You may have noticed a strange trend within the world of PC gaming over the last 12 months, which has had both a positive and a negative effect on the whole industry -progress. After years of being trapped in a virtual time loop, in which developers repeatedly churned out more of the same, all of a sudden the industry seems to have picked itself up off its sorry arse and tried to take games to the next level. Take Shogun and Ground Control, for example, or the trend towards online gaming, with classics such as Counter-Strike showing us the way forward.
On the flip side, though, we're starting to see a negative outcome from this sudden ambition, with some developers whining that their dreams can't be fulfilled due to technological restrictions - Freelancer being a prime example. However, Rick Goodman and his team at Stainless Steel Studios have managed to resist falling into the latter category, and are currently feverishly working on the completion of their latest project, RTS Empire Earth.
I was lucky enough to get to see the game first hand at a presentation in San Francisco a couple of months ago, after which I got to talk to Rick Goodman about his latest brainchild. Empire Earth is Goodman's second games project, having previously been the co-creator of Age Of Empires. His vision when he formed this new development company was to create an RTS on a truly epic scale, in which the gameplay spans a massive 500,000 years of human history, starting with primitive man and ending with a sci-fi future.
Expand That Empire
EE's central theme is to take an empire - either customised or one of 12 predefined ones - and advance it through periods of history. As each epoch passes, your empire will grow more powerful and more advanced, and you'll even be able to reshape the past due to Goodman's insistence on historic accuracy. This means you could find your nation embroiled in the Napoleonic wars or battling against Alexander the Great's armies.
At first glance, EE looks little more than a cross between Civilization II and one of the Command & Conquer games, with its apparent isometric playing viewpoint. To an extent this isn't too far from the truth, as the simplest way to control the action will be from the overhead viewpoint. However, Stainless Steel has provided the option of zooming into the action, so much so that you virtually feel as though you're there. You'll be able to watch the land, air and sea battles from a variety of viewpoints, and Goodman demonstrated this to us by moving the camera into the cockpit of a WWII fighter plane, from where we watched an entire dogfight unfold.
We were also shown how the 3D game engine works, with walls and raised ground obscuring or reducing a unit's line of sight. Rick was keen to point out that fun gameplay has always been more important to him than absolute realism. While many of the 200 combat units are modelled on real-life statistics, it was never an option to sacrifice the 'fun element' (as he called it) in order to make everything as lifelike as possible.
Throughout the eras, there'll be five different resources for you to collect, depending on the needs of the time. There's also going to be huge scope to play EE the way that suits your playing style. If your leadership qualities are more Ghandi than Stalin, you can concentrate on building your empire up as an economic power rather than a brutal military one. Depending on how successful you are, you'll be given varying amounts of Civilisation Points, which you can then use to upgrade the different sections of your empire in areas such as farming, economy and the military.
We were treated to some truly epic battles, in which ground, air and sea forces all clashed at once. Goodman explained that every unit has its own particular strength and weakness, and every single one has a counter-unit. In addition to this, your planes will need rearming and refuelling, and you'll be able to customise each vehicle by playing around with their statistics in the game editor. A scenario editor will enable you to create your own maps.
Of course, no modern-day game would be complete without extensive online options. EE is set to allow eight players to clash online, and if development time permits, Goodman hopes to raise this to 16. The online experience looks like it's going to be a huge amount of fun, as you'll be able to advance your empire through the ages, meaning shrewder players could well be developing tanks and irrigation systems, while their opponent's units are still dragging their wives around by the hair.
When I spoke to Goodman, I asked what the most exciting moment of this project was for him. "One of the most exciting days for me was after the first 12 months, when the graphics guy got a teapot on the screen. That was an exciting day," he said.
Perhaps we'd have needed to have been there to truly appreciate the excitement caused by a hot beverage dispenser floating on a blank background, as his zeal was lost on me and the blank-faced journalists around me. Each to their own though. Personally, 1 saw more than enough of EE to get excited about... and there wasn't a teapot in sight. Finally, I asked Goodman how much Age Of Empires had influenced Empire Earth, as the two titles bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. "The project stemmed from AOE in terms of all the tilings I didn't have time for in that first project. I'm getting the chance to do those things now in Empire Earth."
That much is clear, as EE is a huge leap forward from those early days of the RTS, and its scope and ambition, if realised in the end product, could well put even the brilliance of Civilization in the shade. Only time will tell if it's just another RTS with a few novelties or a huge step forward for the genre, but if AOE is anything to go by, Goodman and co could well have a product that joins the much-welcomed recent crop of games which further their genre.
