Empires: Dawn of the Modern World isn't a game that's been setting the TNL forums on fire. The forum demographic leans more towards console games with a hardcore Japanese touch. However, the forum demographic also appreciates good games, and Empires is one you should definitely invest in. Spanning over a thousand years from the Medieval age to the second World War, Empires has a broad scope that's sure to appeal to you in some area.
The game's predecessor, Empire Earth, featured the entire span of human life from caveman battles to futuristic skirmishes. DOTMW's more focused approach makes the game more intimate and easier to follow. Every civilization and age doesn't feel exactly the same, in contrast to what games with similar promises have caused you to expect. There are units, buildings, strategies, and techniques specific to every civilization in every age. The United States is the only country with an atomic bomb, while the Koreans have the unique ability to steal units from the opposition during a raid. It shows you just how much developer Stainless Steel cares about detail, which gives you an idea of just how in-depth this game can be.
Depending on which of the three single-player campaigns you choose, you get to lead your army as England's Richard Lionheart, Korea's Admiral Yi, or USA's General Patton. This gives the game a more personal touch over Empire Earth, and there are many in-game cut scenes with spoken dialogue to get you pumped for your next battle.
Unfortunately, these scenes feature some of the most awkward character animations ever digitally devised. Characters walk like they quite literally have crutches trying to hold their asses in the air. It's actually really funny to watch, but that spoils the seriousness these scenes are supposed to convey. In-game, however, the game looks gorgeous. It has relatively high requirements for a real-time strategy game, and it shows. It's one of the first RTS games to my knowledge to take advantage of DirectX 9, and the game's camera lets you zoom in as close as possible so it can show itself off to you. You can rotate, pan, and zoom in any way you'd like, though I liked the Blizzard "the camera stays here, stop whining" approach used in Warcraft III. Rotating in all directions can occasionally get confusing and disorienting.
Speaking of confusing, there's no tutorial. You have no hand to hold, and unlike other RTS games, the campaign doesn't start off slow by telling you how to do stuff. You're on your own, and the developers assume that you've played an RTS or two before. It's not troublesome, since the game follows the normal RTS conventions, but newbies to this genre are better off trying something else first. There are three types of people that play RTS games: the Starcraft gamer, the Warcraft gamer, and the Empires gamer. Starcraft players focus more on macromanagement, such as building your base and managing your resources. The Warcraft gamer focuses on micromanagement, such as controlling your units and maximizing their impact in battle. The Empires gamer is lucky enough to get to be both of the Blizzard game-players: The game has two skirmish modes, one of which allows you to, yes, build an empire, while the other is more about quick action and fighting that usually ends in under half an hour.
Stainless Steel loves you, too. The skirmish AI is fairly believable, too, though dumb and this-is-the-only-way-I-know simple on easier difficulty levels. Changes in difficulty don't just affect how much of a resource the computer has or how fast it can pump out units, it actually affects the difficulty like it should. At the hardest setting, the opposing units become much more offensive-minded and will try out different logical strategies to beat you down. It's refreshing and frustrating all at the same time.
Online play is smooth and everything you'd expect from Empires. It features automatic matchups similar to other RTS's, and you'll always have someone of equal skill to play with. This is where the meat of the game is, but it's hard to verbalize my feelings on it any further than saying it's as addictive as you think it is. Oh, and of course there's a D-Day level. While we've seen recreations implemented in first-person shooters, they're just not as emotionally investing as they are here. You're not just controlling one guy, you're controlling an entire army, with everything accurately designed and researched. This historical accuracy extends throughout the entire game, even though there are a few liberties taken with the smaller details, and you can tell Stainless Steel spent a lot of time making sure it got everything right.
The best feature of this game, however, has to be how your army advances throughout the ages. You can pick four countries in the earlier ages and then switch to one of five countries for the later ages. While you drop mostly everything and start new, some of your earlier tech choices don't completely disappear. That means that your totally sweet nukes and tanks can actually be complemented by horse-riding knights or sword-wielding samurai if you do it right. I'm sure you can imagine how hilarious and fun this can be. It's just as funny as the oxen suicide bombers and cow catapults you get to use in the campaigns. I'm serious.
While I can't personally recommend Empires over Warcraft III and its expansion for casual RTS fans looking for pure fun, I can say that Empires gives Rise of Nations and Age of Mythology some good historical RTS competition that's been desperately needed. You can tell the game has been lovingly crafted by people that really care about the subject matter, and that sort of love will be obvious to anyone that decides to take a chance and play this brilliant game (I'm talking to you, TNL forum). A demo is available on the Net, so get to it!
· · · Eric Williams