Empire Earth wasn't a perfect game, but it was the first real attempt to meld the Civilization concept with that of real-time strategy. The idea was to distil the entire breadth of humanity's past, present and future into a range of thrilling storylines, and it was successful enough to ensure the commissioning of a sequel.
Surprisingly Stainless Steel (home of Rick Goodman, lead designer of Age Of Empires and the original Empire Earth) has not been involved in its making, leaving development in the hands of Mad Doc Software - the guys who made Star Trek Armada II. Thankfully, Mad Doc is no stranger to the Empire Earth experience, and one game in its past provides more than a glimmer of hope: The Art Of Conquest, Empire Earth's one and only expansion pack. Contrary to the rule that all add-ons should be inferior to their parent, this managed to rack up an impressive 84 per cent in this very magazine. Rest easy epoch-spanning RTS fans, it appears the right people are on the job after all...
"By listening to feedback from players of the first game and its expansion," says Ian Lane Davis, Mad Doc's CEO, founder and figurehead, "we learned that whilst players loved its epic nature, they wanted new command and control features to facilitate playing such a big game. Now the player has an unprecedented ability to smoothly control large empires."
By way of example, 'Mad Doc' Davis puts up a number of gameplay innovations
that look set to impress far more than the updated 3D visuals. "We've really done a great deal of work. In general, we kept the things that made Empire Earth a great game (core RTS gameplay and epic scope) while moving the franchise along. We're implementing advanced AI, enhanced environmental realism - with weather, seasons - new multiplayer modes, and improved management systems with an all-new engine. In the end, Empire Earth II is a really strong step forward for the franchise, as well as for the RTS genre in general."
The core group of new features are designed to allow easy management of the AI and the game in general. For example, the Citizen Manager allows you to make sure your civilians are working in the right place at the right time. It appears by setting up priorities geared towards gathering resources for war or for economic prosperity. By and large, you can then leave your civilian population to get on with the dirty work. Similarly the new War Planning feature will allow you to call up a regional map and create war plans for allied troops to follow. Plus you can follow everything - Mad Doc has instigated a picture-in-picture feature, where cameras are set up to watch events unfold from important vantage points and perhaps witness what Davis proudly proclaims as "non-cheating AI".
"You should also keep in mind that with Empire Earth II, there'll be bigger battles over many ages, and hardcore gamers can expect adaptive, more dynamic AI to give them challenges that seem more human. We did this by simply knowing more about AI than any other developer. I've worked on about a dozen strategy games, and I have a PhD in Robotics (AI). Let's be realistic here. AI for an RTS game is a hard problem - an extremely hard problem - which is why so many people take too many shortcuts. But it's not an absolutely impossible problem, and we know how to solve it better than anyone else."
The core Empire Earth concept is unchanged, the aim being to conquer each map - whether it be in a skirmish battle or over the course of the three linear campaigns (a Korean campaign covering the early epochs, a German series of missions that spans the 19th and 20th centuries and an American campaign that scoots happily into the future). All told the game covers 12,000 years of human history - some of it unwritten - divided into 15 epochs, with 14 playable races and close to 350 different units, some of which will be unique to each race - a lack of which was a criticism of the original game.