Empire Earth 2 Preview

By TheGoodEvil, Socvazius

Empire Earth 2 is a game I’ve waited many moons for. It is a culmination to a wait that has caused over 600 hours of internet scouring and untold amounts of time spent with industry insiders for the lovely taste I now have.

Empire Earth, for all who don’t know, was an epic RTS that spanned all of human history. What you may not know, is that soon after Empire Earth was released Stainless Steel Studios left Sierra leaving Empire Earth in a state of disrepair; this major flaw caused more people to leave EE than anything else. Luckily EE was picked up by Mad Doc Studios, who added an Xpack and a great patch, making EE a viable game once again. Mad Doc is continuing with their EE project by releasing Empire Earth 2 in April of 05. This title is a much anticipated one to say the least, I alone received hundreds of requests to preview the game. What is it about Empire Earth 2 that warrants such anticipation? Will EE2 deliver to all its fans? I’ll help you to find out now!

The first time I started up Empire Earth 2 I was greeted with a great opening cinematics, I was instantly put into a mood to beat up on anyone I could find. Too bad for me that there is still an empty multiplayer lobby so I wasn’t able to jump in and out of games at will, (though I have a feeling I’ll be able too soon). Anyway, I started up a skirmish game to use as a “get the hang of the interface” game. EE2 offers tons of options to start you off in a game that suits your play style. My style of play is quick match because it lets you set the pace of the game by allowing you to select a starting force. You are given many options to base your start game, on but I like it aggressive so that’s what I go with. When I got through the load time, which is very short (even in MP), I was greeted with the second dose of video goodness! The weather went from clear to rainy and foggy, which slows troop movement and also lowers line of sight. Weather plays a pivotal role in war planning, you can gauge weather changes with your outposts, however as time goes by, it becomes more difficult to gauge weather from your outposts, because you need to keep building more outposts per epoch in order to forecast the weather! After the first few ages you’ll stop trying to forecast the weather and just pray for sun, it’s what I do now but there are ways around some weather effects that I prefer. Certain civ bonuses allow for uninhibited movement in bad weather which gives you a huge bonus when fighting. The slower you move the more projectiles will hit you, moving faster then the enemy allows for more hit and run attacks, you can also be awarded the Imperial Crown “drills” which speeds up unit movement, (great for bad weather attacking).

Here comes the pain!

You can play EE2 very aggressively (which I like) or very defensively (my wife’s preference) the faster you attack the faster the game will end or the faster you can beat someone into submission of an alliance, but no matter how aggressive you are it’s always best to have a fall back plan…. That fall back plan would be expanding. Taking territories is vital to survival, the more territories you have the more resources you can secure. Since a city theme is applied in EE2’s gameplay and you are only allowed one city per territory, it makes more sense to keep expanding than to sit in a corner and turtle, (Turtling is walling yourself in and building tons of defenses), after all, if you only have 3 territories and your enemy has 6 that’s 2x the tech points your enemy is getting (because you can only have one university and one temple per territory). Since the only real way to gather tech points is to build universities and temples then populate them, turtling (while still an option) is no longer as potent as it has been in other games. So now I have my expansions but I’m not getting the resources needed due to lack of mining locations, what do you do? Well there are certain regional powers, namely the western regional power of Tribal customs, which raises all your gather rates by 100% for 60 seconds with a cool down time of 300 seconds. This gives aggressive players a much needed boost, but not enough to win the game, only enough to semi-recover from a failed rush or maybe give the extra resources to top off your army to ensure victory. Regional powers are a huge factor in EE2, though I didn’t even know how to use them until I did some snooping around and noticed the button on the interface for it. I wish I had that knowledge during EE2 university, there would have been some hefty whoopins to hand out had I known how to use them then!

As I was saying, you need tech points, tech points are needed to research techs and advance through history; EE2 incorporates all techs into one area this magical tech tree does the work of old researching methods. No longer are black smiths needed to research techs to improve your units armor, you can actually research those techs from the tech tree. This affords EE2 a depth and customizability that has yet to be seen in an RTS. If you don’t research a tech before you advance to a higher epoch you will never get to research that tech again, but if you do research the tech it will be valid for as long as you have “stuff” that the tech effects… i.e. if you research tech to help improve bowmen that tech won’t be any good after you reach the epoch that phases out bowmen.

