Empires: Dawn of the Modern World

a game by Activision
Genre: Strategy/War
Platform: PC
Editor Rating: 7.3/10, based on 2 reviews, 4 reviews are shown
User Rating: 8.6/10 - 10 votes
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See also: RTS Games

Originally released in 2003, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is a strategy game which at the time was a massively big deal. Age of Empires II had been released before and there were a lot of people with very high hopes for what Activision was going to do with this, which was a follow up to Empire Earth.

Three In One

I am a sucker for a good historical campaign and what we have here is three different campaigns for you to enjoy. These are all based in real history so if you are a history buff that is really cool. Do you have what it takes to help Richard the Lionheart go on conquests? What about protecting Korea all the way back in the 1500s while playing as Admiral Yi? Or lastly, playing as General Patton fighting off the Nazis! Empires: Dawn of the Modern World has three very different campaigns and while the story is great the AI is perhaps a tad too ruthless.

Grand Strategy

What I really like about this game is how you can just jump into a random map thanks to the map editor. This is a ton of fun and while putting together your own maps is fun, I have never been good at it. Here, the game always provides me with a fair and fun challenge. The AI in this kind of setting is great and one that is really going to push you, but never frustrate you.

The game goes from the Middle Ages all the way to World War II so it is cool going from things like castles and catapults to fortresses and tanks. The progression in the game is cool and I like how nations can change as the eras progress. The actual gameplay on offer in Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is a lot of fun. You have many different units you can use and I would say that the battle is perhaps more important than the setup. Do not get me wrong, you still have to think about where you are placing things, but what you do in battle and how you can react is where the fun and real strategy is. Especially when you are playing against a skilled human opponent!

War Looks Good

Even though this game is now the better part of 20 years old I still think that it looks great. This was a real graphical powerhouse when it was first released and did require a very respectable rig to get the best out of it graphically. It holds up very well and I like how you can clearly tell what everything is and what it is doing. Of course, it is not as polished as a modern strategy game, but I still think that the visuals hold up very well.

I think that Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is still a fantastic strategy game. Had the AI in the single-player campaign not been so frustrating in places I probably would have given this like a 9! However, you can get through the campaigns they can just be a tad more frustrating than I would like. The core gameplay, the multiplayer and the visuals are all great though and if you are a strategy game fan, this is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Pros:

  • The different settings are cool
  • I like playing as actual historical leaders
  • The map editor and random map aspect is done very well
  • It holds up very well in the visual department
  • Playing with a friend is a ton of fun

Cons:

  • The AI in the campaigns is a little too good
  • This game is unfairly overlooked these days

Download Empires: Dawn of the Modern World

PC

System requirements:

  • PC compatible
  • Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP

Game Reviews

Someone better have a word with the King of Korea. Surely sending oxen laden with explosives trundling into enemy villages is not good for PR. The country's Buddhists will be shuffling from foot to foot with barely concealed rage. Then again, as long as it deters the neighbours from occupying Korea, what does it matter if a few monks get uptight?

King Philip of France is no angel when it comes to animal rights either. Although hurling (mostly) dead cows over castle walls isn’t quite as severe as strapping gunpowder kegs to an ox, it's still disrespectful to the deceased's family/herd.

So, throughout history, it would seem that in order to be a successful leader you had to know how to treat your cattle. Apart from General Patton, of course, who thought his troops were cattle.

Those of you who have been following the progress of Rick Goodman’s (Age Of Empires, Empire Earth) latest offering will know that Empires: Dawn Of The Modern World is a real-time strategy game with a distinctly historical tone. For those who have stumbled upon this review with no previous knowledge of the game, don’t fall asleep yet - Empires is not as stuffy as you might think. Developer Stainless Steel has made considerable efforts to relate the events of yesteryear in as alternative a manner as possible (as illustrated by the aforementioned exploding beasts of burden). What this means is that as well as being able to create units that, frankly, even the most experienced fantasy writer would be hard-pressed to dream up, you get to employ special abilities that are, to put it mildly, stretching the boundaries of plausibility.

Great Maul Of China

Chinese Taoist sorcerers, for example, can summon volcanoes that erupt from the Earth’s crust in a crunching, groaning display of destruction. The Chinese, apparently renowned for their off-the-wall battlefield tactics, even treat their enemies to enormous fireworks displays that leave them gaping at the sky in astonishment before assassins run up behind them and slit their conveniently tilted throats. Nice.

