Real-time strategists lead humble, stone-age tribes to conquer the world, through 15 epochs spanning 12,000 years of humankind's past, present, and future, in this Mad Doc Software sequel to Stainless Steel Studios' critically acclaimed Empire Earth. Free-form and multiplayer gamers can choose their factions from a wide selection -- German, British, Roman, American, Greek, Egyptian, Turkish, Babylonian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Incan, Aztec, or Mayan -- each designed to portray a distinct cultural identity. The game offers three built-in single-player campaigns: Korean (early epochs), German (middle epochs), and American (late epochs).
While keeping with the theme of military, economic, and political domination throughout the ages of history, Empire Earth II strives to be bigger than its predecessor in nearly every way, offering more modes, larger maps, more than 275 structures, and over 350 units available unit types. Other features, such as picture-in-picture command windows, a "Citizen Manager" feature, and changing weather are also designed to enhance the experience of striving for global dominance. Civilizations can now construct walls, bridges, and roads that offer appropriate bonuses to travel, trade, and defense.
Developer Mad Doc Software previously worked Legends of Aranna, the stand-alone expansion for the original Dungeon Siege, as well as Art of Conquest, the official add-on for the original Empire Earth. Mad Doc is led by Ian Lane Davis, an accomplished game designer with a doctorate in artificial intelligence.
Empire Earth II is one of the deepest and most customizable RTS games I've ever seen. If you can get over the initial learning curve -- which can be downright mean at times -- you'll find a multiplayer game that could keep you hooked for years to come.
The underlying conceit of the Empire Earth franchise has always been "epic" -- the idea that players would be able to take a civilization from hunter-gatherers using stone knives and bear skins all the way to a futuristic society that uses fusion-powered mechs to fight its wars. Empire Earth II takes this idea and runs with it, piling feature upon feature upon feature. The game allows players to field over 300 types of military units covering 15 time periods along with 15 different civilizations to play with, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, special powers, and unique units.
Having all this stuff to play with means that Empire Earth II reaches strategic heights it will take gamers years to fully explore. Basic ground troops, for example, have a rock-paper-scissors relationship divided up into the different types of units. Light artillery is good against heavy mounted troops, which in turn are good against light infantry and so on, until you get around to light mounted, which are good against light artillery again. Naval and air units have similar "RPS" systems in place. This might be enough for most games, but when you layer on top of that unique units for each civilization and special regional and civilization powers, the combinations become almost overwhelming.
The game also sports a new "War Planner" system that lets players in multiplayer send strategically marked maps back and forth and a diplomacy system that lets players make temporary alliances and trade resources, border rights, and line-of-sight information. Both tools are incredible innovations that really should become standard features for real-time strategy games from now on. That's because these tools add a whole other strategic "meta-game" of Machiavellian maneuvering that goes on in the player's head completely separate from what's happening on the field. In my multiplayer games, the level of underhanded dealing, glad-handling and out-and-out backstabbing and betrayal made the United Nations look honorable -- and I've never had more fun being devious in my life.
There's also a whole host of customization options that allow players to choose the types of games they want to play. Everything from which epochs will be covered, to the game pace; to skill handicaps; to a bunch of "quickstart" options are available to the player. The impact of this much customization can't be underestimated. If a gamer can think of an RTS gameplay style, odds are the customization options of Empire Earth II can handle it. Of course, many RTS games have customization options. The difference with Empire Earth II is just how deep the customization goes. It isn't just a matter of limiting with epochs or what units players can use, the very feel of the game is different.
Take, for example, a big, slow-paced land-based game using primitive weaponry. When I played that way, the feel reminded me a lot of playing the original Age of Empires. Playing a frenzied lightning-speed game using World War II-era planes and ships, though, was a completely different story. In fact, one of the most fun experiences I had in the game was with seven players on "Game God" difficulty taking on one in "Newbie" mode in a digital game of "King of the Mountain." It's rare indeed when you see a game so well-balanced that just tweaking the difficulty levels can create whole new gameplay styles.
Unfortunately, all of this power comes at a price -- complexity. Put simply, Empire Earth II is not a friendly game for RTS newbies. It's clearly geared toward hardcore multiplayer gamers who are comfortable with using hotkeys, and even those gamers will have to overcome a hockey-stick shaped learning curve. The user interface for the game is a nightmare of different-shaped controls and tiny buttons, making it tremendously tough to control the game using just the mouse. Even worse, with so many things going on the field at once, something is always bleeping or blinking or vying for the player's attention. I have to monitor my production, make sure my units are going where I want them to, deal with three different alliance offers from other players, keep an eye on the six bookmarks I placed in the picture-in-picture window, and make sure that I pick the correct technology bonuses to support the war plan that I agreed to 20 minutes ago. If you're unprepared for it, it's really easy to feel like Homer Simpson sitting in front of a nuclear plant control panel.
Topping off the game's problems with complexity is managing citizens. Citizen management and citizen AI has always been a thorn in the side of the RTS genre and very few games that haven't eliminated the "citizen-gathers-resources" model completely have ever mastered it. Empire Earth II is no exception. Mad Doc Software, the game's developer, made a good-faith effort with the introduction of the "citizen manager," a screen and cursor tool that lets players quickly shift around citizens to harvest different resources.
In practice, the tool isn't as useful as it could have been. That's because selecting an idle citizen for construction duty from the main screen doesn't let a player know exactly where the citizen is. I can't tell you how many times I selected all my idle citizens to build a badly needed building, only to wait forever while they converged from the far corners of the map -- or milled around on the shore of another island because I had inadvertently selected a unit that couldn't get where I wanted it to go.
Going to the citizen management screen is equally problematic because shifting through the layers of data on the overview map just takes too damn long in a game where there are always 20 things that need to be taken care of. The whole situation could have been avoided by simply separating the resource gathering and construction functions into separate units. Keep resource gatherers as real units which preserve the strategic option of cutting off supply lines, but remove the one layer of management the game really doesn't need.
Mastering all this complexity is a necessity if a gamer hopes to be competitive in multiplayer -- because that's where the heart of this game truly lies. The game's single-player options are adequate but can best be seen as a training ground for multiplayer mayhem. The game sports a skirmish mode with fair-to-good AI that approximates much of what goes on in a multiplayer bout without, of course, the level of double-dealing that come from the twisted depths of real human minds.
There are also a number of single-player campaigns. By themselves, they're fun, if uninspired (some missions also seem to have a weird bug that doesn't allow them to recognize that you've won the scenario). Still, they're worth playing, not for themselves, but because each mission seems tailor-made to teach players something about the intricate on-field strategizing needed to be competitive in multiplayer. The American campaign, for example, really taught me the best ways to use airplanes to soften up ground defenses for an eventual infantry assault.
The question for potential downloaders, then, is the reward worth the journey? In the case of Empire Earth II, the answer is "yes". Despite the large learning curve players have will have to overcome, once they know what they're doing, they'll be amazed at just how much fun this game is. Put simply, there's almost nothing that the developers haven't thought of when it comes to giving players the power to carry out the most elaborate and outlandish strategies. Want to put together a coordinated attack of two tank and artillery formations from two fronts while your ally launches nuclear missiles and bombards your enemies from off shore aircraft carrier? The game can handle it, and once players master the tools, they'll be amazed at the intricacy and depth that their strategies eventually attain.
People who downloaded Empire Earth II have also downloaded:
Empire Earth, Age of Empires III, Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, Lord of the Rings, The: The Battle for Middle Earth II, Age of Empires, Caesar IV, Command & Conquer: Generals
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