"drop dead, gorgeous"
Six years ago, the idea of building a civilization from scratch and rushing it to the end of time really appealed to Sierra Entertainment. What if gamers were not satisfied with the way the Second World War ended? Or maybe they just wanted Chinese not to have been the inventors of gunpowder. Or what if they just wanted to explore the limitless possibilities the passing of time offered.. Developer Stainless Steel Studio played the part of the generous genie in this: by laying the foundation of the "Empire Earth" Series they would grant each dreamy gamer their very wishes.
Such, the first game was the one to give Empire Earth (affectionately called EE) its renown. It scored because of its complexity: though the 21 civilizations available in the game had scripted scenarios (all based on real historical facts), players could actually personalize the traits of the people they started with through the tech tree, thus building a whole new world history and also shaping a fresh future. You had to guide your folks throughout no less than 14 eras (from the Prehistoric Age to the Nano Age) and an Expansion Pack soon came to round things up with an additional Space Age.
Each of these "ages" came with its own set of military units and if at first you could guess the flaws of each type of unit (through a "rock-paper-scissors"-like system), as you advanced through time things would become more confusing and as a result, more challenging.
What critics envisioned to be a 3D clone of "Age of Empires 2"soon became to be thought as a hard-core strategy game Ė not only because of complexity but also because it would take more than four hours to get to the last age in normal play mode. For some, "Empire Earth" was even the game of the year 2001.
In 2005, Mad Doc Software Developer has released "Empire Earth 2". As there is no point in getting into details, it is sufficient to say that though the game narrowed down the number of civilizations to 14, it was a worthy sequel to the series which deepened the gameplay mechanics. And now, just when I were getting ready to once again whisper: "The king is dead. Long live the king" with the arrival of "Empire Earth 3", some nifty details made the second part of the statement clog into my throat. I choked, as the king is dead, but there is no worthy successor.
Itís you against a simplified world, baby!
One could state that we may have judged too hastily. But any strategist that puts his greedy hands on "Empire Earth 3" will soon admit that the original concept is buried, DEAD. Itís surprising that Mad Doc Software found simplifying the game a way to success. Truth is, the game-play of Empire Earth 3 looks like a machine gunned cardboard panel. And the chunks that are missing are actually those that made the game unique and not those that made it impossible for some gamers to play.
In an effort to make the game system straight-forward, the developer reduced the civilizations in this sequel to only three, grouped as follows: the West civilization (which Europe corresponds to), the Middle East civilization (starting out in Mesopotamia, with a very "Arabian Nights" theme) and the Far East civilization (the yellow race mostly). The wondrous eras present in the other games have also suffered a drop in numbers and are now limited to only five: Ancient, Medieval, Colonial, Modern and Future. As you may well realize, combining the 14 distinctive races and 15 eras of the previous versions in only three major civilizations spanning across 5 time periods resulted in a huge mess when it comes to cultural traits.
For example, the British also have Macedonian cavalry in their army, while for the Middle East, the producers used their own imagination to populate the military ranks with ridiculous units like "farting camels" which actually have "stink-bomb" superpowers. My favorite though remains the modern "Russian Howitzer". It seems that nobody cared Howitzers had been a sort of artillery that combined a "gun" with a "mortar" during the Second World War and which to their most have been used by the Nazi and the Americans and which were less appreciated by the Russians. In Empire Earth 3 Howitzers are plain, chunky, tanks which donít even fire at long range, and that is a thorn in my heart after having played "Company of Heroes".
Leaving these aside, let us talk about other game "novelties". "Empire Earth 3" features only two play modes (besides multiplayer): "World Domination" (which was known before as "Campaign mode") and the classical "skirmish" game. In World Domination mode the player has to select one of the three civilizations to play with. He is immediately prompted the characteristics of the chosen civilization through a short introductory movie. The game tries to underline that each of the three races is unique: the West army is tough but expensive, relying a lot on technology; the Middle East features a lot of units specialized in hit and run tactics (it is the faction with the most cavalry) and the Far East relies on numbers to successfully finish their battles. Still, these differences are not that obvious - the player can apply the same building and combat strategy for any of the civilizations he chooses to play with.
One of the notable differences between factions would be that the Middle East has mobile buildings, which allow a more flexible game experience. Another one is the way in which a civilization raises its population cap: the West has to build houses just like in Age of Empires, the Mid-East has to construct fortresses and, to its advantage, any military building is a population raiser for the Far East civilization.
After you have made a choice, the game interface is centered on a flashing red province on the World Map, which, supposedly, is in a conflict you have to resolve. Your first mission, unfortunately, summarizes the whole game experience. Throughout the game, you shall do only two things: firstly, at world level, the game is a "Rise of Nations" inspired turn-based mumbo-jumbo, requiring you to conquer all provinces in the world, which are either occupied by natives or already belong to another CPU player. Things wouldnít be so sorrowful if the tutorial explained all World Domination mechanisms.
But it only gives details on how to establish types of regions: in order to evolve you have to accumulate Empire, Military, Tech and Commercial points. Each type of point serves its own purpose. Empire, Commercial and Military are used to hire armies, spies or local province defense known as "militia" (which will appear on map as different "pawns") and Tech points are used to reach new Eras. Points can only be obtained through the conquering of a new province, which you can then assign to one of the mentioned point categories. Each province is more or less prone to producing points and you have to strategically choose its type. Once chosen, the province has its own characteristics, like different militia, and only Military provinces allow recruitment of armies (spies being recruited in Imperial provinces).
