Publisher: Activision Inc.
Developer: Stainless Steel Studios
N Amer - 10/21/2003
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World Review
The harness on your horse creaks as your army moves softly through the forest. The mist plays around your feet, cloaking the woods in a ghostly shroud. You stop and listen. What is that faint metallic sound? Suddenly, an army bursts in on you from all directions, "Ambush!" you cry, "To me, men, to defend England!".
As Richard the Lionhearted, these scenes will become familiar as players move through the single-player campaigns, using resources, units, and a few powerful heroes, but above all, strategic thinking to overcome limited supplies and abilities.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, is the sequel to the RTS game Empire Earth, from developer Stainless Steel and publisher Activision. The first Empire was a game of epic proportions, spanning from the Ice Age to a futuristic advanced era with fifteen civilizations. The sequel has a much more narrow span, spanning roughly one thousand years from medieval times to World War II. This focused approach allows the game to present more of a story-driven environment that is effectively dramatic in its mostly factual portrayal of historical events.
There are several options of play: single-player campaigns, skirmish mode against one or more computer opponents and multiplayer over the Internet or a LAN. The single-player mode consists of three campaigns: Richard the Lionheart (England), Admiral Yi (Korea) and General Patton (United States). I first played the Richard the Lionheart campaign, as I'm fond of early English history. From the beginning, I was completely drawn in to Richard's story by the artful combination of movie-style cutscenes and animated mission introductions. While there were a few liberties taken with the strict facts and interpretations of the events, for the most part, the historical background was sound.
Each single-player campaign is comprised of several chapters, with a total of eight in Richard's. These chapters offer both compulsory and optional objectives, but the optional objectives are usually worth accomplishing, not only for their own sake, but because they help facilitate obtaining the compulsory ones. Each chapter requires a slightly different approach in strategic planning, as only certain units and buildings are available for some missions, and none in others, which instead rely on keeping conscripts alive to the next checkpoint. There are even timed missions, which can really turn up the heat! The variety of challenges from chapter to chapter, combined with the intense story elements, keeps everything very interesting, but unfortunately, the chapters are short for the most part and it's possible to finish up the campaigns in a week of playing.
However, there is also an excellent random map mode for the single-player, which allows for a customizable campaign against the computer. The type of map, number of opponents, and civilization can be either random or specified, as well as the length of the campaign (which ages to run through). A neat addition here is the choice of playing either an Action or Empire Building game, which lets players who either favor a quick bash-em-up fest, or a drawn out build-em-up saga, enjoy the game equally. At the beginning of these random campaigns, there are four civilizations to choose from, Korea, Franks, English and China. Later in the game for the World War I and II ages, depending on which civilization players have chosen at the beginning, players will have to choose a modern nation such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany or France. There are five ages altogether, the Medieval Age, the Gunpowder Age, the Imperial Age, World War I and World War II.
There is a multiplayer mode for up to eight players in cooperative and competitive play. Basically, the same options are present for multi-player as are in the Random Map mode, and there is also an Automatch service, which finds players with similar ratings for one-on-one games. With the Random map and ability to play created scenarios, multi-player promises to be lots of fun. An editor is also present for the creation of scenarios, and scenarios can be downloaded and added, as well.
While only certain units, buildings, resources and upgrades are available for the three single-player campaigns, all of these items are available for the random map mode. Unlike many RTS games where the units may have different names but are all effectually the same, there is a good combination of similar and dissimilar units for each nation in this game. The English in the Medieval Age have the powerful Trebuchet, which can take out troops and also demolish buildings. On the other hand, the Chinese in the Medieval Age have a War Elephant, which can flatten enemies by running over them. Differing abilities are further enhanced by the use of "Classified Projects", a one-time use of a special power. These show an inventiveness of mind; I particularly got a kick out of the Voice of America, which causes 30% of the enemy to defect to your side. Similar units are composed primarily of infantry, range and also religious units, which exercise some sort of healing or conversion powers.
Resources consist of stone, gold, food and wood, some of which can be gathered automatically through a special building, instead of having workers assigned. Upgrades exist to speed up production. Resource production is automated and doesn't require much management. Workers are also managed easily, and a handy "idle workers" button keeps track of everyone not pulling their weight.
The interface is similar to most RTS games, but does seem to offer a few more "button" choices for the mouse at the bottom screen, mostly to do with unit formation and offensive/defensive attitudes, and also special unit abilities. The keyboard can be customized. I tend to forget what keys go with what functions in the middle of a heated battle, so I usually rely heavily on the mouse menu for certain abilities (the handy little icons are a big help for memory-impaired people like me), but I ended up running into trouble sometimes, because clicking on the button didn't always elicit the desired response, especially when trying to unload/load a troop ship. This caused my hero to die a couple of times in the campaign mode. Evidently the button only had a very small "hotspot", which had to be hit just right.
The pathfinding of the units is decent most of the time, but many times, particularly when dealing with a large army, units will get clogged up and just mill around each other, instead of moving straight forward. Several times units will split up, with some going a really long way around to get to their destination. The units can be directed individually or by group, but when dealing with a large army, sometimes it's better to let them sort it out, which they do fairly well most of the time. Archers will automatically hang back and shoot, and the masher and basher guys will forge ahead when they detect the enemy. Sometimes things get a little off kilter, as when troops are attacking buildings; the enemy units approach and begin hacking at them, while your troops blithely keep on attacking the building while getting creamed. But a simple command fixes things in a jiffy, so it's not a big deal most of the time.
The camera viewpoint is a roaming one in default, with a wonderful ability to zoom effortlessly in and out as you move the mouse close to or away from certain objects. This appears very natural, not jerky at all. There are three different viewing angles, but the most efficient one I believe is the default. The extreme close-up view is sort of cool the first couple of times, just to see the details of objects, but is not useful in playing the actual game.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. The units are not very detailed appearing in the default viewpoint, but the buildings seem to have had more effort put into them. The backgrounds of forests, meadows and water are very sharp, and are the best looking part of the game.
The sound is nothing special, with no rousing musical scores. It would have been appropriate to have period music play during each epoch, but this is not the case. The sound effects are adequate, but minimal. Having different buildings make noises as the cursor passed over them would have added to the aural enjoyment. The sound effects of the units when completed is neat, though.
The manual is adequate, but is lacking somewhat in information on some of the units, menu commands and other items. As there is also no tutorial to speak of, players not familiar with the first Empires game, or who are new to RTS, may find themselves a bit lost. I would suggest that these people play one or two of the first chapters in any of the campaigns, and then play around a bit in the random play mode to get a good feel for the buildings and units, then go back and finish the campaigns. The first chapters of the campaigns only offer a few resource and building options, so RTS newcomers shouldn't feel overwhelmed.
I haven't played the first Empire, so really can't compare this sequel to it. I can say that I am thoroughly enjoying this game. The complexity of the strategic gameplay, coupled with the romanticized historical perspectives, makes for a great game. The story driven campaigns are wonderful, I only wish they were longer and offered more resource production and building. The random map mode offers hours of play, though, with a different experience each time. I love to build, so the Empire builder mode is just my speed. I like most any good strategy game, but tend to favor either turn-based ones, or city-building ones. However, Empires has changed my mind and I'm going to have to revamp my list of favorite games.
There is much to like, and only a few niggling things to dislike. The main test of any game, besides all the blah-blah about graphics, innovation, length, etc., is whether it's fun to play or not. Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is a fun game. 'Nuff said.
Not just a combat game, nor a micro-management hog. Although I personally like micro-managing, I realize most do not, and the balance is good here. This game requires thought and planning, especially in the single-player campaigns. My only complaints about gameplay is the brevity of the campaigns. The random map mode offers unlimited play, however. The options of Empire or Action styles is a neat addition to the RTS format, too, and opens up the game to different types of players.
The graphic quality is good, but not outstanding.
The musical score could use some work. Where is Greensleeves? Music from The Mikado would have been fun in the Korea mode (I know, it's set in Japan, but still...)
This is not an easy game, even on the easy difficulty settings. However, it's supremely easy to begin the chapter again from several save points, so players don't have to begin at the beginning each time they mess up.
While the traditional RTS elements are all present, there are also several new items, like the Empire and Action choice for gameplay mode, and the use of Classified Projects for one-time powerhouse actions. Each nation has been carefully planned to offer balanced, yet different approaches to winning.
With so many options, this is a strong focus of the game.
A great game for any strategy lover. This is sure to please even the most exacting.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is an exciting strategic mission with an interesting historical focus.
Reviewer: Anise Hollingshead
Review Date: 11/12/2003