You can also use temples for tech points, which are nice because on small maps with few territories you won’t be able to build enough universities alone to keep pace with your enemies. You also want as many tech points as you can get as fast as possible so you can research techs and epoch faster. If you research all the techs in 1 of 3 research lines “Imperial”, “Economic”, and “Military” you can get these little things called “Crowns”. A Crown offers you a chance to receive a bonus that you can pick out of many bonuses related to that Crown. If your economy is running a little slowly and you are afraid of losing the boom war you can quickly research all the techs in the economy line and use its respective crown’s rewards to help out your economy. It’s a brilliant system but could promote “if you start to win you will win” which is bad. That’s why you are given 3 options for crowns instead of only 1, you can try for the economic crown or perhaps the imperial crown but it’s not very wise to go for both as this could slow your advancing and give an upper hand to your enemy. The only obvious choice is to research your 6 mandatory techs and then advance, if you want a crown you can go for it, but sometimes you’ll find that you just need certain techs to help your strategy, and just it slows you down to research enough techs for a crown. Great balancing was done to ensure a fair game even though there are so many potential balance problems, Mad Doc obviously did their homework on this one.

Take that Mr. “Stale RTS person”

EE2 also delivers more to the RTS features list in the form of the citizen manager. The manager is a screen that acts like a huge mini-map but highlights resources and citizen placements on those resources. There is also the option of using the normal game interface, (the part that displays how many resources you currently have), all you have to do is mouse over your resource list to add and remove citizens that way (the best feature I’ve seen in a while). It doesn’t really make the game play for itself because your citizen won’t do a thing unless you make them do something, so it keeps you on your toes the whole game. The way they handled resources and the need for new resources is a solid feature as well, there are main resources like wood, gold, stone and food, then there are additional resources that make unit production possible such as tin, iron, and oil. This gives the resource junkies a lot to do and it also adds that form of realism that many gamers look for (as a note the special resources are not like Rise of Nation’s rare resources, they need to be mined in the same way as other resources and provide no extra bonuses to you if you possess them).

Of the many features in EE2 that are good additions to the RTS genre there is one that I really have no use for, the “Picture in Picture” (PIP for short) feature. Sure it’s cool to look at but it is less functional in my opinion than the mini-map and takes up valuable space that could be used to streamline the interface more. The picture in picture could theoretically allow you to be in 2 places at once but how many eyes do you have? You have to watch the game screen, the mini-map and now the PIP screen, not worth it if you ask me, there’s 4 square inches of room that could have been used to make the interface smaller while also allowing for units scale to be a bit larger. You can turn off the picture in picture function to save processing power but there is still that empty square there doing nothing for you at all. In order to use the PIP you need to either use your “F keys” or click tiny buttons that outline the PIP window, neither way saves you game time or adds any piece of mind that the mini-map wouldn’t add anyway if you ask me. Ian Davis showed off how well it helps him play but to be honest I have children constantly running around my desk and barely have the concentration to look at the actual game window. The PIP does allow things like to switch between bookmarked sections of the map, it even allows you to book mark a unit and have the PIP follow that unit where ever it goes, that is a cool part of the PIP if I could only get the hang of it….

EE2 also gives us a battle planner, I played around for a while with it and I have to say it’s interesting. You take a couple seconds (literally, all you need to do is draw the lines and send it) to organize a nice attack and then send it to your ally who will in turn agree with it or not. If they do agree to it then you follow it, or try to at least. Due to poor scouting I had troops walk headfirst into a fortress already and also found that I had no way across a river once. It was horrible, but it wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine. Besides human error on my behalf, I found nothing “wrong” with the warplanner and I seriously think it will add a lot to team games, especially the coveted clan wars that are bound to take place.

What else is there? You mean there’s more?

With all of these features it seems silly to have any more, but I guess I’m wrong because one cool though not very functional (except to the scenario crowd) feature is to be able to set daytime/nighttime conditions before you start the game; it sets a certain mood to kill massive hordes of enemies under the setting sun, kinda romantic if I do say so myself.

Let me fill all you 1337 guys out there in on the territories, you think Rise of Nations territories but they are nothing like RoN borders at all. EE2’s territories are there as a way to secure resources, limit turtling, and give you something more to fight over. As time goes by you’ll be visited by the geology fairy she takes away the need for old nasty resources and adds new yummy resources for newer more powerful units. Well let’s say you have 3 territories and none have oil, what do you do? Do you sit around constantly buying oil from the market or do you take that territory and corner the market on oil. Territories don’t stop you from building in them, you can build barracks right next to your enemies capitol city (if he/she’s blind enough to let that happen, if so perhaps he would need PIP much more than I do) the only bad thing that will come of you building in a territory other than your own is slower build times, but having your troops being built where you are instead of traveling the whole map length, is a more than acceptable trade off. There are some buildings you can’t build in territories besides your own, those buildings (like universities and temples) need to be built in a territory with your city in it, that is about as close to RoN style as it gets. Your troops will take no attrition damage or don’t have any penalties in enemy territories, but certain things like houses, which provide moral bonuses to their home troops, will leave you hurting if you’re trying to invade without strong units or military leaders.

I like the territory system in EE2 better than RoN’s borders because they don’t really inhibit aggressive gameplay but it still gives you a visual representation of where a person’s attention could be focused. The more territory you have the more places you can be attacked. And don’t think you’ll use many natural borders as a means of protection because rivers can be bridged (yes you can build bridges) and mountains can be flown over and parachuted over (yes there are paratroopers). There are many strategies to implement, many things can happen over the ages so keep your thinking cap on!


TheGoodEvil’s Conclusion

Overall the game has many features that will do well in drawing a lot of competitive players into the fold. The strategic options are abundant and Civ specific strategies will be shooting out of nowhere. Plus the Mad Doctor, Ian Davis and VUG stated that tournaments and contests will fill the internet as well as post release support. If what they said has any substance (which I think it does) Empire Earth 2 will be one of those titles that sticks in the minds of gamers, in terms of balance, fun, and support. Hats off to Mad Doc, if they stick to their guns and support the online aspect of the game I know Empire Earth 2 will see many seasons of great play.

Socvazius Conclusion

I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting Empire Earth 2 to be an exceptionally good game. Would it be adequate? Sure, but nothing I’d enjoy spending late hours and gallons of coffee on. Graphically, it’s not too impressive, but it’s gameplay is just damn fun. The insane customizability of the game – from defensive strength to the actual speed of most actions – means that just about every anal-retentive, nitpicky RTS’er like yours truly will have their own favorite gameplay design to play with.

I didn’t like the fact that teching up was rather mechanical and the technologies had no identity and feel of their own, but having technologies as prerequisites to advancing an epoch is something I prefer over the Age series’ building prereqs. One thing I did absolutely love was the citizen manager; it’s definitely worth micromanaging your citizens early in the game, but the citizen manager in late game – when you’re spending all your time on your troops – is the best damn minor economic change to any RTS game I’ve seen.

On the first game or two, Empire Earth 2 felt like Rise of Nations; territories, the method of teching up, all that jazz made the game feel just as though it were a RoN clone, most of the EE2U’ers agreed with me. But as I played it more, the feel of the game really started to show itself. The whole setup of the game makes it conducive to being similar to Rise of Nations, but Empire Earth 2 does have its own distinct feel and enjoyable gameplay.

While I was impressed with Empire Earth 2 and am quite eager to get the gold version when it’s released, I’m skeptical of its appeal to casual American gamers. The game can be simplified for those unfamiliar with RTS games, but its sheer scale will still be pretty intimidating to most casual gamers. Heck, it was difficult for all of us to get accustomed to the game until we had played our first game and had some instruction from Ian, and we’re some hardcore RTS gamers. I think it will appeal to the European audience no matter what, but American gamers may not like it as much. I guess we’ll see, but I’m buying the game nonetheless.