When real-time strategy games were just starting to flourish, it was common for a game's two opposing sides to be functionally identical, just with different art and sounds to tell them apart. Those days are long gone, but while historically themed games often feature unique units for their many different factions, and games like Warcraft III have had up to four unique sides, no historical game has taken as bold an approach as Stainless Steel Studios' Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. The new game from Rick Goodman, designer of Age of Empires and Empire Earth, will feature a number of civilizations that are significantly different from each other, all with unique military units, special abilities, and economic options. Now that we've seen the game in action, it seems that the developer has already made considerable progress on this ambitious game.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is Goodman's next step in refining the historical RTS genre he helped create. In addition to its ambitious civilization balance, it will feature all the elements that many find most satisfying about recent RTS games: epic-sized battles with room for nimble tactical control, a tech tree that spans a millennium of military inventions, and powerful special abilities that can turn the tide of battle. Stainless Steel's Empire Earth combined an incredible range of time periods, from the time of cavemen to a sci-fi future, but it doesn't look like Empires' concentration on roughly the last 1,000 years of history will make it seem any smaller in scale. For each civilization, there will be quite a variety of units and abilities at your disposal in each of the game's five ages, which start off in the Middle Ages and continue through the Renaissance's age of gunpowder, the imperial period, World War I, and World War II.
Stainless Steel has announced only four of the game's civilizations so far: the English, the Chinese, the Germans, and the Koreans. We saw the English in action during the medieval age, and some of the faction's advantages were clear from the outset. To set the scene, Goodman showed us an in-game cinematic of the English king giving a rousing speech before sending his troops into a battle during the Hundred Years' War. The subsequent mission showed the 14th-century English army at its most formidable, with classic troops such as swordsmen who can raise their shields to block arrows, heavy knights in full plate armor, and crossbowmen with a devastating ranged attack. But there are some more unusual secondary units, like a surgeon that can raise mortally wounded troops to fight again and the English citizen units, which can build spike traps that are invisible to enemies.
The medieval English army has a number of other key abilities. For instance, the English are known for their naval prowess. It's not necessarily that the English ships are all stronger, but there's always the ability to designate one as a flagship, which essentially makes it a superunit. If the enemy concentrates fire on the flagship and sinks it, the English player can move the admiral's flag to another vessel, which might help balance out uneven numerical odds. Another ability that takes advantage of the game's 3D terrain lets the English pour hot pitch down hills, which can form a defensive barrier or even take out a group of units at once. And while the trebuchet has made appearances as a devastating siege weapon in other games, the English demonstrate their early understanding of science with the version found in Empires. Not only is the English trebuchet great for taking down enemy walls and fortifications, but it can also lob a pestilence-laden cow carcass over walls, to the lasting detriment of the enemies on the other side. Later, a high-level ability called king's encouragement will also bring all the English units from across the kingdom up to full strength, and at the end of the game, the English player can look forward to unconventional units like the SAS commando.
Fireworks, Blitzkrieg, and More
The Chinese forces of the same period will call for a very different style of play. The Chinese economy gets an immediate boost from the fact that the citizens are cheap to build and carry a helpful invention, the wheelbarrow, which lets them gather resources much more efficiently. There are other technologies historically invented by the Chinese that can have a big impact, starting with gunpowder. One early-game unit can plant explosives to blow up important structures, like resource sites. And the fireworks special ability can be triggered to frighten enemies--and morale does play an important role in Empires' combat tactics. Another early invention is the war kite, a scout that's by far the earliest air unit in the game. But the unconventional Chinese abilities don't stop there--the game works in special magical powers that correspond to the beliefs of the period, and Chinese players may be able to acquire the ability to throw lightning or other elemental attacks down on opponents.
That's not to say that the Chinese don't have some solid conventional troops to back them up. One unique advantage to this civilization is its mobile structures, particularly the mobile barracks, which can follow frontline troops and churn out new units on the way. We also saw some strong mobile cavalry, particularly mounted archers and heavy elephant cavalry. And if the odds are still in the opponent's favor, the ability to stir up a rebellion in the enemy ranks can help by making troops suddenly attack their brethren.
After we watched the Chinese in action, we skipped ahead to see the World War II-era Germans. The German civilization is very much geared toward military action, and to reflect their superior tactics the WWII units have abilities such as blitzkrieg, which hides the true locations of German units by giving false information, and sneak attack, which allows troops to get through dense forest that's otherwise completely impassable. It's no surprise that armor units are a central part of the German army, with the likes of the heavily armored Tiger tank to lead the charge. Armor units can also launch gas attacks. But stopping tank attacks is just as much a part of the German arsenal; the Germans have a mobile antitank gun that can transform into an antiair gun and a sergeant unit that has a panzerfaust antitank rocket attack and that can also boost troop morale.
But by this period, you'll be able to supplement your ground forces by taking to the skies with units like the fighter planes depicted in the new screenshots above. The Germans have a zeppelin that serves as a scout to detect hidden units, like submarines, as well as a bomb attack. This scout can team up with the German submarines to detect submerged opponents or to bombard heavy ships like the English battleship. At the top of the World War II-era tech tree each civilization will have a powerful weapon; for instance, the Germans will have the V2 rocket, which drops a devastating nonnuclear attack that can destroy buildings in a single shot. Goodman tells us that the special abilities from early in the game will be valuable throughout an entire game, so you'll have to balance the urge to climb up the tech tree to the later ages with the need to research the important abilities specific to particular eras.
Apart from the units that you'll encounter in the single-player campaign and in multiplayer matches, Stainless Steel was eager to show us some features of the next-generation 3D engine developed for Empires. Each unit has been drawn with several times more detail than what was seen in Empire Earth, and there are many new effects, such as real-time shadows and bump-mapped terrain and water, to make the action prettier to watch. The game will also have a fully rotatable camera, which you can control by holding two mouse buttons down, and then you click another to snap it back into a more-traditional isometric view.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is an ambitious game, and Goodman admits that it will be a different sort of challenge to balance the unique civilizations, but the game is said to be between 60 and 70 percent complete. A release date will be announced soon, and at next month's E3 we'll get another close look at the game and some details about the Koreans and a fifth, unannounced civilization. In the meantime, be sure to watch our exclusive video interview with Stainless Steel's Rick Goodman.