Download Empire Earth
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Empire Earth is without doubt one of the most stunning feats of endeavour since I Iannibal squeezed his elephants over the Alps. Covering more than 500,000 years of inglorious war spanning 14 epochs, this is the kind of game you can take to school, play during history and get away with it on educational grounds.
But let's not get carried away. Sure, the researchers for EE must have exhausted the world's supply of Prozac months ago, but the fact remains it's just a damn game. What's more, it's a game that's so similar to Age Of Empires, you get the feeling lawyers would be involved if EE's designer, Rick Goodman, hadn't designed AOE too. The influence of AOE is palpable, and diere are even sound effects (like mining and building) that are exactly the same. However, with this being a beta version, it's likely that the final sound files have yet to be added.
Move Along Now
What of the famous epochs then? Well, some of the more notable moments in history include Prehistoric, Stoneage, Industrial, WW1, WW2 and the futuristic Nano Age. The epoch system itself actually works in the same way as technology progressed in AOE. In other words, once you've gathered enough resources and established certain key structures such as barracks and stables, you move onwards to new technology and a truly awesome amount of upgrades. For example, once you reach into the Atomic Age, towers become 88mm AA guns and docks become naval shipyards. Likewise, special 'hero' units like Napoleon make way for the likes of Baron Richthofen.
Basically, Empire Earth is all about speed. The faster you progress through the epochs the stronger your weapons, beliefs and heroes become, and thus you're more likely to trounce opponents. We hate to keep going on about it, but the whole framework of the game is virtually a copy of AOE even down to the collection of food, wood, stone, gold and iron resources. When it comes to the multiplayer game... Well, you'll hardly notice the difference.
One notable difference though, is the option to call upon metaphysical powers. With a temple and a powerful priest you can bring forth such spectacles as volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes. Wonders also play a very major part in the spiritual side of the game, with buildings such as the Tower of Babylon and Library of Alexandria helping to reveal the enemy strongholds and to convert enemy civilians.
Who Says Humans Are Stupid?
Although we've been informed that the A1 has yet to be finalised it's nice to see most of the units have a brain. Unit path-finding is good, and military types appear to know their stuff when it comes to battle positions - they even have the good sense to retreat when being pasted. There are also four different behaviour patterns to choose from including guard mode, patrol mode, aggressive mode and defensive mode. Our personal favourite is the 'explore' icon that unsurprisingly sets your selected unit wandering off into the wilderness. So, if you've had enough of manually exploring fog-of-war, you can understand what a stroke of pure genius this particular option is.
Even panicky farmers seem to have lost their usual simple view of life by adopting a brave 'never say die' attitude that keeps them glued to fields in all but the most violent attack. We only have one problem with the units at this stage of development and that's the way they keep getting lost behind buildings. But, it's a simple problem and should be easy enough to fix.
Getting Down And Dirty
By far the most striking thing about EE is the whole atmosphere. The music varies depending on the epoch, and along with the graphical changes occurring throughout the game there's a real sense of purpose to the proceedings. EE also hints at a unique rawness that AOE never managed. The liberal use of blood and the ability to zoom right into the action helps of course, but there's something else there that we can't quite put our finger on... Yet.
So, with a couple of months to go before release Empire Earth is looking and feeling good about itself. Our only major criticism at this point is the blatant lack of originality, but if Stainless Steel Studios is sacrificing that for good old fashioned playability, who are we to complain?
A View To A Kill
Zooooooooom, zoooooooom, zoooom
Although Empire Earth bares many similarities to Age Of Empires, its one defining difference is that you can zoom right into the thick of the action. But can you really play from this view, or is it just a flashy feature that will look great but be useless in terms of gameplay? Having spent the best part of a week playing the Beta, I have to admit it's nearly impossible to play from this view. However, it's pretty quick and easy to zoom in and out, so the best thing to do is issue your orders from the standard overhead view and then zoom in to take a quick look at the carnage, which you have to admit, looks pretty spectacular up close
There has to have been a time - perhaps when you're waiting for that bus that never comes or when your mind is drifting while you're talking to the world's most boring person - that your thoughts have turned to what could possibly be the perfect computer game. While this is subjective to a large degree, there are certain game concepts that just cannot be argued with. One of them is a game called Civilization which is arguably the most original and addictive game ever created. Over the years it's lost some of its appeal with the arrival of a legion of real-time-strategy games which came on the scene, spilled C/Vs pint and threw sand in its turn-based face. However, while RTS games are undoubtedly more exciting than their turn-based counterparts, they have never managed to display the sheer depth and complexity of the mighty Civilization. Civs graphical simplicity allowed it to give gamers a huge and diverse amount of choices in which to play the game, and a technology tree that RTS games could only dream about. It appears to be obvious then, that any game that could marry the timeline and complexity of Civilization with the edge-of-the-seat excitement of an RTS game, would surely be the perfect strategy game, or at least as damn close as you're ever going to get. That hypothetical game has finally arrived, and its name is Empire Earth.