But the most outrageous event of all occurred when an American ranger called for an artillery strike and it actually hit a valid military target. You could almost imagine the wounded civilians in the hospital opposite leaning out the windows giving an ironic thumbs-up.

Despite Stainless Steel assuring us time and time again that these units and special abilities are all based on 'historical documents' (of the Galaxy Quest kind no doubt), we remain somewhat sceptical of their authenticity - not that it matters. Such peculiarities are a major reason why the game is so enjoyable; the mixture of fantasy and reality is absorbing and you’re never quite sure what nonsense will be thrown your way next -and that has its charm. Variety is something Empires contains plenty of and the choice of three campaigns verifies this. Richard the Lionheart’s campaign is set in the Medieval Age (the earliest age in the game) and predominantly features pouring boiling oil over the Franks.

The second campaign follows the trials and tribulations of the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin as he fends off the advancing Japanese and Chinese hordes towards the end of the 16th Century.

And last, but by no means least, the third and final campaign focuses on General Patton’s momentous push through North Africa into Europe during World War II.

Adept Adapt

All of these campaigns have a distinct style and the chances of completing the WWII campaign by using the same basic tactics as you would in the Richard the Lionheart campaign are slim. You have to adapt your strategy to fit in with not only the age but the nation under your control.

The campaigns are well put together with cut-scene scripts and voice acting of the highest calibre. The only niggling problem we had was with the editing. The plots often flip from one character to another without warning. The Korean campaign became particularly confusing, especially when the King and a few ministers had a bit of a disagreement over who did what, where and when to the Japanese. Maybe moments like these are for genuine historians only.

These bewildering moments are more than compensated for by some very well constructed scenarios. Gameplay is not simply a case of constantly building up a massive army mission after mission. Indeed, in all three campaigns you don’t have access to the full spectrum of units and abilities until at least two thirds of the way through - which is usually around mission five or six. In a lot of situations you have to make do with the units you start with and that, of course, means plenty of stealth missions and using the natural geography to your advantage.

As well as using this method as a bit of a hook for the player insofar as you’re encouraged to play on to 'unlock’ new gameplay features, we have a suspicion that this is, once again, dictated by Empires’ desire to stay as historically accurate as possible.

In Patton’s campaign, for example, you get a cut-scene dialogue advising you to push on to a certain island where you can obtain gold to pay a particular division so they become active again. While not professing to know every logistical detail about armoured divisions in North Africa, we have a feeling this is the developer’s way of highlighting the fact that funds weren’t inexhaustible during WWII and, furthermore, they were bloody hard to procure and had to be used wisely.

There are disadvantages in this gradual introduction of features though. At times you just want to let rip and open up with everything you’ve got. But, like we said, in the campaign mode you can’t do that until you’re well into the story.

Thankfully the skirmish mode provides exactly that kind of gung-ho gameplay. Here you find all your usual choice of options relating to which nation you want to control, which age you want to start and end at, a dozen different map styles, a choice of five difficulty settings (the campaigns have only three) and a range of other knobs and buttons to fiddle around with. There’s even an 'action’ mode that pushes everything along -from resource collection to tank construction - just a little bit quicker. It’s a welcome escape for those who’ve tired of the restrictive feel of the campaigns.

Village Idiot

So far so good then; Empires manages to cram in a hell of a lot while maintaining an appeal for hardcore and novice strategists alike. But no game is entirely free from strife and Empires has its share.

There are times when the path-finding Al seems to curl up into a little ball and refuse to cooperate. It's also infuriating the way a villager/subject/peasant (depending on your nation) can get stuck on parts of maps if you're not careful about where you build your towers and walls.

But aside from the occasional lapse the Al is generally pretty good. Foraging-type units show an acceptable level of foresight in automatically assigning themselves to collect resources once they’ve finished constructing a building. It’s not quite up to Rise Of Nations but it certainly means you’re not chasing after idle workers.

Military units too are eager to pursue their foes to the ends of the earth. However, that does cause a few problems, especially when that airfield you were so keen to 'convert' with your engineers has already been destroyed by your Sherman tanks, who show no signs of military intelligence when it comes to capturing strategic targets.

We Are Not The Same

According to Stainless Steel, one of the reasons Empires was going to be better than other RTSs was down to the significant differences between the nations on offer. We hear this a lot.

In fairness to SS, though, they really have managed to pull it off. Playing as the Chinese is totally different from playing as the British. Whereas we Brits like to set up little villages and stay in a place we can call our home, the Chinese are more nomadic. Their town centres are wagons that can be loaded up with resources and moved from one part of the map to another.

