Character graphics on the Amiga? At first sight, this is one of the most unprepossessing games I've seen on the Amiga, short of the appalling Around the World in 80 Days. Let me say right away that surface appearances are deceptive. Although it may look like a survivor from the Bad Old Spectrum Days. Empire had my midnight oil bills soaring through the roof before I was finished reviewing it.
Empire, like many of the most addictive strategy games, is a production-based wargame. The action takes place on a very large map - you can choose from one of six or design your own - and the accent is on naval power. The seas must be dominated, or transport ships, used to carry armies, simply will not get through. The naval units form a hierarchy from destroyers to battleships, and take an increasingly large number of game turns to produce as you go up the ladders. The crucial game squares are cities, where all this production takes place, and since you only start with one, there's a mad scramble to get your production on a good footing right at the start.
The basic game rules are astonishingly simple. Any piece next to a square can attack it simply by trying to move there, and then it either destroys its opponent or is destroyed depending on the balance of power and the levels of damage of the two pieces. But around this simple idea, Interstel has spun a game with many facets which also has a strange air of realism.
First off, there's the adventure element. The game starts out with you only knowing about nine squares of the planet you're contesting. As you send out ships and air patrols, more and more becomes apparent, but there's always that urge to find out what's just around the corner. Then there's the range of game features. You can make life easy for yourself as time goes by and you acquire a large number of units. This could be hard, since on each turn each must have some sort of orders, even if they are to 'pass'. Each unit, however can be either left on sentry duty or told to go somewhere, in which case they don't bother you for a while.
That's conventional enough, but the Patrol option offers you something I haven't seen before. With this, you can order a piece to move regularly between two points on the map, and not bother you until it runs into something. Why doesn't SSI include this kind of thing? I also liked the option you have of naming your naval units as they're produced. It's a drag playing games where your new battle wagon, pride of the fleet, is called something like B9. With Empire you can name your entire navy after the WWI German High Seas Fleet, or whatever. The annoying thing is, though, that the program has a habit of taking the naming out of your hands from time to time, so that, after naming my ships consistently after the WW2 Royal Navy, the computer foisted a Bismarck on me. Beastly bad show, I say.
Of course, features or no features, this game would be worthless if it didn't offer any decent opposition to your warlike schemes. Leaving aside the PBM(Play By Mail) and human opponent options, this is the first strategy game I've played in ages that really gives you a run for its money. Up to two other opponents can be fought, cither or both of which can be computer controlled.
The machine player managed to avoid most of the usual computer wargame flaws. After all, computers are idiotic machines, and programming them to play something several orders of magnitude more complex than chess is totally daunting. It can't be done - yet - but in the mean time Interstel has managed to avoid two major problems. First, the machine isn't wholly predictable - it doesn't commit forces piecemeal, but turns up in strength in unexpected places. Second, the accent is on strength. The important thing in wargames is not to spread yourself thin, but to always concentrate forces as much as possible. This Empire does, which completely confounded my expectations of the opposition. Don't worry, I'll still beat it - it's just going to take me that bit more lost sleep.
I didn't expect to like this game, but quite honestly it's the best war game I've seen in months. The designers could have based the map on hexes not squares, and improved the mouse control, but these are minor quibbles. I'd rather have one of these than a thousand of the good-looking but, in my opinion, completely vacuous, releases from Cinemaware. So there.
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