November 29, 2001 - I have to admit that I was really dubious about this one. Calling it Age of Empire Earth might have been a cheap shot, but it seemed to fit. And after having played the game for a few weeks now, I have to eat my own words. Not because the game isn't like Age of Empires II but because it is. I'm consistently amazed with the basic setup of AoE2 and any game that uses that as it's foundation is one step ahead of the game -- even if it isn't terribly original. (I had the same bias against the recent Galactic Battlegrounds and was similarly impressed.)

Saying that this game is remarkably similar to Age of Empires II is like saying that John Fogerty's recent album sounds a lot like Credence Clearwater Revival. Rick Goodman, the lead designer of the Ensemble game, is also the designer here. Anyone who's familiar with Age of Empires is going to hit the ground running in Empire Earth. With a few additions and some small changes the economic model and interface is pretty much exactly like that in AoE2.

But the game does add a few new twists. Empire Earth sacrifices some of the details and immediacy of other RTS games to craft an incredibly broad epic that carries the player through fourteen different ages -- from the dimly remembered past of prehistoric rock throwers into a future filled with cybernetic robot warriors armed with laser guided weapons. A new 3D engine gives the game a really satisfying tabletop feeling while a cool scenario and civilization design feature lets you suit the game to your own needs.

The campaigns that ship with the game are spread across the entirety of human history. It begins with the early Helladic migrations thousands of years ago and ends a few hundred years in our future when nuclear weapons fly fast and furious. The first campaign covers the empire building efforts of the Ancient Greeks up until Alexander's defeat of the Persians. The English campaign runs from William to Wellington. The German campaign picks up in the First World War and concludes with the realization of Hitler's grand empire. A final, futuristic campaign outlines a rebellion in Russia.

It's all done with a very broad brush and there's not quite as much continuity between the missions (especially the early ones) as there was in Age of Empires. Given the incredible scope of the project, that's completely understandable. I'm a bit disappointed that there's nothing representing the 1300 years between the death of Alexander the Great and the Battle of Hastings. Where's Rome? Where's Charlemagne? There are units and tactics unique to that millennium that aren't really covered here at all.

The campaigns are interesting from a historical standpoint (although there are a few inaccuracies -- having to convince Menelaus to fight in the Trojan War for instance) but they don't really start to get good until three or four missions in. There are a few scripting problems that will cause problems unless you're intuitively aware of when and how to approach the triggers. I had quite a few occasions where the game would display a scripted cutscene while I was in the middle of a battle. Trying not to die and pay attention to new instructions is kind of a pain.

But the campaigns aren't where the real fun of the game is. It's multiplayer and single player skirmishing that keep the game lively. (Although they provide even less context than the missions in the campaigns.) The rate of technological growth makes it impractical to run through more than three or four different technological ages in a single session (and even three or four requires a handful of hours). Fortunately the host of a multiplayer game can save and load sessions so you don't have to go from catapults to culverins in a single sitting.

A special Tournament mode speeds things up a bit but reducing the cost of epoch advancement, increasing the rate of resource gathering and reducing the strength of buildings. Pace-wise it makes the game run a lot more like Age of Empires II than they normally do. I kind of like each mode for different reasons. The slower one gives you the chance to focus on the details of a few particular epochs while the faster ones give you a real sense technological momentum. Loads of game options and a straightforward but flexible editor add even more variety.

You can even design your own civilizations. I've already mentioned the lack of a late Republican/early Imperial Roman side of things but the game includes a whole batch of civs to choose from -- from Assyrian to American. What differentiates these civs isn't their units; it's their unique bonuses. There's a gigantic list of various upgrades that can be purchased for your civilization as a whole.

Each civ has a hundred points worth of advantages (more points can be earned through the campaigns). You can spend two civ points to produce your spearmen 30% faster. Or you can give your helicopters 20% more speed for the same amount. For 11 points you can add 50% to your buildings hit points. Nine points let you increase your maximum population limit by an additional 15%. In all there are probably over a hundred of these advantages to choose from. One cool thing is that each advantage for a particular unit type increases the cost of further upgrades for that unit. This forces you to generalize (and in a game where you can square off against frigates in the morning and bombers in the evening you want to generalize). There's also a system of upgrades that can be purchased during the actual mission for your various units. It really allows you to tailor your forces to your liking.

And with over a hundred different units, you'll need to start playing favorites. Although you'll hardly use a third of them in a given game (if you know what you're doing at least), the range is quite impressive. Empire Earth relies on a circular system of unit supremacy. Spearmen beat swordsmen, swordsmen beat bowmen and bowmen beat spearmen. It's a sublime formula that gets more and more sophisticated (and confusing) as the game progresses. Minotaurs beat tanks beat Pandoras beat infantry beat anti-tank weapons beat cybers which, strangely, don't seem to beat anything. Granted, the nano-tech levels require a bit more orientation but the whole galley beats battleship beats frigate beats galley thing seems a bit artificial to me.

Formation controls are really poorly implemented. Unless you have more than dozen or so units in the grouping, the formations all sort of seem like one big "line." And by line I mean a thing with some guys on one end and some guys on another. The formations are also only applicable when the group doesn't have a movement order. Does this seem stupid to anyone else? Part of what makes formations useful is that they keep your units organized while they're moving to engage the enemy. Even when you move your units a small step forward, the formation disintegrates.

The maps are big enough that you can really get some strategies going. Better still, the enemy AI is unforgiving without being unrealistic. It takes advantage of cover, of high ground and, like I said before, of the cutscenes. It's an awesome thing to see the enemy come around behind your forces after fixing your attention in another direction. Individual unit AI could be a bit better (you'd think they'd prioritize their targets based on the system of unit supremacy).

Given all that the game simulates it's understandable that some corners have been cut in the area of graphics. You won't get the same detail that you see in Battle Realms or Emperor: Battle for Dune but the units and terrain are reasonably detailed and distinguishable. The camera can be zoomed in to get an up-close, ground level view of the action but it can't be repositioned to show you any other angles. The camera bravely lets you get close enough to see the roughness of the models and textures and is put to good use in the cutscenes. Buildings are much flatter than the units and while they don't look exactly like storefronts, they seem pretty two-dimensional next to the units and trees. In all the game really gave me a sense of miniatures combat. Sadly the sound is pretty lackluster throughout the game but if you happen to have a radio next to your computer, you should be fine.

There are other features of the game that add a bit to the convenience and fun -- rally points for aircraft, morale modeling, and heroes and prophets who can call down calamities and disasters -- but there's really more going on here than can reasonably be covered in a single review (at least not if I want to get back to playing the game anytime soon). Really, the game lives up to its own ambitions. It sometimes paints with a very broad brush and glosses over certain details but it's a big package that's big on coherence and consistency. It might seem strange to feed your cyber armies with the same hippos that sustained your charioteers but you'll be having too much fun to worry about such details.

-- Steve Butts

Want to share your opinions with the world?
Talk about it on the IGNPC message boards, or
send some mail to IGNPC about this story.

IGN Ratings for Empire Earth (PC)
Rating Description See Our Glorious Home Theater Setup!
out of 10 click here for ratings guideGet Ratings Information
9.0 Presentation
A commendable effort to bring together all of history in a real-time setting. The manual and tutorials make sense.
7.5 Graphics
Although the details are low there are hundreds of units, each with visible upgrades. The buildings are a low point.
7.0 Sound
Inconsistent voice acting and a mundane sort of score won't hold your attention too long. Still, it gets the job done.
8.5 Gameplay
A tough AI opponent and a reasonably thorough selection of units throughout all history are definite high points.
8.5 Lasting Appeal
A vast timeline and a whole batch of multiplayer and single player skirmish options give you lots of room to play around. Dig the scenario designer.
(out of 10 / not an average)
See All Award Recipients