While the strategy genre is well represented by a number of distinctive games, a new release will typically either be a real-time click-fest - frenetic, fantastical and usually not very strategic - or a ponderous, more historically accurate and impenetrable turn-based affair. Of course, there are a healthy number of games that furtively prod these boundaries, and many more that happily exist within them, but only a handful have ever transcended them. Empire Earth II, with its fast-paced combat set across the breadth of human history - the likes of which even the mighty Civilization would be hard pushed to recall - clearly has aspirations to be one of the elite.
Genetically, Empire Earth II comes from good stock: the original game was of course designed by Rick Goodman, lead designer on Age Of Empires. We're happy to report that the sequel (handled by the chaps responsible for
The Art Of Conquest expansion) continues in much the same vein, offering the kind of gameplay you might expect of a game so accurately summarised by us as 'Age Of Empires with loads of bloody big knobs on'. As such, there is much to do above lassoing a bunch of tanks and sending them against the enemy. Cities need building, research must be undertaken, resources harvested and allies fostered - all this while keeping an eye on the calendar.
FITTED AS STANDARD
Empire Earth II differs from the typical historical RTS in a number of ways. For one, rather than dumping units into a large empty space and then asking you to fill it with buildings, each map is subdivided into territories. Erect a City Centre somewhere within its boundaries and the province becomes yours. Land ownership, of course, has obvious benefits, the main one being an increase in the number of units you can build and a staging post from which to eventually conquer the map. Though the borders are rigid (whereas in Rise Of Nations they were cleverly ebbed with the tide of war), the maps are vast enough to ensure a greater degree of dynamism in the way each level plays out.
This is aided by the game's approach to diplomacy, as rather than opt for complete subjugation, it pays to try and bend other tribes and nations to your will by offering them tribute or territory. Having an ally on side constitutes more than a backdoor route to ambushing the enemy, for here you can create war plans for your ally to follow simply by marking out waypoints for their armies to follow. Whether they carry them out is another matter, but the fact that you can concoct elaborate plans of attack for AI or human allies to consider is a feature sure to be a standard fixture in future strategy efforts.
SHOCK AND AWE
Whilst most games of this ilk make a point of hurrying you through various stages of human development so you can build the biggest, baddest weapons more quickly and defeat your foes through overwhelming technological superiority, here it pays to pause a moment before advancing towards Armageddon. See, a dozen technologies are available to research during each of the 14 epochs (ranging from pre-Classical to post-nuclear holocaust eras), but only six are required to advance to a new stage. The catch is, if you do advance, some technologies are no longer available to research. Simple, but clever.
As well as planning research, the game forces you to plan your attacks with greater care than might be required in other games. By erecting Outposts, for example, your border guards can tell you if a storm is brewing and thereby warn you that should you be planning an attack, it might be prudent to sit in your fortress and put some extra logs on the fire.