Totally eradicating a Chinese settlement is extremely difficult - they just keep popping up all over the bloody place.

Playing as the Russians also takes a bit of getting used to. Their airforce is particularly worthy of mention simply because it's so bloody awful. A Russian WWI bomber is so useless it usually runs out of fuel before it reaches its target. That said, if you advance to WWII the combination of the T-34 and KV8 tank is virtually unstoppable.

So, with the British, French, Germans, Russians, Americans, Koreans and Chinese to choose from, there’s plenty to get your head round. Admittedly you cannot play as all of these nations in the campaigns, but when it comes to matching up in the skirmish mode, there are very few RTSs around (with the notable exception of Rise Of Nations) offering such balance and diversity.

One thing that is noticeable, however, is the variation in graphical quality between the nations. Whereas the latter-day civilisations, like the Americans, boast lovely gleaming tanks, aircraft and battleships, others such as the medieval English with their blocky horses and swordsmen are not so hot.

But then you could probably level that accusation at most of the game’s visuals. Empires seems to possess many different graphical styles, causing horrendous colour clashes not seen since the days of the ZX Spectrum. Models such as the trees are beautiful and sway in the wind convincingly, but when a platoon of poorly drawn Russian mortars rolls up next to them the resulting effect is one of garish repulsion.

At least the sound is up to scratch. In fact we'd go as far as saying the acoustics are among the best you'll find in any PC game. Machinegun fire is superb and the wrenching, cracking sounds as buildings splinter and collapse send a shudder down your spine. If only the graphics had been afforded such attention to detail as well.

One Click Or Two?

The much-vaunted one-click upgrade feature of Empires is another aspect of the game that doesn’t live up to expectations. As far as we can tell, it's actually three clicks anyway; the first click is to start researching the upgrade, the second is to activate the upgrade and the third is to choose the unit type on which you wish to use the upgrade. Rather than simplify the process it actually confuses it.

In fact this is a part of the game with which we struggled constantly to come to grips. Even construction upgrades seem to appear in the strangest sub-menus. A lot of time is spent scanning through the different types of buildings to find the upgrade you want -and that is often critical time lost. Why can’t you update your towers by clicking on a tower? Why can't you upgrade your farms by clicking on them? And so on.

Because of this unerring knack to put the upgrade you most want in the most inaccessible place possible, the interface takes a lot of getting used to. OK, once you've been playing for a few days, you start to decipher these idiosyncrasies, but there’s no denying it’s a pain in the arse in the meantime.

So, how does it rank against the other RTS big guns? Well, Empires: Dawn Of The Modern World is up there in terms of storytelling, diverse scenarios and choice of nations, but aside from that it doesn’t leave you reeling in slack-jawed wonder.

Sure, it’s a very absorbing game, and you have to admire the way it, like Civilization, goes some way towards making history entertaining. Take that away though and it doesn’t do anything truly outstanding or innovative in terms of gameplay. For those kind of exceptional qualities look no further than Medieval: Total War or Rise Of Nations.

Eagle-eyed readers and RTS aficionados in particular may have noticed that we've scribed a fair few pages on Empires: Dawn Of The Modern World over the last few months. There is a very good reason for this of course: the game looks a bit special. Actually that's not entirely accurate. After spending a day playing the game to death, what we originally thought was a bit special has now become tastier than dinner at the Ritz with Kelly Brook.

Stainless Steel Studios' follow-up to Empire Earth just keeps impressing us more and more. As the game charges towards its Christmas release date, it seems every time we see it, some major new feature has been added. This month is no exception, and our grim Monday morning sojourn to Activision's Slough headquarters soon brightened up when Empires' lead designer and president of Stainless Steel Studios Rick Goodman introduced us to the French and Russians, the two new civilisations the team had just put the finishing touches on. So, add those to the English, Germans, Koreans, Chinese and Americans and it seems we're going to be in for one hell of a scuffle.

No Prisoners

Incredibly, when you consider the game still has around five months of development remaining, we were also privileged to have a crack at the multiplayer game to really see how all these cultures kicked off against each other.

Now, when you first sit down to have a bit of a session and you peer over the top of your monitor to find Mr Goodman, arguably one of the most influential game designers in the world, sitting at the terminal opposite you, grinning with a demonic look in his eyes - and you're about to take him on at his game, the game he made - you get the feeling that maybe today won't be your day.

An hour later, after one of the most enjoyable skirmishes we've ever had, only one civilisation was left standing -the proud English troops of PC, looking slightly taken aback at their unexpected victory. "I told you battlefield surgeons were useful..." muttered a none-too-chuffed Rick Goodman through gritted teeth.

In hindsight, accidentally creating 20 battlefield surgeons (a unique English unit) instead of 20 harquebusiers probably was a major factor in our victory. This determined army of doctors marched across the battlefield with a few soldiers and priests healing the wounded, resurrecting the dead and converting the enemy so effectively our force actually increased in size as we went deeper and deeper into enemy territory. Eventually there were 10 surgeons healing one soldier - if only the NHS was that effective. Our triumph also left us in no doubt that Goodman was going easy on us. After all, there's no sense in sending a miserable games journalist home with no idea how the game works because he's just had his ego blown to pieces.

And yet, there is another reason why we held our own so comprehensively. Empires is so intuitive in the way it plays, it takes about five minutes to get the hang of. This is a game where 1,000 years of history is condensed into a few precise mouse clicks and what's more it's a pleasure to play.

If you've had any experience at all with RTS games you'll instinctively know which building to construct where, how many subjects you should have gathering wood, gold, stone and food, and more importantly where to place your defensive towers and how many troops it will take to guard it all.

One For All

Put simply Empires has one of the best interfaces we have ever seen. The one-click technology we told you about in issue 128 instantly brings into play special abilities and upgrades the moment they're available. So, unlike other games of this type where you waste precious time pissing about searching through submenus and clicking on buildings to find the upgrade you want, here, all the important upgrades and add-ons are virtually shoved up your nose so that you can't really avoid them.

Sometimes, in dire battlefield situations, when you're pinned down in your bunker, getting hammered by naval artillery, blitzed by high flying planes and down to your last few mortally wounded infantry, it's this one-click feature that saves your sorry arse.

"Air, land and sea combat are very important parts of the game," confirms Rick, "that's what players say they really want in an historical strategy game, particularly in World War II. And so we've given them that and at the same time made it really easy to play."

We couldn't agree more - we lost count of the amount of times the French "Esprit de Corps" ability healed all our units and saved us from certain death, or the English "RAF" boost gave us the edge over the German Luftwaffe. Ultimately, when Empires is finally released, we have every reason to believe that despite the game's epic proportions you'll be gliding around the interface with the elegance of a supermodel on a Milan catwalk.

The Culture In Me

But let's get back to the civilisations for a moment. There are plenty of RTSs boasting multiple cultures that are all supposedly different. Occasionally, as with Rise Of Nations this claim is completely true - but generally all is not as it seems. A unique graphics set does not equal unique gameplay. Empires is different though.

Firstly, yes - as you can see each nation does have a distinct graphical style. And to be perfectly honest, after watching all the units move and interact with the background, the game is visually Tnuch, much better than we originally thought. The landscapes are extremely detailed, with waves rolling in off the sea and there are some particularly detailed and spectacular explosions to protect jour eyes from. If you want to see the full, unbridled effects of a German World War II aerial bombardment of a small French village (which incidentally includes numerous barbecued cows flying through the air) you've come to the right place.

But, as we were saying, the difference between the cultures is significant. Each culture has a bunch of unique units, special abilities, resource needs and economic advantages and disadvantages, all designed with fun firmly in mind. Touches like the English swordsman holding his shield above his head to deflect arrows, the French disguising themselves as trees, and the Chinese sending scouts into the skies on kites hundreds of years before anyone else thought about flying are just some of the myriad ideas the game offers.

Echoes Of War

Each nation sounds totally different as well. In issue 130 we talked about some of the accents and how they fit perfectly into the underlying Monty Python vibe. What we didn't mention then was how you can distinctly tell the difference between the sound of a shell from a Russian T-34 tank and artillery fire from an English howitzer. There are even multiple sound effects for houses and buildings being flattened. When we put it to Rick that Empires is acoustically one of the most amazing games we've ever heard, his modest reply of: "I think the sound guys have about two or three different sound effects for things like buildings being hit," doesn't really do justice to what is in our opinion a milestone in PC sound.

Empires may well prove to be a benchmark in other aspects too - and we're talking specifically about its obsession with history. But before you doze off for ten minutes can we just say that this is history with a difference. Historical accuracy doesn't mean being bored shitless, a fact that is easily illustrated with the Russian Commissar unit.

