Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Mad Doc Software
Release Date: Fall 2007
Empire Earth III is larger than its real-time strategy contemporaries, yet smaller than its numbered predecessor. According to game designer Ben Wilson, Empire Earth II was too big for its own good, despite a strong retail performance and mostly positive reviews. "It was this kitchen sink approach, and people were really overwhelmed," he said, referring to the inclusion of 15 distinct epochs in the game. With so much content, players were not adequately rewarded for completing tasks, and the overall experience lost a bit of its luster.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that Empire Earth III will be a short game; it is merely more focused than Empire Earth II was. Just five epochs will make the cut in Empire Earth III, though it will still cover the same time span as its predecessor (the epochs will come in more obvious chunks). With about 15 hours of play in the single-player game, the developers believe Empire Earth III will be longer than the average RTS, due in large part to the inclusion of world-level play.
World Domination is what they're calling the single-player campaign, and Wilson believes it will change the way we experience RTS games. "It's sort of the meat and potatoes of our single-player game," he said. "Most RTS games have really linear, scripted campaigns and storylines; you play through it once and you're done. We wanted to have a much more open-ended game that can change every time."
The single-player experience can be changed via alternate start positions, and the scripted missions of other genre entries have been replaced by event prompts that will pop up both on the world level and on the battlefield. Players will have the option to accept or decline these event prompts, though completing one will result in the player earning a "concrete reward," according to Wilson. With more of an emphasis on worthwhile rewards, the developers hope that players will feel more compelled to expand the experience by taking on more optional missions.
Three playable races (Middle Eastern, Western, and Far Eastern) inhabit the world of Empire Earth III, and the advent of the World Domination mode means that many of the gameplay elements are persistent. Any upgraded techs in one epoch will carry over into the others, and structures and units built in a particular area will remain there even when playing elsewhere on the world map.
At a recent press gathering, Wilson and fellow Mad Doc Software developer Eric Krasnauskas showed off several levels from Empire Earth III. World Domination mode will feature up to 60 province maps, but don't expect a cookie-cutter approach to level design. Changes in geography and terrain will directly influence your tactics in the game, and many stages will feature unique NPCs that players can choose to interact with.
In one mission (which took place in Louisiana), a potentially hostile local chief asks you to rescue his kidnapped daughter, and doing so gives him a more neutral perspective. At that point, you can choose to feed him money until he swears fealty to your cause. Players can then issue commands to the natives, but they're really just suggestions; the stubborn locals retain some independence despite swearing allegiance. The native units are low-tech and cannot expand, but it gives the player something to interact with, and their help could come in handy (assuming they don't rebuff your commands).
Empire Earth III will support up to eight players for online multiplayer, and the team is primarily concerned with improving the experience over that of its predecessors (rather than completely overhauling it). "We're spending a lot of time making sure it's fast and balanced, and distinct for all three races," Wilson noted. Diplomacy options really help to define the experience, as it allows for alliances and treachery alike. "Diplomacy is something that's pretty exciting in an eight-player game," said Wilson. "There's all sorts of backstabbing, trading back and forth, and drawing up war plans."
Upgrading the visual experience has been a crucial aspect of the development process for Mad Doc Software. "We've revamped the whole graphics engine," claimed Wilson. "We have realistic physics modeling, units with ragdoll [physics], and buildings [that] chunk in different pieces." But just as important as improving visual fidelity is giving the series a strong dose of humor and personality.
"One thing I wanted to do that was a little different from previous Empire Earth games was give all of our units a little character," said Wilson. "They're not cartoonish, but they are a little exaggerated. We've tried to put a lot of humor into the voice-overs for the units." While playing in a futuristic era, snarky robots dropped one-liners like, "Time to walk the red carpet ... of blood!" Mad Doc's attempts at humor shine through elsewhere in the game, such as with the "Camel Stench" special attack, which is ... well, exactly what you would expect it to be.
Though the Empire Earth series has yet to grace a console system, the developers were not opposed to the idea of an eventual console port. "I wouldn't rule it completely out for [Empire Earth III]," quipped Wilson. "We'd like to do it."
But Krasnauskas seemed less receptive to the idea that this iteration of Empire Earth would be the first to make the leap. Though he acknowledged that some recent console RTS games (such as The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-Earth II) have turned out well, he claimed that Empire Earth III was too complicated in its current form to work on a console. "I don't think Empire Earth III is going to make it to a console," he said, "but I wouldn't be surprised if Empire Earth IV started that way."
Any legitimate speculation over the initial destination of Empire Earth IV may have to wait a couple of years — Empire Earth III is Mad Doc's obvious priority, and the team is working feverishly to have it in the hands of PC gamers this fall.
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