Empire Earth is a real-time strategy game that spans about a half a million years of human history, the last 200 of which take place 200 years from now. So if you're the type who appreciates ambitious game designs, then you've found one in Stainless Steel Studios' first game, which was conceived by the designer of the original Age of Empires. Actually, Empire Earth has a great deal in common with Ensemble Studios' highly successful Age of Empires series. Even the games' graphics look similar, though Empire Earth uses a fully 3D engine, unlike Age of Empires. Similarities aside, Empire Earth is a huge game to say the least--it's much more time-consuming and involved than the typical real-time strategy game, and its staggering variety of units is as impressive as it is intimidating. Real-time strategy is sometimes criticized for favoring shallow, action-oriented gameplay rather than strategic depth--but that's definitely not the case here. In fact, Empire Earth is best reserved for hard-core real-time strategy players who won't mind the game's less-than-stellar graphics and sound but will instead relish the ability to relive 14 different epochs of human warfare.
Empire Earth is clearly designed to appeal to those who enjoy Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Those familiar with Age of Kings should be able to jump right in and start playing Empire Earth, which borrows most of that game's controls, interface features, and even some of its keyboard shortcuts. As in Age of Kings, in Empire Earth, you must spend a considerable amount of time focusing on gathering various resources. All four of Age of Kings' resources have been appropriated for Empire Earth. A fifth resource, iron, has been added to further complicate the resource-gathering process. Most resources are found lying out in the open, in square-shaped deposits conveniently strewn about the map. Hunting for food also plays a big role throughout Empire Earth. All manner of realistic-looking 3D animals are there for you to hunt: cute giraffes, cute hippos, cute walruses, cute elephants, cute horses, you name it. Be careful, though--if you hunt too zealously, you'll wipe out the species. However, if you consciously let some animals live, offspring will appear, letting the delicate cycle of life continue for later exploitation.
Unfortunately, unlike in Age of Kings, there's no market structure that you can build to trade a surplus of one resource for another. This makes it all the more essential that you constantly weigh the importance of each individual resource in your short-term and relative long-term strategy and that you aggressively expand your territory to claim the resources you'll desperately need. If you're locked out of a particular type of resource, chances are that defeat will be close at hand. Then again, most units require only two out of the five resources, so you can focus your strategy accordingly or at least change your military spending to account for low quantities of particular resources.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings wasn't exactly a simple game--despite being more than two years old, it's still popular, thanks in large part to the sheer variety of strategies possible because of all the different units and playable factions. Empire Earth takes that game's recipe and doubles it. In fact, there's little denying that Empire Earth has by far the broadest scope and the greatest breadth of content of any real-time strategy game to date. From stone-age rock throwers, Roman chariots, medieval knights, and Napoleonic musketeers to World War I-era biplanes, World War II-era tanks, and 22nd-century giant robots, Empire Earth's variety of units is almost ludicrous. All told, there are more than 200 units in all, a number rivaled only by the impressive 1997 real-time strategy game Total Annihilation--but only if you count the additional units found in Total Annihilation's first expansion pack. Empire Earth also features a good variety of buildings and technologies, though these aren't quite as exhaustive as the unit options. In fact, many of the buildings remain the same throughout all the epochs.
Does the additional breadth and complexity of Empire Earth mean it's a better game than Age of Kings? No, of course not--you can actually have too much of a good thing, and Empire Earth is evidence of this. Using the default game settings, resource gathering is painfully slow. Not only that, but the costs required to advance from one epoch to the next are extremely high. It's theoretically possible to play a game of Empire Earth starting in the prehistoric epoch and work all the way on up through the nano epoch. But this would literally take hours upon hours. Fortunately, there are options available for optionally speeding up the gameplay, as well as a deathmatch mode that starts you off with plenty of resources, thereby letting you focus almost exclusively on unit tactics. At any rate, you're unlikely to see all the epochs in a single battle because an aggressive computer opponent will do its worst to write you out of history at the earliest opportunity. At the standard or hard difficulty settings, the computer will quickly expand across the map and will hit you hard and with just about everything it's got. Like most everything else about Empire Earth, the AI is no joke.
Perhaps the designers intended to make a scathing critique on how little humankind has evolved over the years, but the various epochs in Empire Earth actually aren't all that different once you get past the obvious graphical distinctions. Throughout all 500,000 years of history, you'll still need to gather food, wood, gold, stone, and iron. You'll do this by assigning peasants--called civilians here--to walk up to these resource deposits and scoop them up, exactly like in Age of Kings. Those same pumpkin patches feeding your cavemen will be feeding your modern-day military men millennia later--you'll have stealth bombers, but you won't have supermarkets. That same clump of gold will fuel your entire war machine throughout history. Similar quantities of resources will be used to train or construct historically analogous units. In the year 2200, you still won't have any technology that can cut through the fog of war.
It's true--in the 20th century, you'll have access to things such as B-29 bombers packing atom bombs, long-range howitzers, machine gunners, and Panzer tanks. These aren't nearly the same as pikemen, archers, and catapults by any stretch of the imagination. But the actual gameplay of Empire Earth--gathering resources, defending your towns with walls and towers, using mixed forces to mount huge attacks--remains constant no matter what epoch you're in. It just gets more complicated as you proceed later into history, because newer technology adds more variables to the battle. Actually, the game comes with a tech tree that clearly delineates land, sea, and air unit relationships--basically, what's effective against what--throughout all of the game's epochs. It's very useful for coming to grips with the game's depth and especially demonstrates the complexity of the unit counterbalances in the later epochs. Empire Earth may be a rock-scissors-paper game in the prehistoric epoch, but later on, it gets much more complex than that.
Age of Kings was characterized by its gigantic battles, and the battles in Empire Earth--true to the rest of its design--are actually at least as big and can be even bigger. The game's 3D engine may not look like much at first--the terrain graphics are rather garish, and many of the buildings look flat and plain. However, this engine is capable of rendering dozens or even hundreds of fluidly animated fully 3D units simultaneously onscreen while maintaining a decent frame rate. You'll probably have to tone down some of the graphics options on midrange systems to get the smooth performance you'll want--but it's the scope of the battles that's most impressive. You can use the mouse wheel to zoom right up to your units and see how blocky they look, but you're best off viewing the game by zooming all the way out. From this angle, you can see plenty of the screen but still make out individual units clearly, even when running the game at high resolutions.
Empire Earth gives you a few convenient command features, including Age of Kings' "idle worker" locator button and the ability to set a unit to automatically scout the outlying terrain. You can also set your units into a number of formations, though unlike in Age of Empires II, they won't move in formations, nor at the speed of the slowest unit in the group. The pathfinding in Empire Earth is mostly good but isn't quite perfect, as you'll sometimes see some of your units taking detours from point A to point B. At least they'll tend to not get stuck on one another, so you needn't fear massing them into groups. Well, unless you're worried about enemy artillery fire. Empire Earth also gives you standard options for setting unit groups, waypoints, aggression levels, rally points, and more. The interface includes all the features you'll need.
Random map games, either against the computer or against one or more human players, are the best way to play Empire Earth. This open-ended option lets you choose from a variety of settings and map sizes, as well as determine things such as the starting and ending epoch of the battle, the number of players (up to eight), the difficulty of the AI (easy, medium, or hard), and more. There's a nice option that lets you choose a random starting epoch, which experienced Empire Earth players will no doubt appreciate. Empire Earth also offers "tournament" vs. "standard" game types, and the difference is that in tournament mode, resource gathering is faster, costs to advance in epochs are lower, and walls and towers aren't quite as sturdy. Age of Kings players will find that the pacing of the tournament mode more closely resembles Ensemble Studios' game, whereas the standard Empire Earth pacing is considerably slower.
Unfortunately, Empire Earth doesn't offer any real variations to the standard victory condition of having to kill everything that isn't your color. Empire Earth is a very time-consuming game anyway, but all the more so since you'll likely run into late-game scenarios that'll make you think you've finally defeated your opponent, only to find that he must have gone and hidden a citizen or something in some far-off corner. The one alternative to victory by genocide is to build wonders of the world and defend them. There are six different wonders available, and you can set how many of these it takes (up to six) to determine victory. All wonders are very expensive and take a long time to build. Unlike in Age of Kings, they actually confer significant bonuses to your faction, like automatic healing to all your units or heightened power of persuasion for your priest units.
The nano-age giant robots are evidence that Empire Earth isn't a completely serious or realistic game, and to that end, so are the priest and prophet units found throughout every epoch of the game. Priests are just like Age of Kings' monks--they can convert enemy units from a distance. Prophets are more expensive and deadlier. They're essentially spellcasters, capable of calling down very destructive calamities that can seriously damage groups of enemy units or structures. From casting plagues on masses of enemy units to casting firestorms on enemy towns, prophets are certainly powerful. They also make the early epochs of Empire Earth a lot more interesting than they would have been if all you had to work with were clubmen and rock throwers. Some of Empire Earth's other units are also a lot of fun to use. The game's larger units, including ships and siege weapons, look very good and seem to pack a wallop. Later on, B-29 nuclear bombers (and their futuristic counterparts) deliver a blast that looks suitably devastating. The nano-age giant robots, called cybers, look pretty generic but pack powerful-looking energy weapons. Throughout history, you can also recruit certain hero units into your army. Warrior heroes are powerful in direct combat. Strategic heroes confer morale bonuses to allies and can break the morale of their foes.
