If you can commit to familiarizing yourself with all of Empire Earth II's nooks and crannies, expect to be rewarded with an enjoyable addiction that will last you weeks, if not months.
There are a few key additions to gameplay. Roads can now be built to give units speed bonuses (although the benefit of this is dubious thanks to those pathfinding problems). Diplomatic options have been more fully fleshed out with the ability to barter territories in return for alliances. In both single-player and multiplayer matches, crowns are now awarded at timed intervals for successes in the military, economic, and imperial arenas. Lead the field militarily, for example, and you get to choose from a list of bonuses that increase damage done by your infantry for a limited period of time, add to the hit points of your naval vessels, and so forth.
A rock-paper-scissors formula remains the inflexible foundation of the game, but you can change just about everything else. A range of handicaps in skirmish mode run all the way from newbie to game god, adjusting core aspects of gameplay like unit production rate, tech-point generation, and inflicted damage. This nicely levels the playing field against human opponents online and allows for single-player skirmishes against computer antagonists of wildly varying ability. Game pace can also be adjusted, either with fast, slow, or medium presets, or by individually editing game functions. You can accommodate limited amounts of spare time with these speed settings, too. We cranked everything up and ripped through all 15 epochs in a couple of hours in one solo game.
Cunning artificial intelligence provides you with good competition no matter how you tweak the customization options. Computer enemies build their cities smartly, with well-thought-out fortifications. They set up outposts and walls, stud coastal areas with catapults, cannons, and missile launchers, and construct a hell of a lot of fortresses. Weak points are there to be exploited, but you have to scout or spy pretty hard to find them. So while there may be a beachhead in the enemy's rear that's perfect for the landing of an invading army, you usually have to endure the withering fire of a half-dozen surface-to-sea gun batteries to get there.
Attacks are carried out in an intelligent fashion as well. Computer opponents are aggressive, even on easy difficulty settings. They test your defenses in all areas and will only launch large-scale attacks at proven weak links. If computer armies are easily repelled from one locale a few times, you can virtually guarantee the next attack will focus elsewhere. Conversely, if an attack meets with even a modicum of success, you can bet more assaults will be directed at that particular location very shortly.
One area where Empire Earth II doesn't look so smart is in presentation values. The main problem is a certain sameness in units and buildings. Aside from individual soldiers and the handful of units particular to each civilization, buildings, ships, and aircraft have quite similar appearances in each epoch. This is a particular issue with related cultures, although it's noticeable with even the most dissimilar civilizations. So a game played as the Aztecs feels a fair bit like a game played as the Germans, or as the Chinese.
Even if you're not bothered by the somewhat generic feel of the game, the overall quality of the graphics and audio is a couple of years behind the times. Except for fantastic wind, rain, snow, and sand effects that seriously hamper visibility (or destroy it completely if the setting in video options is turned all the way up), whenever a storm rolls in, Empire Earth II doesn't look that much better than its 2001 predecessor. Unit animation is crude, and there's a lack of fine detail in general. The citizen-management and war-planner screens are extremely blocky and grainy, like photographs blown up far beyond their original sizes. Also, slowdown is an issue on maps with four or more players, even on systems with high-end video cards like the Nvidia 6800GT. During periods of inclement weather, the frame rate can drop so low that the game is barely playable.
Audio order acknowledgments are tedious and are repeated constantly. Some units have just a couple of response options, so you hear the likes of "Look lively, men!" and "Blood and iron!" over and over. Considering the amount of money VU Games obviously spent on this production, the number of voice samples is awfully chintzy. Music is more noteworthy, with different theme songs for each civilization. Some are even catchy, such as the Middle Eastern beat that accompanies campaigns played as the Babylonians. But again, there's too much repetition. The same few notes are recycled ad nauseam, so it isn't long before you're dialing down the volume or switching the music off.
Despite the negatives cited above, we can't fault Empire Earth II with anything but providing too much of a good thing. And when you look at just how much there is to experience, this seems like a pretty forgivable sin. A patient approach, perhaps coupled with the memorization of a dozen or so hotkeys, goes a long way toward appreciating this game, but the eventual payoff is definitely worth it.