In The Beginning...
Empire Earth takes you from prehistoric times right through to modern times and beyond, covering every important stage of human evolution along the way. It's mighty ambitious, and the developers have not skimped in terms of diversity of units and technology as you are taking on a massive tour through human history. You'll discover the obligatory mass slaughter along the way that only the human race would ever think of imposing upon itself at every opportunity.
In terms of look and feel, you will be on familiar ground right from the moment you load up the game and dive into the prehistoric era. It looks and feels like Age Of Empires, largely because it's been designed by the same guy who worked on AOE. In fact it's not unfair to describe it as AOE with a lot more epochs and a lot more units, so similar are the two titles. This, as we all know, is no bad thing.This one of the best RTS games we've ever seen, so any game that claims to be AOE with knobs on surely can't be a bad thing, right? Well, yes, and no.
While there's nothing particularly wrong with 2D strategy games, we have come to expect proper 3D in just about every genre these days, and it's something of a shock to find that Empire Earth, although 3D, has ditched its free-roaming camera and instilled a fixed-angle view, although you can still zoom in and out. This has obviously been done for gameplay reasons (so you don't get lost while you're swirling around) but its looks suffer accordingly.
And, the problem we have with EE is not purely aesthetic. You'll often find yourself swirling your mouse round to look behind buildings, only to remember that you can't. Almost imperceptibly, 'true' 3D has become as important to gameplay as it has to aesthetic prowess, and while it's not an insurmountable problem in EEs case, it's certainly jolting for the first few hours of play. The only redeeming feature in this particular area is the ability to zoom in very close to units so you can see the amount of detail on them. This is more or less a novelty feature however since you never actually play the game from this viewpoint, and unless you want to play the game with no clue what the enemy is doing, you will play with the camera zoomed as tar out from the landscape as you can get. Apparently, a 30 camera is fully supported in the code but didn't make it into the final product. Technically then, EE does itself no favours. However, once you get beyond the game's technical limitations, there is much to enjoy.
At its core, EE is basically a very simplistic real-time strategy game. Build, explore, fight, it really is that simple. Unlike most games of this ilk however, EE takes you through many eras of time, and the units and buildings you create all change to reflect the time period you are playing in. As was the case with AOE, there are only a few resources to collect in the game: wood, stone, iron, gold and food. All these resources are needed to create your buildings and units, and in time-honoured RTS tradition, you will find yourself collecting these resources while at the same time attempting to crush your opposition with military units. It's a winning formula, and in fiFit's a much more appealing one since you get a mind boggling selection of units to play around with. From prehistoric times right through to the Nano age, you will get what at times seems to an endless supply of new vehicles and ground units of all shapes and sizes. Imagine AOE taken way past its tour epochs to its logical conclusion with futuristic warfare and you pretty much have EE in a nutshell. For this reason, it's supremely playable and totally engrossing for the length of time you spend playing it. Our only reservation is its long-term appeal. We went from the first epoch right through to the end of the game in just two days, at two different difficulty levels. Either we are unbeatable at strategy games, or the designers made it too easy to upgrade from one epoch to the next (I suspect the latter - Ed). There is no doubt that if you like real-time strategy games, you will not be at all disap|)ointed in EE, but unless you want to play with the pre-defined scenarios and campaigns once you finish the game 'proper', you may feel a little short-changed at the length of time it takes you to complete it. That said, Empire Earth is a very solid RTS with a huge amount of depth and variety in terms of units and buildings. Even if you only play it for a couple of days just to get through all the different epochs, it's worth the asking price for that alone.
The background of this epic game is the very history of warfare on Earth itself. From the early days of man in prehistory circa 500,000 BC to the Nano age stretching into the 23rd Century, humanity has always been at each other's throats.