Morale basically affects how much damage your units can do. That's a simple implementation of a complicated concept, but one that Age of Kings didn't try to tackle. Unlike in Age of Kings, you don't need to build houses in Empire Earth to increase your population limit. However, houses boost your units' morale on their home turf. Other structures, such as the temple, the hospital, and the university, also have an area of effect. Enemy prophets cannot use calamities in the vicinity of your temple. Units automatically heal when they're within range of a hospital. Structures like this help make your civilization in Empire Earth feel like a safe haven--until the enemy comes knocking at your door with a battering ram.
Empire Earth features four different linear single-player campaigns, plus a helpful learning campaign that walks you through the game's basics on up through some of the more complex features. The main campaigns themselves--one for the ancient Greeks, one for the medieval British, one for the World War I-era Germans, and one for the futuristic Russians--aren't the highlight of Empire Earth. They use voice-over narration to set the historical stage, as well as voice-over for many of the characters within the missions. The quality of the voice work is all over the place--the narration will be good one minute, and then the characters will speak with horribly affected accents the next. Also, the campaigns frequently resort to using short noninteractive cinematic sequences in the game engine. These get right up next to the units, showcasing just how blurry and lacking in detail they really are--so they manage to look completely awful. Considering that Empire Earth actually looks quite good when you're zoomed all the way out, it's a wonder why the cinematics all bring the camera in so close, showing the action from the most unflattering angle possible.
The campaign missions themselves are long and often challenging and typically require some questlike scavenger hunting as well as more straightforward base building and military maneuverings. They're not especially engaging, mostly because of the poor presentation, but they're fun and difficult enough to divert your interest from the random map games from time to time.
In keeping with its appeal to hard-core players, Empire Earth also comes with a complete scenario editor, plus a tool to link scenarios to full-on campaigns. These tools are documented in a lengthy supplemental file--this is in addition to the actual game manual, which is informative too--and the tools seem straightforward enough to use for players inclined to use them. Empire Earth's decidedly open-ended game system should certainly appeal to history buffs, who should be able to re-create rough estimations of some of history's most famous battles with the game's wide assortment of land, sea, and air units.
Age of Kings featured more than a dozen different playable civilizations, each with unique bonuses, plus a unique unit and technology. Empire Earth has more than 20 civilizations to choose from in random map games, but disappointingly, your choice of civilization merely determines what sorts of military and economic benefits you'll enjoy. Units won't speak in the native language of the civilization you choose, and unique units aren't available. In random map games, you'll also have the option to create a custom civilization by spending points on various attributes. Thus, you'll be able to do things like making various types of units inherently stronger, faster, tougher, and cheaper or even granting yourself bonuses to your economy. This way, you can augment the sort of strategy you wish to use. It's a good feature that seems well balanced, though the benefits of the different attributes are subtle in practice.
What aren't subtle are the sound effects in Empire Earth. The death cries of slaughtered infantry, the tremendous boom of a trebuchet's missile striking a tower, the staccato rattling of machine gun fire, and other such effects are effectively reproduced. However, these and especially the unit acknowledgements can get repetitive soon enough. Much of Empire Earth's sound effects actually sound almost identical to those of Age of Kings, particularly when sword-wielding units clash. The musical score of Empire Earth changes with the action, but much of it is plodding and repetitive, so you'll probably end up switching it off eventually. Like the graphics, the music and sound aren't consistently good, but generally good enough.
If Empire Earth is the game for you, then the last thing you should be concerned with is the inconsistent quality of its presentation. You'd be better off thinking about how to fend off a Sherman tank platoon in the 20th century or what to do about elephant archers thousands of years before. Should you wage war with your prophets or invest in high technology like siege weapons, let alone nuclear submarines? Should you focus on infantry, cavalry, siege weapons, defenses, economy, or some or all of these? Can you possibly handle managing all these different military forces? If the answer to this last question is "I think so" or something at least as affirmative, then Empire Earth should have a lot to offer you in the long run.
The game's broad appeal is a facade--Empire Earth will overwhelm casual players, if not because of the breadth of units available, then because of the powerful AI. Its decidedly loose interpretation of historical warfare isn't exactly educational either, though as in Age of Kings, the colorful units might compel you to do some further reading. Empire Earth also won't appeal much to fans specifically interested in just one or two of the particular time periods modeled in the game. None of these, individually, is especially satisfying or realistic. It's the sum of all the parts that's remarkable, and for the same reason, if the game's sci-fi element just doesn't interest you, then you can safely ignore it. On some level, similarities between this game and Age of Kings are impossible to avoid. But for the most part, Empire Earth is its own game with its own feel, and its similarities to other games are purely mechanical. Yet regardless of whether you've played other games like it, you'll find that Empire Earth is massive--more than most real-time strategy games would dare to be.