical map mode where you can draw plans and share them with both human and computer allies. While it does offer these few new tools, which I hope to see again in future RTS games, that's about all you're going to find interesting or new here.

The single player offers standard fare, a few campaigns (such as Americans and Koreans), the ability to play as either side in a variety of "turning point" historical battles (like the D-Day landing), a skirmish mode, and a tutorial "campaign" that ever so slowly crawls through how to play the game (it'll take you about 40-50 minutes to get through).

Empire Earth II breaks the whole of human evolution and technological advancement into 15 epochs, each of which represents a technological level. This may be the first game I've ever seen where you can "tech up" into the Dark Ages. I mean, I always thought that the Dark Ages was a step backwards, but apparently not including that era wouldn't have been historically accurate or something. What this means is that it's possible to start with what amounts to a bunch of cavemen and lead them through all of human advancement up to and beyond modern day, in the course of a few hours. Each epoch contains 12 different technologies, six of which must be researched before you can advance to the next epoch. These technologies are typically just invisible percentage bonuses to various units, which mean that while they do affect gameplay, you probably won't notice them very much unless you are remarkably attentive.

Combat uses the RPS system, which stands for Rock-Paper-Scissors system, which somehow manages to be simultaneously overly complex and overly simple. Every combat unit in the game breaks down into one of six categories (light and heavy infantry, light and heavy cavalry, light and heavy artillery). Each category gets a 150% bonus against another category, and a 125% bonus against a different other category. One problem is that this system basically says that there are no hard counters (the bonuses are too small to dramatically affect gameplay or overcome a numerical advantage). The simplest solution is to have a lot of everything (or an overwhelming amount of one thing), which to me dumbs down the battles into an issue-attack-move-and-watch-and-pray kind of game.

There is a severe lack of diversity among the different nations in the game. When they call the game "Empire Earth," I don't think they're being figurative as much as being literal. It pretty much feels like you're playing as a minor sect of a much greater Earth Empire side. Almost every unit and all the technologies in the game are shared between all the nations, making every side play essentially the same. I guess that means the game is probably balanced at least, for whatever that's worth. I personally prefer having distinct and unique sides that provide different play experiences. The only real difference between the sides are slight bonuses at doing different things (like extra population limit per house or the like), which again is not a new idea by a long shot. The nation you pick will grant you access to a single unique unit at any given time. Each nation gets a total of three unique units, one you can build betweens epochs 1-5, one from 6-10, and one from 11-15. I've got to give Japan credit here, since I think they come out ahead on this one by having samurai and ninjas as unique units. They don't make a lot of difference in-game, but damn if ninjas don't make everything better just by being… well… ninjas.

The AI leaves much to be desired in skirmish mode. In my experience, I was able to defeat three normal AI computers using nothing but priests (conversion is as cheesy as it's ever been) and catapults, and … signing peace treaties with them and then building fortresses next to their cities and declaring war immediately afterwards. Maybe this is abusing the system or exploiting some AI glitch, but even so, I find it kinda sad. It wasn't as if I went out of my way to figure out some advanced strategy to win. The computer will randomly say things to you like "I'm going to beat you down!" or the like, in some attempt to seem more human, I guess. It'd be almost neat if it weren't for how stupid it sounds when they threaten you after you've defeated their army and are going through the motions of finishing off their city. I'd be more impressed if they started saying things like "Cheap tactic, n00b!" or "Learn to play, chobo!" at that point in the game and then disconnected, since that better simulates real online experiences at these kinds of games.

The graphics in this game are bad. Horribly so. The unit animations and textures look like they were done years ago, and stuff just looks blocky and grainy, and motion is quite stilted. The screenshots don't really do it justice because you need to see the game in action to really understand what I mean. Before you ask, yes, I am playing the game on absolute maximum graphics settings – it doesn't really help. The one thing that does look kinda cool are the weather effects, such at torrential rains or blizzards. And by look cool, I mean that in a block-out-your-entire-view-of-the-screen way. This is a case of "What-the-hell-were-they-thinking?" because if you leave the weather effects on the game, occasionally, and randomly, it decides to completely eliminate your ability to play for extended periods of time with over-the-top blizzards that remove all visibility of anything and everything on the ground. The weather effects are so annoying that the game pretty much forces you to turn them off in order to play, which defeats the point of having them in the first place.

Each nation has its own theme song, which is a nice touch, since that's probably going to be the easiest way to tell which particular nation you're playing at any given time, since the vast majority of units in the game are shared between all nations and have the same limited set of voice samples. The only unique voices in the game for each side come from a couple of special units which are unique to a particular nation.

In the end, Empire Earth 2 is a basic historical RTS that offers few additions to the genre, other than some interesting interface additions, which I can only wish were attached to a better game.

Score: 7.5/10

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