If you can commit to familiarizing yourself with all of Empire Earth II's nooks and crannies, expect to be rewarded with an enjoyable addiction that will last you weeks, if not months.
- Outstanding depth, including an incredible number of civilizations and units
- Smart AI adds challenge to solo games
- Virtually all rules and settings can be customized
- Innovative new features, like picture-in-picture, the citizen manager, and the war planner.
- Serious complexity, even with the new interface features designed to make the game more user-friendly
- Some pathfinding annoyances.
Empire Earth II has a lot of good points, but it's no friend to the casual real-time strategy gamer. While developer Mad Doc Software has improved on Stainless Steel's 2001 blockbuster, increased depth and additional options have turned a huge game into an absolutely colossal one. This sequel remains a standard historical RTS, but it's also a grab bag crammed so full of new features, interface amenities, and complexities that it's bursting at the seams. Still, if you can commit a great many hours to familiarizing yourself with all the game's nooks and crannies, expect to be rewarded with an enjoyable addiction that will cost you weeks, if not months, of your life.
Thematically, this is the same old Empire Earth. Mad Doc hasn't strayed far from the adventurous formula of the original game. Half a million years of human achievement have once more been broken down into 15 epochs and 14 major civilizations representing all recorded history. Every step in human evolution is depicted. Resources are gathered, and armies are built on a truly epic scale. In the same game, you might see Neolithic tribesmen--one step removed from the Flinstones--gathering food and stones, as well as a future society that wages war with battle mechs that process uranium. Hundreds of buildings and military units are developed and deployed. Each epoch has its own tech tree featuring 12 items to be researched in military, commerce, and imperial categories. You can venture all the way from weaving to sentient artificial intelligence, from seasonal hunting groups to automated highways, and from tanning animal hides to nanomachines.
Game modes are standard for a historical RTS. A tutorial and three solo campaigns trace the development of the Aztecs, Koreans, Germans, and Americans from different points in the history of each civilization. Single-player "turning points" missions see you revisiting D-Day on either the American or German side, or fighting the ancient Chinese Three Kingdoms conflict on behalf of the Wu or Wei. Skirmish mode lets you set up online or offline battles between as many as 10 human and/or computer opponents in game types that feature nine different victory conditions.
In short, almost everything is where you left it. That said, the crucial word here is "almost." Mad Doc has introduced a number of interface tweaks in an attempt to make Empire Earth II more user-friendly than its predecessor. The new citizen-manager overlay screen, for example, shows resource piles and other locations, like universities where stragglers can be put to work. You can take in the entire map at a glance, check stats showing how many citizens are assigned to each resource pile, and organize those who have slipped through the cracks.
War planning has also received the one-stop-shopping treatment. When you want to coordinate an attack on a mutual enemy, all you have to do now is sketch out some circles and arrows in the war-plans applet and then send them to one or more allies for approval. This is a great boost to solo games, providing the illusion that you're fighting alongside human players. It also comes in handy in multiplayer games with real human opponents. Not only does war planning provide you with a ready way of discussing tactics, but also it enhances teamwork by making it so easy to draw up such battle plans. In fact, it makes it even more tempting to betray allies by sending them confusing tactics while simultaneously preparing underhanded offensives.
Picture-in-picture is another evolution of the interface, providing you with the ability to be in two places at once. It lets you both keep an eye on specified locales and manipulate units and buildings. Essentially, it works as a secondary game window. For example, when directing an army on the front lines in the main screen, you can observe your town and queue the production of units in the PIP. Up to six points of view can be bookmarked and then toured simply by hitting F1 through F6, making it a snap to move between town centers in larger games.
That's not entirely a good thing. Despite Mad Doc's good intentions, the PIP doesn't make Empire Earth II easier to play. If anything, it makes the game more complicated, as in both single-player scenarios and skirmishes against the computer, use of the PIP can lead to information overload. Since there are always a dozen or more tasks demanding your attention, it's too easy to get so caught up scanning from one hot spot to another, in addition to micromanaging, that missions can start to feel a lot like work. Games online now are more hardcore and unforgiving. If you want to really compete in multiplayer contests, you have to master the PIP, because odds are good there will be at least one multitasking guru in every game you join.
Gameplay itself seems to have received less attention in the design doc than the user interface. Not that this is a bad thing. The historical RTS template upon which Empire Earth II is based is solid in every way--save for clunky pathfinding, which remains a sore point in specific locations, especially at sea and when off-loading troops from ships--so it's a good thing Mad Doc stayed away from what wasn't broken.