Empires: Dawn of the Modern World
As any keen Monty Python fan will tell you, the best way to upset your medieval adversaries is to propel the rotting corpse of a cow into the middle of their village. Stainless Steel Studios, maker of Empire Earth has taken this particular pearl of wisdom to heart, because in Empires: Dawn Of The Modem World you can do just that.
The curious animal fetish doesn't stop there either. With battle oxen that can be loaded with explosives and then detonated in an enemy stronghold, the emphasis is well and truly on creating an RTS experience that doesn't quite follow the usual rules. Yet, what makes this offbeat approach all the more surprising is that these inhumane military ploys actually happened in real life.
In fact Stainless Steel has spent over a year researching these bizarre tactics to come up with a game that covers five time periods across 1,000 years of history, starting with the Middle Ages. The ultimate aim is to create something that's historically accurate, yet at the same time original and enjoyable.
The thing to remember about Empires says lead designer Rick Goodman, is that the game has a number of unique civilisations all designed from scratch to be totally different from one another. By way of example, Goodman demonstrated an early Korean civilisation using fireworks as a sort of ancient rocket launcher. We then witnessed a German army using Rommel's Battlefield Deception', which caused all the opposing soldiers to run around in circles shooting each other. Needless to say, launching fermenting cow carcasses into enemy troops is a purely English affair.
The gameplay itself is divided equally between resource management and combat. Goodman is currently unwilling to divulge exactly how many civilisations there will be in the final game, but with the multiplayer count currently at eight, our guess is it's likely to be around that. There is an announcement on this due in April, and we'll let you know for sure as soon as we find out. Thankfully, chatting about the technology is not so taboo. Again, Stainless Steel can boast something of a first here, as the game will include a system known as 'one-click technology'. This means that when your civilisation learns a new tech, it appears as an icon at the top left of the screen, allowing you to instantly click and activate it.
We've completely redesigned the technology tree in this game, claims Goodman. It doesn't work like any other strategy game currently on the market." Graphically, Stainless Steel's new game looks pretty similar to Empire Earth, so if we're completely honest we doubt the visuals will be as groundbreaking as the gameplay. But there's still a long way to go before Empire's release late this year - and anyway, who needs state-of-the-art eye candy when you've got a game concept to die for?
Historical strategy games are becoming way too serious for our liking. We were quite happy when Westwood sent Einstein back in time to assassinate Hitler, didn't bat an eye when Civ let us guard our sphinxes with machine guns... and yet countless dull RTSs still persist in trying to create the most correct and accurate version of the world's conflicts. And it's clearly gone far enough. Developers are so busy researching what knot the Nazis used to tie their boots in World War II and modeling Genghis Khan's left gonad to exact scale that it's just no fun any more.
On paper, Empires: Dawn Of The Modern World could be mistaken for another po-faced RTS history lesson. Straddling 1,000 years of history, from the Middle Ages through to World War II, the game lets you play through history as one of several unique civilizations (including China, Korea, England, Germany and France), each with strengths and abilities based on meticulous historical research. Seeing the game in action, however, tells a very different story. Chinese wizards drawing lightning bolts from the sky like venerable X-Men, pestilential cow carcasses curling through the air on a visceral contrail... German blitzkrieg' attacks settling like a miasma over enemy troops. Forget realism - Empires is all about epic battles and uncompromising entertainment.
It is a historically realistic game, insists Rick Goodman, mastermind of the Empire Earth/Empires series, but we've focused on some of the most interesting aspects of history and chosen the most exotic units - based on things that actually existed - to make the game as fun as it can possibly be. Of course, Rick is stretching the truth a little, as some of these units have a truly tenuous grip on reality - the Chinese magic powers for a start are clearly based on folklore, and we're not convinced about the German battlefield confusion curse either. But then this is the whole beauty of the game - it treats history not as a map but as a playground.
