IGN Review of Empire Earth III
It's never a good sign when your boss apologizes in advance for assigning you a review so when Dan handed me a copy of Empire Earth III and said "I'm sorry," I was a little nervous to crack it open. I mean, I really, really liked the original Empire Earth, and I was even a fan of Mad Doc's first sequel. What could they possibly have done to depart so radically from the success of the previous game? In short, a lot.
Fans of the series will be disappointed that the sequel removes much of the complexity and variety that separated Empire Earth from the other RTS games. Where the previous games had over a dozen distinct eras and tons of historical civs with unique bonuses, Empire Earth III reduces it down to bare essentials. You can play as the tech-heavy West, the population heavy East, or the unconventional Middle East. Beginning in the Ancient era, you'll have the chance to progress through to Medieval, Colonial, Modern and Future as the game progresses.
While simplicity has its place, it tends to go against the basic point of the franchise and is hardly sufficient to justify the box's claim that the game presents "the entire span of human history." What we're actually getting here is a game that avoids any semblance of historical accuracy and instead mashes together generic units into some broad historical and cultural groupings. Again, by itself that's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it's 180 degrees away from what I think most of us expected from the series.
Mad Doc has also removed complexity in other areas. Diplomatic relations are limited now to alliance and war, so players won't be able to craft specific proposals with the other players. The incredibly useful Citizen Manager from Empire Earth II is also gone, but you won't really miss it because the resource model has been scaled back as well. Now players will simply build warehouses to collect raw materials and construct markets to collect money. To further simplify things, the types of resources you collect don't even matter; you can build a tank just as easily out of fish as you can out of wood or ore. The caravans that run from your city center to your markets do allow for some interesting raiding opportunities but it's really the only interesting element in the entire economy.
Because there are no limits on the amount of resources you can collect or the amount of defenses you can build, battles can sometimes drag on a bit. There's still a population limit, so you won't be able to field large armies, and while it limits the opportunity for decisive victories, it's ultimately a good thing. Not only does it keep you from amassing framerate-killing armies but it also forces players to focus on the types of units they want to use for the coming battle.
Empire Earth III makes use of the rock-paper-scissors approach to unit design. As long as you've got the right balance of units to take on cavalry, infantry and support units, you can rest assured that you'll have a good chance of taking on any challenges. Throw in a couple of units designed to destroy buildings, and you'll be set for base assaults. The problem is that there are so few units to choose from and so few tech upgrades for them that each battle plays out pretty much the same. There are some significant adjustments you'll have to make as you more from era to era, but even then the battles start to take on a repetitive nature, especially when you consider that your enemies will be using the same types of units. There is a bit of variety, of course, because of the differences each culture brings to the table, but it's not enough to mix up the individual battles all that much.
Even though it takes such a radical departure from the previous games in the series, we're still willing to evaluate Empire Earth based on the strength of its new concepts. Even there the game comes up short. To begin with, the pathfinding in the game is terrible. Forget units that can't find their way through narrow passes or cramped buildings; the units in Empire Earth III can barely find their way across an open field without tripping on each other. We've even seen units move off in exactly the opposite direction that the rest of the army was heading. The only reason we can see for the constant traffic jams is that units might be trying to rearrange their formations before moving out and if they can't get in place before they head out, they'll just sit there in a big useless clump. In any case, the only cure is to lasso small groups of units on the leading edge of the formation and lead them out one by one.
The enemy AI also seems unable to put up a strong fight. Now it's true that the imbalance in your starting strengths can mean an early rush can crush your dreams, and it's equally true that the limitless resources and fortresses can cause battles to drag on and on as you try to build up enough forces for a decisive victory, but the real problem here is that the enemy will just batter themselves to death against your defenses without any real consideration of how to outmaneuver you or lure you into a trap.
Empire Earth III also includes a new World Domination mode that works along the same lines as Rise of Nation's Conquest mode. Players fight for control of dozens of territories on a map of the world. Each territory generates income that can be spend for tech upgrades, new armies, and other strategic resources. It's a fun enough mode with plenty of dynamic missions that give the player some specific objectives to shoot for. On the downside, the mode is really missing a historical flavor that would help to make the game feel more substantial.
Moving past how the game plays, the looks aren't much better. Though I don't have a problem with the colorful and stylized look of the units, the animations aren't very good and the performance leaves a lot to be desired. Ships jerk their way across the ocean and trebuchets slide around like they're on sheets of ice. The effects are generally nice, particularly the super explosions and the weather effects, but the game runs poorly, even on my brand new Alienware.
The background sounds are generally good but the audio portion of the game is hampered by the ridiculous jokes and Henny Youngman style one-liners that are constantly uttered by your units. Whether it's funny or not, it ruins the mood of the game.
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