» Empire Earth 3 - PC

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Video game franchises are volatile entities. With each successive release of a popular franchise, publishers walk a fine line between pleasing existing fans and attracting new ones. Driving fresh sales with changes to gameplay can backfire terribly, as the fans that made a series a success in the first place may walk away in disgust. Yet publishers are reluctant to ditch previously successful branding, so a profitable series is likely to soldier on until its final iteration resembles its first release in name only. Some games have such valuable pedigrees that even the worst gameplay isn't enough to hamper the critical reception; take the extended technology demo known as Doom 3, for instance.

Other games, however, such as Sierra's recently released real-time strategy game Empire Earth 3, can't survive on branding alone. 2007 has seen a number of superb releases in the real-time strategy genre, and the Empire Earth name alone isn't enough to carry the third game in the series if the gameplay isn't up to par. Given the generally excellent reception of the series' previous release, continued success for the series is no easy task - and by no means guaranteed.

Revamped Gameplay

A lengthy single-player campaign mode is the hallmark of the Empire Earth series. Unlike many contemporary strategy games, in which story-based missions structures seem an afterthought, Empire Earth games have focused on delivering a strong single-player experience. Loosely based on history, the gameplay timeline has traditionally followed a culture from near-birth to far into the future. Where Empire Earth 2 was an exercise in complexity, immense in scope and immersed in detail, Empire Earth 3 is a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction. No doubt in response to complaints that Empire Earth 2 was too complex, developer Mad Doc have significantly decreased the depth and breadth of the core gameplay.

Gone are the dozen or more epochs and 14 civilizations which spanned three distinct campaigns. In their place is a World Domination mode, in which the player commands a region in a bid to gain control of the world, in a campaign which spans five distinct eras. The revamped design is a paradigm shift for the series, but does the newly-accessible gameplay make up for the loss of intricate technology trees and nuanced historical battles?

An Exercise in Ruining a Series

Unfortunately, the short answer is "no." Empire Earth 3 has reduced gameplay to the bare essentials. World Domination, the main single-player campaign, is centered on a turn-based meta-game of global conquest, much like the single-player campaign found in Microsoft's Rise of Nations. Starting with one of three available regions - Western, Middle Eastern or Far Eastern - a player must successively conquer provinces through real-time battle scenarios, with the ultimate goal of controlling at least 60 percent of the globe's provinces. The premise has potential, but each region has just three unique technologies and only one unique "Combat Action" - special abilities which can be used to aid an army in battle. Each region also plays by a different set of rules when it comes time to construct buildings and control territory.

The Western region, for instance, requires dedicated Builders to construct buildings within controlled borders, while Middle Eastern buildings are made within a city center and are available to be deployed anywhere on a map, regardless of territory ownership. There are other minor differences among the regions, such as how population growth is handled, but they are of little practical value when the core gameplay is so formulaic. Advancement through the five eras - from Ancient to Future - is afforded by the collection of Raw Materials, Wealth and Technology. The usual smattering of technology upgrades, such as roads and military specialities, are available at the provincial level, though the global upgrade system is cursory and lacks depth. World Domination isn't fundamentally broken, but it's a basic design which needs more detail to offer any engaging gameplay.

Scenarios play out predictably, and can be painfully long, thanks to the lack of a cap on resources and wealth (a hard-limit population cap, however, is in effect). Actual gameplay harkens back to an earlier era of RTS development. Far from being a quaint return to the basics, however, Empire Earth III is an oversimplified, unbalanced mess. The map is littered with different resources, from fish to lumber, but inexplicably all resources are pooled into one catch-all resource bin. Regardless of region, there are few unit upgrades available, and the small number of units overall requires little strategy to build an effective army. Token diplomacy options are available, and it makes little sense to engage in relations with an opponent when the only international stances are "War" and "Alliance". There's little reason to do anything other than declare war on all opponents and launch a massive offensive. Once a scenario starts, it's a mad rush to control territory, secure resources, build markets and amass a large fighting force. When resource collection begins to ramp up and markets start to haul in the wealth, there's no stopping the exponential returns. Without such unchecked growth, building defenses is generally a waste of time, and battles have a tendency to devolve into multi-hour slug-fests between armies.

Pathfinding: What's That?

If the muddled gameplay is a kick to the shins, then the game's technical problems are a punch in the face. The pathfinding routines are a lesson in how to not program unit movement AI in an RTS. Even on flat, open terrain, selecting two or more units and directing them across the map is a frustrating affair. Units will get hung up on each other and on the most minute terrain features, spinning wildly and jumping from position to position in an attempt to manoeuvre around the only rock on the map. Moving larger groups into combat is similarly farcical, only on a larger scale. Without few exceptions, units move and attack with all the organization and continuity of a Benny Hill chase sequence. The numerous other gameplay glitches, from clipping issues to rendering anomalies, speak of insufficient testing. Worst of all, even a release-day patch doesn't address the game's most pressing concerns: random crashes and a memory leak that limits gameplay to short bursts before the game comes tumbling down in flames.

