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Game Over Online ~ Empire Earth

GameOver Game Reviews - Empire Earth (c) Sierra, Reviewed by - Westlake

Game & Publisher Empire Earth (c) Sierra
System Requirements Windows, Pentium II-350, 64MB RAM, 550MB HDD
Overall Rating 88%
Date Published Wednesday, December 5th, 2001 at 11:42 AM

Divider Left By: Westlake Divider Right

A couple weeks ago I reviewed Schizm, a game that owed more than a little to the classic adventure Myst. Now I have Empire Earth, a real-time strategy game that has a significant Age of Empires feel to it. In fact, the lead designer for Empire Earth, Stainless Steel Studios’ Rick Goodman, was also the lead designer for Age of Empires. And so anybody who has played Age of Empires, and particularly Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings, will be right at home with Empire Earth. There are similar units, buildings, and resources, but whereas the Age of Empires games restricted themselves to particular periods in human history, Empire Earth takes on everything, from prehistoric times to modern times to beyond. The result is an excellent and vast real-time strategy game that is complex yet fun to play, and which provides almost unlimited replayability.

Now, while Empire Earth has a strong resemblance to Age of Empires, don’t be confused by its scope and think that it has anything in common with the Civilization games. Empire Earth is definitely a real-time strategy game, and it is definitely combat oriented. So you won’t have to create and maintain cities, or worry about diplomacy and trading, or keep your people happy. Instead, and much like other real-time strategy games, you’ll build units and structures, research upgrades, advance epochs (not ages), and generally crush your enemies.

Where Empire Earth differs from its rivals is in the scope of its history. There are 14 epochs in the game, from prehistoric times to the futuristic “nano age,” and each epoch plays a little (or a lot) differently than the others. For example, when you start out in the prehistoric age you only get club men and rock throwers, and they can’t kill much of anything. But then when you advance to the stone age, you get “sampson” units that can level buildings in a hurry, and they change everything. Similarly, the World War 2 era plays much differently than medieval times, and the nano age plays differently than everything else. Empire Earth is really about five real-time strategy games in one, and all of the units and strategies to keep track of can be daunting. Luckily, Stainless Steel Studios set up the game so you can also just play in a single epoch or a small set of epochs, so regardless what your threshold for complexity is, Empire Earth should have something for you.

While the scope of Empire Earth is impressive, it also creates some problems. For example, you use the same five resources -- wood, food, gold, stone, and iron -- in all of the 14 epochs, and while that makes sense in the earlier epochs, you’d expect something like, say, oil to make an appearance in the 20th century. Similarly, unit prices are always the same, regardless of the epoch, and while a battleship costing 250 gold and 250 wood makes sense in Roman times, it doesn’t make any sense in modern times. I assume these are decisions Stainless Steel Studios made to keep Empire Earth from becoming too complex, and to keep a balance among the resources, but it means there are some oddities in the game. Plus, there is a quality versus quantity issue. Because Empire Earth covers all of history (and then some), it can’t cover epochs as well as others games with more restricted viewpoints. And so, for example, if you’re only interested in medieval history, then Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings is still the best game for you, but if you’re interested in all of history, then nothing else even comes close to Empire Earth.

Empire Earth comes with four campaigns -- one each for Greece, England, Germany, and Russia -- and Stainless Steel Studios did a surprisingly good job with them. Most of the included 29 scenarios are historically based (the Russian campaign is fictional), but Stainless Steel Studios still managed to make them interesting, with varied objectives and a good use of triggers. Plus, the campaigns combine to cover all of the epochs in the game, and so they do a good job of showing off all that Empire Earth has to offer. The only problem with the campaigns is that they can be a little too difficult at times (especially in the more advanced scenarios), and there isn’t any difficulty setting to change to make them easier.

But if campaigns aren’t your thing, Empire Earth also offers random map mode (where you can play with and against the computer) and multiplayer mode. Both modes work essentially the same way, and they both work well. Empire Earth has a pretty good random map generator, and it offers all sorts of options for gameplay, including map size and type, the epoch(s) to play in, the population limit, and the victory conditions. There’s even a “tournament” mode so games progress more quickly. And if that wasn’t enough, Empire Earth also has a pretty good campaign / scenario editor. Other games that have had similar editors, like Starcraft and Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings, generated quite a bit of fan support, and I expect Empire Earth to be no different. So even if you get bored with everything else that Empire Earth has to offer, you’ll probably be able to find new things to do with it almost every day (a good place to check is Empire Earth Heaven).

The graphics in Empire Earth are good without being great. There are a whole lot of units and buildings in the game, and they all look realistic (provided you don’t zoom in on them), but as a whole the 3D world of Empire Earth doesn’t look as good as the 2D worlds of most other real-time strategy games. That’s more of an observation than a complaint, since in my experience 3D games never look as good as 2D games, but Empire Earth presents itself as more of a 2D game. For example, there isn’t any way to rotate the camera that I could find, and, although you can zoom in the camera, it’s a “swooping” sort of zoom so the camera points more horizontally the closer it gets to the ground. That is, zooming in is only useful for creating in-scenario cinematic sequences, and when you play the scenarios you’ll probably just keep the camera at the same point the entire time. And while Stainless Steel Studios did some cool things with the 3D engine, like the way they had buildings collapse, they made up for them by having some fairly ugly effects, like the awful way nuclear explosions ended up looking. If you’re not going to give the player freedom to move the camera, and if the world looks worse for being in 3D, why use a 3D engine? Well, it’s trendy.

The sounds for Empire Earth are also in the good but not great category. The background music is fine, but, as far as I could tell, there is only six tracks of it. Stainless Steel Studios really missed an opportunity to have the music change both for the epoch and the “mood” of the game. But, to make up for the music, the sound effects are pretty good, and the voice actors for the campaigns did a surprisingly nice job. Plus, there is nice variety to the unit acknowledgements.

Lastly, the documentation for Empire Earth is pretty good. The game comes with a 238-page manual, and the manual includes both a table of contents and an index. (Note to other game developers: an index is a good thing.) Plus, Empire Earth comes with a two-sided 16x24 inch reference poster for unit and epoch information, and a more standard reference card for hotkey information. And if that wasn’t enough, there is also a nice set of training scenarios to guide new players through the basics of the game. About the only thing Empire Earth is missing is in-game help. For example, it would be nice to be able to learn about a unit in the game without having to build it first, but I guess Stainless Steel Studios had to leave something for the strategy guide.

Empire Earth isn’t a perfect game. It has a prophet unit that can cause earthquakes and plagues, which is sort of silly in a game trying to be realistic, the included civilizations aren’t nearly distinct enough, and planes are a little too difficult to control. But overall it works much better than I expected, and it’s definitely a game you should play if you’re at all a fan of the real-time strategy genre.

[38/40] Gameplay
[12/15] Graphics
[12/15] Sound
[09/10] Interface
[09/10] Multiplayer
[04/05] Technical
[04/05] Documentation


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