Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment
Developer: Mad Doc Software
Release Date: November 6, 2007
Like so many other hardcore RTS fans, I have eagerly awaited the arrival of Empire Earth III. Now after having spent a couple of weeks putting it through its paces, I can honestly say I wish they had stopped at Empire Earth II.
Empire Earth III is a substantially simplified version of the two previous offerings. The decision to drastically minimize the game was probably made due to criticism that EE2 had become too complicated, and the addition of features such as picture-in-picture and the citizen manager were just unnecessary bloat. In the single-player mode of Empire Earth III, you can either play a world domination game (in lieu of the previously scripted campaigns) or a customizable skirmish mode. The game also includes a multiplayer component for up to eight players, though it's almost identical to the single-player skirmish mode. To help players get started, Empire Earth III includes an in-game tutorial.
The styling and textural depth of the graphics in Empire Earth III are reminiscent of Warcraft II. Although you'll never get confused as to which units and buildings are yours in Empire Earth III, the simplified color and texturing means the game always looks at least a decade old. The only visual elements that seem to have been updated are the environmental and special effects for fire, smoke, snow and water. The unit animations are a bit lackluster and are further cheapened by ridiculous visual flaws, such as when units in motion simply slide stationary units aside instead of finding a path around them. After you've selected units, some of the selection rings that appear seem excessively thick.
Empire Earth III offers four types of terrain on which to play: arctic, arid, temperate or tropical; unfortunately, you won't find any maps with a combination of these terrain types. In addition to having a different appearance, each of these map types correlates with a weather cycle. The game maps also feel small and overly restrictive compared to earlier Empire Earth versions, with an overabundance of impassible terrain that you must continuously navigate through and around.
There is no traditional scripted single-player campaign in Empire Earth III; it has been replaced with a world domination mode that, after just a short period of time, struck me as being an unpolished and superficial attempt to simulate the enjoyable world conquest mode found in the Rise of Nations series. Even after walking through the tutorial at least twice and spending several hours engaged in playing the world domination mode, the elements that comprised the world mode (strategic) and the battle mode (traditional RTS action) didn't fit well together. Ironically, I found this campaign replacement to be much more confusing to navigate than the EE2 game in its entirety. As much as I tried to like this mode, I just didn't. Do you remember all of the civilization choices and eras you had available in earlier versions of Empire Earth? In Empire Earth III's world domination mode, you have the choice of playing as one of three regional civilizations (Far Eastern, Middle Eastern and Western) that can be advanced through five different eras (Ancient, Medieval, Colonial, Modern, Future). Although you can add special abilities and upgrades to your civilizations, their uses are extremely convoluted, and the actual benefits are difficult to measure.
By their very nature, RTSes are time-consuming to play, and what can quickly kill the fun is to make the gameplay too repetitive and overly systematic. This situation is usually avoided by limiting map resources and providing good, adaptive AI. Unfortunately, Empire Earth III has neither of these two traits, so you'll quickly find yourself having to deal with the tedium of exploring, collecting, building and fighting the same way on just about every map you play. In a world domination game, you play on a lot of maps, but they're often the same maps.
To test this, I set up the required resource chains and a rudimentary defense, and then I left for an hour or two. When I returned to Empire Earth III, I was both healthy and wealthy — not a good sign. The AI was only occasionally aggressive regardless of the difficulty settings, and the most challenging encounters with the AI usually occurred when, upon entering the battle mode, their initial placement was right next to my starting point, which meant I was unable to start any resource chains prior to being thrown into battle.
Empire Earth III has simplified the collection of resources by bundling them together. You're now only required to set up and enhance two supply chains, resources and wealth; resources can be ore, wood or even fish (depending on the map), and wealth is generated by setting up city centers, markets and docks. Even the diplomacy system in Empire Earth III has been simplified. Now you can propose or cancel an alliance, declare war or neutrality, or offer a tribute to another group to help improve your popularity. Some of the specific in-game objectives have players either establishing alliances or destroying them. Unfortunately, there are no great incentives to entice players to follow along with these objectives; you'll often reap the same benefits by just wiping out the other factions instead of wooing them with resources and false idols.
The single-player game includes a skirmish mode, which is somewhat reminiscent of the old Empire Earth, with the exception that there are fewer options to configure. In my opinion, this game mode is the only one worth playing because it provides the closest experience to the original Empire Earth games.
I have a fairly decent system that can run most of the latest releases with minimal effort, but with Empire Earth III, I regularly experienced lagging and other performance issues. While playing lengthy games, I regularly received messages that I was running out of video memory so the game was going to downscale the video quality. Now, it would make much more sense to me for the developers to use a more effective algorithm to manage video memory instead of spending time writing code that detects the problem and downgrades your graphics settings.
The music scoring for Empire Earth III fits the gameplay quite nicely and is as effective and seamless as it has always been in the series. Although the basic in-game sound effects are appropriate and help to support the action, the battle unit's puns and off-colored responses to issued commands are generally annoying and much too repetitive. At this point in the RTS genre, it is universally accepted that as a developer, either you add enough responses to squelch the repetition or you only occasionally issue the responses. I enjoy a good pun and even the occasional rude joke from time to time (you get both in Empire Earth III), but even the funniest of quips become painfully tedious when it's repeated every time you issue a command to one of your fighting units.
Empire Earth III supports up to eight players in multiplayer mode either over the Internet via GameSpy or on a LAN. Games are set up similar to the single-player skirmish mode; the hosting player will set all of the game options, while joining players can choose a civilization and a handicap, if desired. While I spent considerably less time trying out the multiplayer mode, I did find the games to be much more enjoyable without having to play against the poor and predictable AI. There were, however, considerable lag and a few crashes during the multiplayer games that I played. The lagging wasn't a big surprise considering I'd been experiencing the same thing in the single-player mode.
For a franchise that started out by redefining the RTS genre, Empire Earth III has sadly taken a serious turn for the worse, and in this incarnation, you'll find very little of what made the original Empire Earth great. You can probably get a few good games out of both the skirmish and multiplayer modes if you can tolerate the annoying combat unit responses, dated graphics and clunky gameplay. I, for one, will be keeping my fingers crossed that Empire Earth can be returned to its former glory someday, but until then, you'll probably want to do what the developer of Empire Earth III has done and forget that it ever existed.
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