Points can also be spent on bonuses that can be applied either to armies or provinces. For example, you can add roads and infrastructure to a province to shorten the time it takes an army to travel through it. This addition, instead of making the game more complex, makes it more frustrating. It is sometimes impossible to tell where those bonuses can be used and the user interface keeps annoying the player with alarms when he tries to misuse them .Diplomacy falls in the same "hey, it could have been nice!" category. Considering the fact that CPU players usually turn hostile in 3 or 4 turns, forming alliances can prove a waste of time. It also proves useless if you apply the "research frenzy" strategy.
Specifically, if you assign most of your provinces as Research ones and advance Ages really fast, your opponents will become outdated and this makes the game highly unrealistic. Not once did I get my armored knights to attack a primitive village and it turned genocide.. there is no fun in no challenge.
Secondly, at province level you are given a pre-built map full of opponents to eliminate or to convince to join your side through small quests. One novelty is that each province territory is further split into smaller areas, which you have to conquer by building a new town-hall on them (something like the "Company of Heroes" flag capturing).
The scenario objectives in former versions have also been replaced with randomly generated optional quests that usually help you in clearing off the map. The only problem with these quests is that they have absolutely nothing to do with the Era you are in. I once got prompted that my loyal nobles had turned against me and a new faction appeared on my map, made up of two of my former areas. So far, so good, but I was in the Modern Era, which ifI recall well, has more to do with capitalism than with feudalism.I could have coped with this flaw if only the quest tracker had given more details upon the new quest. Instead though, I started destroying my former buildings, not knowing that I should actually re-conquer them and this led to my loss of the claimed land.
One of the good modifications brought to the game is that the resource system has been simplified at province level. You no longer need to chop wood, gather food and gold. Any resource you exploit will be added to your resource counter and in order to recruit units you will have to spend wealth, which is accumulated through building markets. Only one market can be built per area so itís pretty obvious that rushing to extend your territory is guaranteed to help you win. Though better, this system also kills realism Ė even in the Future Era you rely on timber and fishing banks to build your civilization. Other things that have been stripped from the game donít give a plus to it though: the morale system which made Empire Earth unique is bye-bye and so are the heroes (yeah, I prefer NOT to call the frog plague summoner of the Mid-Eastern Region a hero, it mocks at my gaming experience).
The developers could have made this micro to macro-gameplay experience a blast, but repetitive missions make enthusiasm die down.Once again it was proven to us that simpler is not necessarily better. Add the brand new bag of bugs and you can really cut the game off your Xmas list.
Bug-o-fobia and Dadaist realism?!
Finally, the bugz! The first thing to strike you when talking about them is that even though the US territories appear in almost every loading screen (making it a bit awkward), they have nothing to do with any of the three regions, practically being left out of the game (at least in World Domination mode).But letís just call this a minor, forgotten detail. Compared to other glitches, this one is just a white lie. The most serious bug can be found at the gameplay level: over 10 times in a row, if I attacked a province and entered province level and then retreated my troops from the territory I would automatically conquer it anyway, though my army would suffer damage (also called attrition in the game). At times, the game comes back to normal and the conquering doesnít occur, but I still had trouble in figuring out what is responsible for this bug.
The AI of the game is also heavily bugged and not too bright either: CPU players tend to leave their town-hall undefended, while units donít even have basic path-finding and most of the times they stop to admire the scenery, immediately forgetting their task. Ballistas and later on, two story tall robots are clumsy, they get stuck into textures and, amazingly, canít attack buildings that are under construction. The same buildings are functional before even being finished and sometimes they eat up your workers like a sort of black widows..The user interface canít come in a more frustrating package than that either. Buttons are less responsive than they should be, there is no idle worker feature and the army command keyboard shortcuts have probably not been scripted as the game doesnít react to them.
I am sorry to state that the graphics fall in the same bag oí bugs category. For a game that boasts an Ageia Physics installation package, well, you shouldnít be able to chipp off huge chunks of buildings when attacking with spearmen. And I do wonder who Mad Doc Software wanted to fool when choosing such cheeky, Warcraft like graphics. In fact, because of the cheesy graphics and the low-detail models, buildings or units of the same factions are rarely distinguishable from one another. And "EE" has always been a series about realism and history. The camera doesnít have huge issues, but that is, ironically, due to the fact that the angle canít be modified too much. On the whole, it is quite obvious that the developer has used the old visual engine, updated to support distortion effects and dynamic lighting. And this engine doesnít keep up with todayís eye-candy.
I was still hoping that at least the sound effects would save this Empire Earth sequel. But the music is a total scritch-scratch, irellevant in any battle where bangs and flashes cover up everything. Following the same cartoony feel, units give stupid comments and they all seem to cut out specific bad personality traits. Horny rangers prefer to flirt with you: "you should see me under my armor" while the lazy cavalry mock their own characterisitcs: "Iím behind you, way behind you." Though this apparent dialogue might pull a smile off your face at first, after two hours of continuous fights and evolving it will become repetitive, trust me. The good point in this is that the skirmish (and multiplayer) mode doesnít feature almost half of those bugs. The scripted quests are no longer present there and the player can even choose to play more specific civilizations, like the British, USA, Muslims and such.
And so, we bury another famous series. I wish I had more patience with the successor of one of the games that molded my childhood. But when this game stresses even the most Crysis capable rig, tickles your nerves with nifty bugs, outdated graphics and jingly tunes, maybe itís time to accept the truth. Game are less of what they once used to be..