In Empire Earth your goal is to not only explore your world for the resources necessary to survive and thrive, it's to build a mighty empire and the armies need to protect and expand it. Starting in pre-history you must advance through 14 historical Epochs before reaching the Nano Age where nanotechnology constructs the first Cybernetic warriors.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Any hardcore, or even casual, real-time strategy fan is going to pickup Empire Earth's strong resemblance to Age of Empire II: Age of Kings almost immediately. The graphics are similar, the interface almost identical and, to a degree, the play itself seems to mimic AOK, as well. But try playing your first game with the same strategy that made you master in AOK and you'll be in for quite a butt-kicking. As in AOK you will spend a large amount of your time searching for and collecting different types of resources. Heck, with the exception of an additional item, iron, the resources are identical. Again like in AOK, you just hunt around for piles of the stuff and then start your citizens to work digging it up or chopping it down. A major difference in the gathering aspect of EE is one you'll find echoed throughout the game; it's more complex. To speed up your gathering you can build a settlement, which allows you to drop off your stuff there as opposed to trudging half-way across the map, back to your town center. But, to make that more efficient, you can also populate the settlement. Doing this speeds up productivity but you permanently lose the citizen living there. The more people you populate it with, the more productive the citizens -- throw enough people in and your settlement becomes a town center and then a capital. It's quite ingenious. The same can be said for many of the buildings in EE, most don't just spew out new troops, citizens or weaponry. Houses, for instance, increase the morale of nearby troops, making them harder fighters and making them slower to die. Build a hospital and everyone within a certain radius gets healed slowly.
Universities protect people from being converted by enemy priests, temples prevent calamities (think plagues, firestorms and the like), docks, naval yards and airports repair their units. The list goes on and on. Another addition to the standard AOK-style of play is that Wonders actually do something other than stand there and look pretty. In AOK they merely allowed you to either win, or to taunt your opponents with needless and expensive eye-candy, not so in EE. From the Temple of Zeus, which allows all units to heal themselves anywhere on the map, to Library of Alexandria, which instantly points out all buildings on the map, Wonders can be a powerful tool in EE. Suddenly the way you construct a town and where you place buildings becomes an integral part of your strategy. If you thought that was complex wait until you make your way into your first battle. The game has a very strong rock-paper-scissors element to it.
Sword guys beat archers, archers whoop men armed with spears, and the spearmen take out the sword guys. This doesn't mean a single centurion will kill off a platoon of chariot archers, but it does mean the centurion will take a lot of people with him. Now add to this rather simple formula the more advanced weaponry, air units and sea units, and you have a strategy game worthy of some serious life-wasting play. Just too help you out with the formulas, there are a bunch of diagrams in the back of the manual that look like they belong more in a chemistry textbook than with a game. In addition to the more intriguing and almost over-complex warfare system, Empire Earth also has heroes. Heroes in EE are either warriors or strategists. The warriors increase the morale of the units around them and take to the front lines to do some serious damage. The strategists increase the vitality, or energy, of their surrounding units and have the ability to weaken enemy morale with a battle cry. In all there are 200 units to choose from, by far the most ever seen in any non-expanded RTS every released. Taken as a whole, EE can be quite an overwhelming game to try to master, but it appears that the time spent will be well worth it.
The graphics in Empire Earth also seem to lean heavily on the AOK world, which is a good thing. The mounted units sit on horses that nervously paw the ground. Idle citizens fidget, everything seems alive and the tight smallish graphics lend well to bolster that feeling. Unfortunately, the designers also added the ability to zoom in on units, something that not only adds little to the game, it seems to actually detract from it. This level of graphics was never meant to be seen up close and personal, 3D graphics they are not.
The ambient and action sounds in this game are downright unnerving. I have a friend who plays EE religiously who takes particular delight in the cries of the wounded and dying. When men run into battle you hear the swords clanking off one another, the arrows, or bullets, whistling through the air, it's truly a spectacular thing to listen to.
Pentium II 333, 64 MB RAM, 3D accelerator, 4MB VRAM, 450 MB hard drive space, mouse, sound card, and DirectX v8.0
The game's instruction manual is a whopping 238 pages and comes with a sizable fold-out reference sheet and smallish quick key list. Read every word of all of them -- nuff said.
This isn't your momma's RTS. Chock full of 200 units from 14 Epochs and about 60,000 years of evolution, Empire Earth can't help but quench your thirst for ultra-realistic and incredibly encompassing strategy game play. Don't expect to pick this bad-boy up and hop into instant play without a little learning and honing of your strategy skills, but studying warfare has never been so fun. Move over Age of Kings,there's a new game in town.