A Showcase In Un-Optimization

Given the preponderance of bugs and crashes, it's no surprise that the game features below-average graphics and suffers from poor performance. Visually, Empire Earth 3 is a mostly mediocre affair; Models - including units and buildings - are of an acceptable level of quality, but are no match for the detail in titles such as World in Conflict and Company of Heroes. At the highest detail settings, with shader and texture detail cranked to maximum, the landscape is still bland. Uninspired map design does little to offset the game's unremarkable lighting engine and nearly nonexistent special effects. Frustratingly, performance is poor on even well-equipped systems, which may explain the severely restricted camera zoom-out level; zooming out to a greater degree would likely bring the game crawling to a halt.

Some creative tweaking is required to attain a playable frame rate, and this often means turning off all dynamic lighting and shadow effects, and not enabling the "Grass" option (which alone is responsible for up to a 50 percent drop in FPS on numerous test configurations). Such meager performance on an entirely mundane graphics engine is inexcusable, and the gameplay offers no reason to wait for another patch to sort out the frame rate issue.

If, for some reason, you are compelled to install and play the game (masochist, perhaps?), then you'll have to compensate for the lack of engine optimization in the form of capable hardware. At a minimum, you'll need an AMD Athlon 64 3500+ or Intel Pentium 4 540 with 1 GB of RAM. And while the game will run on a video card meeting Sierra's minimum specifications - a DirectX 9.0c-compliant GPU with 128MB of video memory - it won't run well. For a playable experience (after carefully selecting graphics options, mind you), have at least a 256MB ATI Radeon X1650 or NVIDIA GeForce 7600 video card. This setup - the YouGamers' minimum - will allow for decent performance at a resolution of 1280 x 1024, but don't expect to see the high side of 30 FPS once the on-screen action gets busy.

Realistically, a faster dual core processor (such as an AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ or Intel Core 2 Duo E6450 ) with 2 GB of system RAM is an appropriate baseline for running the game. Coupled with either a 512MB ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro or 640MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GTS, a system meeting these requirements (the YouGamers' recommended setup) can deliver a playable frame rate at 1650 x 1080, though reaching higher resolutions is only possible with the top-of-the-line 8800 GTX-based GPUs. Again, some dynamic lighting and shadow effects must remain disabled, but those options have a negligible effect on visual quality anyway. Keep in mind that even with the best of hardware (and the latest video card drivers), Empire Earth 3 will still exhibit graphical weirdness from time to time in the form of missing textures and obvious clipping issues.

Earplugs Required

Warranting special mention is the terrible audio. In-game music is atrocious, and sound effects are completely generic. On both Windows XP and Windows Vista, sounds pops in and out randomly on a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi card, but you may not notice, as ambient noises are so sparse to begin with. Bringing the audio down from merely terrible to utterly unbearable is the completely unnecessary voice acting. A futile attempt was made to give the game a light-hearted tone with units' scripted quips, but the dialog is so unfunny and out-of-place that I turned the speakers off in disgust - it's that bad. Why this dialog was ever included in the first place is beyond rational reasoning.

Take It Out To Pasture: The Empire Earth Series Is Done

The first sign of trouble for Empire Earth 3 was the version 1.1 release-day patch. Fixing a one-off, last-minute bug with a release-day patch is understandable; attempting to finish the game with such a patch is not. The Empire Earth 3 1.1 patch addresses such fundamental issues as making units "... more responsive to move and attack orders during combat" and "Multiple fixes to tutorial to avoid non-progression issues". Either the game was pushed out the door for a holiday release, or someone at Sierra recognized that the game had gone too far off course to be salvaged. The released product is as pared-down as an RTS game can get; there's little emphasis on strategy and few potential variations in gameplay.

What remains is plagued by bugs and a lack of continuity that can only be attributed to an unfinished product. A post-mortem for the game would read like a case study of what happens when everything goes wrong in developing a video game. Ultimately, Empire Earth 3 is a contender for one of the worst games of the year, and easily earns the dubious recognition as a series-killer.

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Not unplayable, but hardly enjoyable. Starcraft-era RTS conventions abound, and core gameplay is simplified to the point of banality. Unsurprisingly, the multiplayer experience isn't worthwhile either.
Below what's expected of a contemporary PC RTS. Models and textures are passable, but there's nothing exceptional or noteworthy. Effects, such as explosions and fire, are bland, and there's nothing special about the shaders or dynamic lighting.
One word: unbearable. If the chintzy sound effects and canned music have you reaching for the volume knob, then the tacky and out-of-place voice acting will have you looking for earplugs. Without question, the most inappropriate and out-of-place scripted banter ever in an RTS.

Performs poorly on even high-end systems, and even with a release-day patch, a memory leak and random crashes plague the game. Support for multi-core CPUs would have bumped up performance, but everything about the game points to a rushed release.

(not an average)

In a year of excellent RTS titles, Empire Earth 3 has nothing to offer. In an effort to garner mass appeal, the game has been dumbed down to the point of irrelevancy. Series fans have no reason to return, and newcomers have no reason to show up in the first place. Empire Earth 3 is the epitome of a video game series' death knell.

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