Over the years we have seen quite a few quality RTS series, and lately one particular series that has been making its name heard on PC is Empire Earth. Originally developed by Stainless Steel [img]ee3_pc_1[/img]Studios, the series moved to the guys at Mad Doc Software by the time the first expansion pack came around and they have done a good job ever since taking what was a well received original RTS and making a quality series out of it. The third major version is here with Empire Earth III, and while gamers can
expect the same quality we've come to expect from the series, hardcore fans may not be quite as pleased with the direction the series is seemingly taken with its 'simplistic' make over.
It's interesting to note that EEIII has done away with the storyline style singleplayer campaign mode that has become pretty popular amongst RTS games these days. In the original EE and EEII, gamers were treated with a storyline and cutscenes that revolved around the game's different stages in time as well as campaigns for different races and nations, but in EEIII, this is replaced with a mode known as the "World Domination" mode. This style of mode is actually one of
my personal favorites as it combines real time strategy gameplay with turn based territorial gameplay requiring you to manage armies and territories across a global scale in a similar style as the board game 'Risk'. With this mode you can play a custom scenario or the inbuilt Campaign, where you select your difficulty and civilization race, which includes three options - Western, Middle Eastern, and Far East.
These three styles basically sum up the game's offering when it comes to different races, and while three races may sound somewhat low for an RTS, each of the three cover a pretty wide range of not only different unit types, but also gameplay mechanisms. For instance, as a Western civilization you will need to build houses and order builder units from your city center, but as a Middle Eastern civilization your buildings and structures come in self building carts, and all housing is managed by Fortresses. Which
race you're playing as definitely makes a big difference regarding how you build and how you attack in this game.
As is the theme with the Empire Earth series, the major purpose to the gameplay is to advance through different 'ages' which naturally grant enhanced unit and building technology the higher you go up. One very big difference from EEII to EEIII is that the number of ages has been cut down significantly. [img]ee3_pc_2[/img]In EEII you had 15 ages that spanned everything from the dark ages to future ages, and while EEIII also covers this spectrum, it does so with only 5 ages - ancient,
medieval, colonial, modern, and future. My feelings with this change is mixed. On one hand it certainly makes for a more efficient process as you move through the ages, which is done in-game with skirmishes or at the turn based global level in 'Global Domination', but on the other hand it just doesn't seem right to have only 4 more steps until you've reached the peak age from the first one. Perhaps meeting halfway at 10 would have been ideal - whatever the case, 5 ages can definitely make the game feel a little
rushed and condensed.
And this basically sets the tone for the gameplay itself - not rushed in the sense it is sloppy code in a poor engine (that is definitely not the case), but rushed and condensed in the sense there just don't seem to be a whole heap of units, buildings or even research and technology advancements to make, at least not in the RTS components of the game - the turn based global domination component has far more detail in this regard. The RTS gameplay is rather simplified and while minimal micro-management can
be a good thing, it can also backfire and produce too little activity and this seems to be the case to a degree here. There are only two resources to collect, Material and Wealth, and even these auto generate without you doing anything at all, albeit minimally. Even when you do collect from one of the map's designated material sources and build Markets for wealth generation, these automatically operate themselves and never dry out. There is one more resource - Research - [img]ee3_pc_3[/img]but this requires so minimal interaction
to collect on the gamer's behalf it is hardly worth noting. The result of all this is basically an RTS that, while following standard RTS design, features micro-management elements so simple you'll probably find little to do camp building and maintaining wise after the first 15 minutes. As a whole, EEIII has definitely taken a more 'simplified' slant to the series and I'm not sure this was an RTS series that really needed it myself.
With this in mind, EEIII does seem to focus mainly on the combat and not the management, and it is pretty solid combat RTS gameplay, but even so it's really not much different to what we've all seen before from the genre or even the series itself. As you'd expect the units cover just about everything from infantry swordsman and archers to siege weapons for the earlier ages, with tanks, air craft and other vehicles making up the units for the more modern ages. As with the previous versions in the
series, the gameplay can be a little boring during the earlier ages with few buildings, upgrades and units to choose from, but it definitely gets more interesting in the later ages, particularly when long range missiles and air bomb runs become a possibility. The CPU AI can be quite challenging but they are definitely no match for real human AI, which you can play against online via Gamespy of over a LAN although seemingly only in the Skirmish mode and not the 'Global Domination' mode, which is a little
Visually this is probably one of the better looking RTS's out there particularly the environments and it should run quite well on more or less any reasonably modern gaming PC. One point to note however is the game does seem to have a slight "cartoony" look and feel to it with exaggerated appearances to some units and buildings. On top of this, the game attempts to find some humor with the classic one liners you hear when you select or order a unit, and while it's fine to see developers Mad Doc try
and lighten things up, I never understood why RTS game developers saw the need to do this as they only become annoying after a while once you've heard them for the 500th time. In general the mixture of light hearted humor and serious RTS gaming is somewhat odd but I guess it's part of the charm of the series for some.
As with any decent RTS these days, EEIII features an in-game map editor accessible from the 'tools' menu option which is quite powerful and effective, being styled like a Windows program inside the game. It will take a bit of getting used to and is definitely one for the more savvy gamers out there perhaps already experienced in RTS map design, but nonetheless it's good to see framework for community interaction such as custom map design and sharing is still alive and well in today's RTS's. On top of the map editing you can also create a civilization although this editor isn't quite as powerful, only really allowing you to customize your initial outlay and what items you can have already researched based on one of the three races. Finally, the game does also have a record and playback function which again will appeal to the advanced gamers more.
Empire Earth III is really quite a generic RTS. The series has always been about following RTS standards without straying too far away from the proven formulas and EEIII is no different. While this means the gameplay is inherently solid, it also means EEIII doesn't really do anything to truly stand out from the crowd, which is a little bit of a disappointment because I think the concept on offer is closer to being special than a lot of other RTS's, and it could really reach that
next level with some daring and ingenious design. I do like the 'Global Domination' mode but ultimately like any RTS this game is only as good as its real time gameplay, which is solid but not spectacular. On top of this, some measures have been taken to simplify the game somewhat and while they don't intrude on the good name of the series, I'm not sure if fans of Empire Earth will be jumping for joy seeing the amount of ages cut down 3 fold. What you see is what you get with Empire Earth III,
and that's a nice looking, nice feeling, nice flowing RTS that does most things well but little if anything exceptionally.