The other key advantage of this lax approach to history is that it allows the developers to build each playable nation from the ground up, using whatever weapons and abilities they see fit, with gameplay balance always foremost in mind. Each civilization has a unique technology tree, says Rick, with a number of special abilities that are unique to each nation. Take the British civilization in the pre-gunpowder age, for example. Apart from powerful knights, crossbowmen and guys with boiling pitch, the English have the ability to build special spike traps. The enemy cannot see them, so I can entice them in, like so. With this, Rick lures some unwitting French horsemen into a line of traps, which spring comically forth from the ground in true Indiana Jones fashion, producing enough horsemeat to keep the French army fed for a month. It's a satisfying trick.
For any historical RTS, the air, land and sea operations are all very important, continues Rick, and another thing that makes the English unique is their strong and powerful navy. As a special ability, one of their ships can always be designated as a flagship, turning that ship into a super-unit. If the flagship gets destroyed, you can simply designate another one, so you've always got one flagship to rely on.
OK, so Britannia rules the waves - seems fair to us. What about the Germans then, in say, World War II... Rick? The Germans have strong submarines and Tiger tanks, as well as zeppelins, which are important for recon." Rick pauses to show us how zeppelins can be used to spot submerged subs, as well as functioning as bombers. The Germans also have a special ability based on their 1944 ability at the Battle of the Bulge, and that is the Sneak Attack'. The Germans are able to move through otherwise impenetrable forest to sneak up and launch unexpected attacks from behind. So Rick, you're telling us the German special ability is that they are sneaky? Um, OK, what else? Another German ability is to launch poison gas attacks with their bombers. Er, gas attacks you say? I think we'd better move on. What about China? One advantage the Chinese have is that their citizens are much cheaper, they cost less to build, and they train a bit more quickly than other civilizations, which is a great economic advantage. OK, so life's cheap in China then? Er...
Who Flung Dung
Things could have gone bad at this point, as the game's historical realism' seemed to be rapidly devolving into a series of racial stereotypes, but luckily it was at about this time we noticed some of the accents in the game. They were, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous -blatant parodies verging on the Monty Python. Click on the Chinese troops and you get a deferential Yes my mastah? Velly clever, velly clever." While with the Germans you get: Vot are your orders? Schplendid!" Ve couldn't help but laugh. You see. Empires, despite its claims of realism, actually follows the tradition of such classics as Scottish Lugs (see p146), trading primarily in stereotypes and historical one-offs. Luckily, it does so in a very deliberate, tongue-in-cheek fashion, often with hilarious results. It is this playfulness, combined of course with the tried and tested empirebuilding gameplay and huge, epic battles, that's going to make Empires stand out from the crowd. The team has already proved their mettle with Empire Earth, and now they're cutting loose with a far more interesting project. It's already got a laugh out of PC, and that in itself makes it worth keeping an eye on.
Focus On... China
Each Of The Nations In Empires Has A Number Of Unique Units And Attributes. Here We Take A Look At What The Ancient Chinese Had Up Their Sleeves
While several of the playable sides in Empires are still under wraps, Rick Goodman took us through the ins and outs of a few of those that have been revealed, and none was more interesting than the Chinese. We've already mentioned a couple of their special abilities, but here's a few more to get you in the mood.
WHEELBARROWS I'm sure you know that the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow, smiles Rick. This allows the Chinese to gather more resources more quickly."
SABOTAGE The Chinese can disable enemy resource sites such as mines and quarries by blowing them up, seriously damaging rival economies.
MOBILITY What really makes the Chinese interesting is their mobile buildings," claims Rick. They have a mobile barracks - you can even train units while it's moving." This mobility makes the Chinese a slippery adversary on the battlefield.
INSTANT TROOPS If they're struggling to fight off a heavy attack, the Chinese can use a special ability called Hereditary Military Service to instantly train units. Handy.
WAR-KITE An ewok-like flying wing, the war-kite is the earliest air unit in the game. It's based on historical research, insists Rick, the Chinese actually used them for reconnaissance. In this case they can fly around and drop rocks too.
FIREWORKS The Chinese can set off fireworks on the battlefield, causing the enemy units to get scared and attack each other. The historical veracity of this technique could not be verified, but we'll take Rick's word for it.
Download Empires: Dawn of the Modern World
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode