Reviewed: November 22, 2003
Released: October 21, 2003
The second game by Stainless Steel Studios, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World (DOTM) is the spiritual, if not de facto, sequel to 2001’s Empire Earth. In an unexpected move for a sequel, the scope has actually been reduced from that of the prequel game. Empire Earth chronicled every military advance from the first stone hatchet to the sophisticated laser turrets of the far future. DOTM instead focuses on a shorter one thousand year time span.
From the middle ages to the last days of WWII, Halsten to Hitler, the cannon to the atom bomb, DOTM covers a pretty significant set of years I’d say. The lead designer is one Rick Goodman, formally of Ensemble Studious and one might say the “father” of Age of Empires. Not content to merely rehash the first AoE, Goodman founded Stainless Steel Studios. Now, we are presented with DOTM. Does it live up to the legacy left by Empire Earth, or is it an evolutionary misstep?
DOTM has all the staples of the “classic” RTS. Gathering supplies and building an army to attack the other player (who also happens to be gathering supplies and training troops.) Usually, whoever has the better economy will eventually emerge the winner, gotta protect those supply lines.
One of the things that sets DOTM apart is the “epochs” feature. Other games merely let you advance to more powerful ground attack units. Research far enough ahead in DOTM, and you can atom bomb your opponents puissant little horse cavalry back to the Stone Age.
Single player consists of three campaigns, the first chronicling Richard the Lionheart (years 1182-1190.) The second has you controlling the Korean Admiral Yi Sun-Sin (years 1590-1597.) And the grand finale, campaign three, has you stepping into the shoes of “Ole Blood and Guts” General George S. Patton (years 1942-1945.)
The campaigns are well done, not too hard, but not absolute pushovers either. Once you know what to do and how to do it, there is no real problem in achieving your objectives. The voice acting is remarkable for an RTS; the cut scenes were spectacular, the setting, voice, and inflection all fit (within reason.)
Multiplayer can be waged on-line or through LAN, the standards of course. Multiplayer allows you to choose from amongst several different civilizations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The Americans have a great economy, as well as those lovely atom bombs I mentioned earlier. For brute force, don’t overlook the Chinese ability to build siege weapons merely using the hands of her citizens.
The team really outdid themselves in differentiating the different societies. This was done while still keeping a delicate balance. No one “civ” has the advantage (except for potentially game breaking misuse of Korean spearman in early rushes, neigh impossible to adequately defend against.)
With a patch in the works to fix problems like Korean spearmen and add even more variety to the game, the outlook is positive for DOTM to make a great multiplayer RTS once some quibbles are worked out.
The fact prequel and sequel packs (the dawn of man and post WWII most likely) are in the works, albeit as retail expansion packs, indicates a sincere commitment to this franchise from the designers at Stainless Steel. Once the trilogy is completed, you’d have a single game that would take you from the ancient past to the impossible future.
Besides a graphic “hiccup” concerning my graphics hardware (more on that below) the graphics in DOTM are breathtaking. Water is bump mapped, looking both beautiful and lifelike. Texture work is superb; chain mail and cloth are rich and vibrant.
The damage textures are also marvelous. Ships lose pieces of their sails as they are attacked; towers chip, walls and buildings burn as they are attacked. The actual ground textures and trees are still the flat, washed out, un-natural look we’ve all gotten familiar with in most 3D RTS games.
The unit animation is also quite well done. Bowmen pull back and reload their bows; swords rise and lower at nearby enemies. The mouth movement lacks any grace or subtlety, but is actually on par with some third person games and DOTM is an RTS, going well beyond the call of duty in my opinion.
Swords now exist in a third dimension, one of my main gripes with Empire Earth was where, if your troops stood wrong, their swords were disappeared due to the fact they were two dimensional textures and not models.
While a fully 3D RTS, the “quirky” camera function from Empire Earth makes its return in DOTM. The camera can only be zoomed, not rotated. You can go from an overhead to ground level perspective. The majority of the game is fought with the overhead view.
At ground eye level, ordering large numbers of troops is neigh impossible. I can’t really see any point in including the option, as it serves no real purpose, other then the occasional cut scene. It doesn’t detract from the game, but certainly doesn’t add anything to it.
Nothing compliments a great battle more then some appropriate musical accompaniment. DOTM doesn’t disappoint, providing you with some proper orchestral music while you slaughter your foes. Music is also used to great effect during the numerous cut scenes that move the campaign stories along. The main menu music is also well suited and I have nothing but good things to say about the music department.
The “babble” your workers and soldiers say is also of great interest, it had better at least be passable because you’re going to hear it A LOT. DOTM has many different “civs” and each one has some subtle difference about them. Be it their choice of words, or overblown accents, something sets each civilization apart. A lot of effort went into the sound department and it shows, in spades.
The voice acting is another area that really shines due to the care and detail that was put in. The actors actually sound like actors and not interns who read in a dull monotone voice from a script sheet. If the intent is emotion, emotion is expressed. While occasionally some speeches come off as a tad overblown, on the whole DOTM has the best in-engine cut scenes I ever witnessed in an RTS. Everything is there and it fits together perfectly.
For an RTS, DOTM is surprisingly expansive. You get three campaigns, which comprise 15+ missions all together. The missions aren’t the “fly by night” ones either. You’re looking at a solid fifteen to thirty minutes for each one. That’s over eight hours right there, totally ignoring the playtime multiplayer will invariably provide. The mission cutscenes are also amazing, some long ones are done as "missions" even though you do not play them, only watching the action unfold. The 15+ figure is for missions that require you to actually take part.
Multiplayer itself is also pretty expansive. You can choose a fast (Empire builder) or slower (Action) game pace. You have eight differing “civs” to choose from, each offering a slightly tweaked gaming experience. Not to mention you can also fight in the different time periods offering yet another way to prevent any monotony you might feel.
Sick of fighting with spearman, try some Spitfires. A thousand years offers a wide sampling of different types of warfare. Air power itself opens an all-new battlefield you can use to attack and defend. You can even, map permitting, have land sea and air forces work in unison. Many recent “high-profile” RTS games have been forsaking the valuable asset a navel fleet can provide. It’s nice that Stainless saw fit to include a viable, buildable, navel component.
To begin, a word of warning, if you have an ATI card that uses Radeon drivers, anything past Catalyst 3.7 will result in menu corruption. While not a bug that causes the game to cease working, it is an aggravating one to be sure. The menu background will not refresh and simply blend together making it difficult, though not impossible, to change your graphic settings or load a saved game from within the game world.
ATI has issued a temporary fix (which will almost certainly be included in a future Catalyst release.) The fix, while released to combat an error with Call of Duty also fixes the menu problem with DOTM.
With two expansions on the horizon, DOTM is quite capable of providing you with a great gaming experience right now. You just have an appetizer and dessert coming in the form of the prequel packs. What you’re likely to end up with, when all is said and done, is an even better, more expansive, version of Empire Earth. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing by any means.
By splitting the product up, each “segment” of the whole will now have the same level of care and dedication that was given to DOTM, which resulted in a very polished game. This attention will, hopefully, keep from feeling rushed, which Empire Earth often did. Opting to cut the “meal” into more manageable chunks, Stainless will ensure each part is cooked and prepared to perfection. After having tasted Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, I can’t wait until I can finish the meal.