If you get this unit to shoot one of your own grunts in the back of the head, the horror of it spurs the rest of your pitiful group into action. They will fight harder, run faster and be less prone to sprinting off into the snowy Russian wilderness never to be seen again. The scary thing is this kind of behaviour was rife among the Russian forces fighting the advancing Germans in 1943. Russian casualties inflicted by other Russians ran into hundreds of thousands. That Stainless Steel has the balls to introduce this shocking tactic into its game while retaining a sense of enjoyment is remarkable.

Other less shocking yet equally accurate observations include details such as the T-34 being about the only vehicle that is a match for the German Panzer tank. Even obscure things such as the fact that the Russian's were the only nation to have a flamethrower tank (the KV8) during World War II make it into the game. There's certainly a resemblance to Sudden Strike or Blitzkrieg in terms of technical accuracy and you can't help feeling that's going to attract some real serious hardcore strategists as well as casual, fun-loving, RTS gamers.

Get Out Of Here

On the other hand, Empires contains so much humour and imagination it's virtually impossible to believe that some of the stuff is based on fact.

Take the Chinese for example. On the surface it's hard for your regular cynical westerner to accept that back in 1000AD Taoist Sorcerers actually fought in battle alongside regular Chinese troops. It would be harder still to believe that these guys could freeze armies or cause volcanoes to instantly erupt spewing forth rocks, lava and hot ash. So intense was the mystery and awe surrounding these Taoist individuals that books chronicling the failed attempts of the Japanese and Koreans to invade China actually describe soldiers 'turning to stone' when faced by this arcane enemy. Sure, our Japanese and Korean friends may have been slightly dazed and confused after their resounding defeat, but in Empires, China's alchemy and ability to manipulate the world around them is nonetheless unrivalled.

In fact, in another multiplayer game (against less agile opponents than Rick Goodman), we had great fun giving birth to an army of sorcerers and setting them loose in a French town to practice their volcano creating abilities. Sadly we forgot to tell our reconnaissance units in their kites to bugger off first, so although watching peasants running around in flames is a joy to behold, the burning Chinese scouts tumbling out of the sky ruined the party somewhat.

First Day Of Christmas

And that's pretty much the strength of it. With any luck the next time we play the game will be for an exclusive review. Certainly from what we've played, we can't see any reason why it shouldn't make its pre-Christmas release date.

Indeed, the version we have fallen so helplessly in love with is undoubtedly better than some finished games we've played. But we'll wait and see. Strange things have been known to happen on the way to the CD duplicators. At the last minute Rick might turn around after reading a manual about obscure Grecian battlefield tactics and decide that he wants to include an exploding olive tree. Honestly Rick, you've got to play off those history books.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the developers of the Age of Empires must be mighty flattered with yet another continuous action strategy that could be a clone. Making no bones about jumping into the market, the introduction to the printed manual of Empires: Dawn of the Modern World starts out: "If you've played any popular real-time strategy game before...."

Besides up-to-date graphics and a rotating 3D zoom interface there really is very little new here. And the dearth of empires to rule makes it a little too obvious that more add-on titles may be in the pipeline.

The random games can span five eras, skipping the ancient times and staring right in with the Medieval epoch, then come the Gunpowder and Imperial ages. In these first three eras you have a choice of four, count 'em, four cultures to play -- the Franks, England, China and Korea. If you choose to start in a later era it would be either World War I or World War II. Starting a game in one of the latter two epochs or playing through from the beginning you'll have a choice of five cultures: The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Germany. The early four cultures can "evolve" into one of the latter five.

This lack of variety in empires also leads to limited possibilities for opposing forces in your random games, to say the least. You'll spend a lot of time facing the Koreans.

The game includes a scenario editor -- again, very familiar to those who own the earlier titles -- and for subject matter your options are limited. With the mix of Europeans and the US a decent West Front campaign can be conjured up. But without Japan you'll have to forget the Pacific.

Also included are three campaigns of linked pre-built scenarios based on the English Richard the Lionheart, the American General George Patton, and, of course, the Korean Admiral Yi.

So what happens in a random game and you're the Imperial Age Koreans and you spend the resources to move into the WW I era? Well, you get a nonsensical message about how Korea declines to enter WWI but that they are "instead focusing on war". Then you get to choose between three Korean "allies," Russia, the US or France!

Until we saw this we were ready to give a Fans Only rating. As it is, this is a technically well-crafted game and some dedicated collecting-oriented fans might like to invest in, but an imitation Chippendale (chair, that is) would still be an imitation. Money that could add more variety to your game collection might be better spent elsewhere.

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