Empires takes the sweeping epic of Empire Earth and focuses it strictly on three epochs that carved the modern world as we know it today: the medieval period, the gunpowder age and of course, World War II. Gone are the references to the cavemen and classical age, Empires focuses on empire-making for English, French, Chinese, Koreans and then in the modern era, it will move to the British, French, German, Russian and Americans.
Without a doubt, anyone who is looking forward to this sequel will already have heard of or taken a look at Rise of Nations, one of the chief competitors that came out earlier during the summer. A cursory glance at Empires will give the impression that this is the same game - with fewer epochs to deal with and comparable looking units. In playing Empires, though, you'll find that this is a very different beast altogether.
Part of the difference lies in the single player campaign. Empires draws heavily from historical fact to paint a detailed backdrop for the action to take place on. When I say paint, I do mean quite literally, because Empires is able to leverage on its graphics engine to paint not only outdoor scenes but indoor environments as well. Each campaign captures an episode surrounding a central character: Richard the Lionheart's fight against the French, Admiral Yi's struggles to unify Korea and repel its invaders, and General Patton's forays in Europe to exterminate fascism. Empires pays meticulous attention to getting the names and scenery correct, and these translate to some interesting set battles that the campaigns revolve around.
Practically none of the individual missions in Empires is straightforward. They're very involved, with multiple objectives and often you're in charge of a hero unit, whether it's Richard, Yi or Patton. The scenarios will place your protagonist in the midst of pitched battles where you don't get to choose the terrain, build your army, so on and so forth. Often times, you deal with limited resources. When you do get to harvest resources, it's for objectives that are plainly in sight (harvest to make a tower). Only after you accomplish those objectives do you really gain the chance to have
a starting base, and even then, it's not the main focus, so the smart economists who spend three hours to horde troops to overpower the computer will find themselves focusing on tactically getting the most bang for the buck with what they have on hand.
When the French incite a rebellion in Europe and Richard is waiting for
English reinforcements, he only has enough resources to stem the tide by building defensive structures. Or when you lead the D-Day landings in Normandy, troop building is completely taken away from you and you're given 300 troops to take over the beachhead. (They respawn as your first contingent is wiped out) These types of situations really challenge the paradigm of other real time strategy titles. They sufficiently take the game away from the derivative formula of build a base and destroy everything on the map.
In Empires, these individual missions are referred to as chapters. None of the campaigns are very long, with seven or eight chapters apiece and every one is capped off with a narrated epilogue. You don't get to live the full life of each hero. Patton's missions start in North Africa and end around Saint Lo. Richard's storyline doesn't take him to the Middle East, where he really made a name for himself during the Crusades. But the seven or eight will suffice for gaming time. Empires did such a good job in fleshing out the characters that I wouldn't mind playing another seven or eight more.
The campaigns, in effect, are short, deep and dense. They aren't very wide in scope. This phenomenon is analogous to what's happening with Empires' civilizations. There are seven in total but in reality you're talking about nine (the British and French can be counted twice). However, in the early going, only four civilizations are available. Once you get to the modern era, there are only five to choose from. You are forced to upgrade, so if you were playing the Chinese you'd have to pick a non-Asian country to continue. Not all of your units are upgraded when you upgrade, another special design element. The structures may upgrade, but you'll have to carry over your archers to your tanks.
The depth comes into play when you start researching bonuses that affects your entire civilization or merely individual units. These two will help you get the edge you need to beat your opponents in multiplayer skirmishes. Some of the innovations can have profound effects, increasing range and other vital statistics. In the hands of a skilled veteran, you could use the terrain to create a chokepoint of death to which no amount of rushing could ever overcome.
Hero units do play a part in the skirmishes but they are far less influential there. In the campaigns, the heroes truly shine because of the limited units on hand. They aren't the ones you keep in the backfield. Like Warcraft III, you'll use your heroes to lead the charge into battle and applying special powers at pivotal moments can turn the tide of what looks like a hopeless battle.
Empires features a camera system that helps facilitate this micromanagement approach. It lets you get close into the action but rarely can you get a good view of the entire map. With population limits that can reach 80,000, directing large battles can often be an exercise for the hand; excessive mouse scrolling and all. There are plenty of customizable hotkeys and aids for the real time strategy veteran but ultimately, I never got a good feel of the whole game until I hit the skirmishes. The single player campaign teaches some of the rudiments of the game but because it rarely deals with economics, unit production and empire management, you don't learn any of those skills until you start skirmishing (and experimenting).
Both the audio effects and soundtrack are good. They're just not at the level of outstanding. The most disappointing part of the whole game is with the narration. Whoever did the epilogue for each of the campaigns should have been cast to do the rest of the voices in Empires. The other actors don't use enough tone and volume to really convey themselves. Sometimes they're not even authentic - as is the case when I led some US Army Rangers to talk to a British commander who had less of an English accent than a Canadian. The script, while lengthy, is well done. The speeches in the modern era appear like they were lifted straight out of FDR's mouth, but it's the voice actors who ultimately kill any emotion that the source material could have conjured.
Empires has quite a learning curve involved. When you pitch different civilizations and units together, usually it's all paper, rocks and scissors. Because Empires forces you to pay attention to the details, the technology tree is not wide as it is deep; ergo the developers are making it a lot more complicated than simple paper, rocks and scissors. Novices may find themselves cursing when their vast army gets steamrolled during the course of the campaigns or in the multiplayer skirmishes. That's usually a sign you weren't upgrading to play to your civilization's strengths.
At times, Empires can be dramatically engaging. When the shore batteries and mortars started hitting the American landing boats at Normandy and North Africa, for a split second it almost got as visceral as the scenes in the Medal of Honor games. The three storylines, united by the common theme of treachery, are wonderfully scripted, making Empires a vast improvement over its predecessor. But coming at the beginning of the holiday season, it's already heading into a very crowded space.