While Empire Earth had already managed to hold its own as a classic in its own right, the historical RTS landscape had changed by the mid-2000s. In the intervening time, titles as varied as Rise of Nations, Rome: Total War and Crusader Kings came to take precedence, the competition growing more intense with time. But the series begun by Rick Goodman (of Age of Empires fame) was not about to give up right there and then. Thus, Sierra Entertainment (under Vivendi Universal) tasked Mad Doc Software with creating a proper sequel. Learning from the rough launch of The Art of Conquest expansion as well as the changing RTS scene, the developers sought to substantially improve upon the original’s gameplay while retaining its ambitious spirit.
The result was Empire Earth 2, which was released on April 26, 2005 for PC. Almost from the get-go, however, the game faced an uphill battle, being overshadowed not only by the launch of Age of Empires III a few months later, but also by the expectations set by the original Empire Earth itself. Still, despite its shortcomings and the persistent debate continues on over which is better, the game makes a solid effort to earn its stripes as a classic worthy of its name.
EE2, for one, features 15 Epochs, covering about 12,000 years of human history (as opposed to the first game’s 500,000) and beyond. Unlike the original, however, there’s more effort put into making these more realistic and detailed. For instance, there aren’t any grunting cavemen and Prophets with earthquake-inducing powers, nor are the futuristic Digital and Synthetic periods too sci-fi; while there are still robots (called HERCs instead of Cybers this time around) and the occasional laser, there’s a more grounded feel to units and aesthetics by the late-game. The way each Epoch transitions to another is also made more natural, whether it’s the generally more piecemeal shifts in architecture or how units (which automatically upgrade with time) advance more gradually. While granted, this results in some periods (particularly around the mid-game) not standing out as much as before, it does manage to convey a more serious and somber tone, which is seen in the rather well done intro cutscene.
The Civ Points mechanic and Civilization Builder (along with custom builds) have been removed entirely, however. In their place, EE2 features 14 factions overall, spanning various cultures – such as the Greeks, Babylonians, Koreans and Americans – from across the globe. Unlike the original, however, there’s more to them than just stat bonuses. On top of having bonuses tied to both their respective strengths (like the Incas’ 10% faster gold mining) and corresponding “Regions” – Western, Meso-American, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern – they also have access to three unique units each (accessible in certain Epochs), as well as their own regional wonders, perks and abilities; the Japanese towards the late-game, for instance, can build Zero fighters, have extra population capacity and can activate “Overtime” to boost unit production, among others. Combined with the introduction of visual differences – with non-Western sides like the Egyptians actually looking the part, this time around – and you’re treading to an undoubtedly diverse selection in both playstyles and aesthetics, which help compensate for the lack of customization.
Which isn’t getting to the other myriad additions and refinements seen in EE2. The “incremental” progress mechanic seen in the original is still present, for example, but has been streamlined into “Veterancy” upgrades that make units more potent; coincidentally, the benefits of tech upgrades similarly carry over into subsequent Epochs. There’s also a “Crown” system – coming in Military, Imperial and Economic flavors – in which excelling in certain aspects against enemies (such as killing a sufficient number of units and resource gathering rates) grants you access to myriad perks for a limited (albeit renewable) time; on top of granting powers like Mobile Warfare Doctrine (Military Crown) or Think Tanks (Imperial Crown), you also unlock hero-like “Leaders” with their own passive and active abilities; in practice, they’re reminiscent of the “Warrior” and “Strategist” heroes seen previously. There’s more substantial diplomacy (including the ability to set specific terms for peace treaties or alliances), which plays into a similarly more robust trade route mechanic (whether by sea or on land through roads). And then, there’s the Picture-in-Picture or PIP window. As maps can be rather large, you can bookmark up to six PIPs at any given time to monitor rivals or cover any potential weak spots. Add in randomizable maps, improved AI – intended to be much like how human players would go about, complete with text taunts – and better formation-based pathfinding, and it’s not hard to see how the game really tries to leave a good impression while keeping true in spirit to the original.
When it comes to some of the other aspects, however, you can’t help but wonder if the developers had taken inspiration from the sort of titles that eclipsed the first game. “Aging up,” for instance, requires tech points (generated by Universities) and a certain number of researched technologies (which provide myriad bonuses), not too unlike Rise of Nations. Similarly, the introduction of a territory mechanic on the battlefield – in which unclaimed and enemy lands can be occupied by building or taking a City Center, though islands also require the construction of Fortresses – right down to having city/territory names, harkens back to Big Huge Games’ RTS hit as well as Civilization. While the inclusion of War Planner and Citizen Manager modes – both of which utilizing an overlay screen covering the entire map, with which you can either coordinate battle plans or manage all resource gathering assignments at once – calls to mind Company of Heroes’ tactical overhead map. Coincidentally, the ability for ground units to capture enemy structures (including City Centers) through depleting their “loyalty” to their faction is not too dissimilar from taking a German control point in Normandy. While these can make EE2 seem derivative at points, overall, they help make the title stand out even more from the crowd.
EE2‘s campaign mode is at once similar and different from its predecessor, especially in how it stumbles. Comprised of 32 scenarios – the majority follow the Koreans, Germans and Americans (eight for each) – with four stand-alone “Turning Points” covering China’s Three Kingdoms and D-Day from different sides, as well as a mini-campaign tutorial following an alternate history of the Aztecs. Unlike the first Empire Earth, however, the presentation is much more akin to an old History Channel special, with the opening cinematics even being reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary. But outside of the same narrator’s voice heard at the beginning and end of each scenario, any dialogue or story progression is done entirely through text windows. There are few recurring characters with any personality to speak of, such as the mythic Tangun acting as a leader unit in the earlier parts of the Korean campaign or the antagonistic Gen. Charles Blackworth in the futuristic scenarios of the American one, who never even shows up (though his HERC-heavy rogue army features heavily); this also means that there’s little to make you invested into what passes for plot. The action, meanwhile, is fairly challenging and varied (from conventional base-building affairs to timed sieges and full-fledged battle sequences), being open to various strategies without necessarily having to check the hints. But while these and the ensuing longevity make up for the underwhelming execution and the tendency for bouts to last well over an hour on average, they don’t quite manage to be as memorable as the originals.
The game’s high system requirements for the time are another sore point, which is in some respects a shame. The Gamebryo 2.0 engine used is capable of doing yearly/seasonal cycles as well as gameplay-affecting weather such as sandstorms and blizzards (which both limit visibility). At its best, the graphics’ lighting (as well as the attention to detail on some structures and units) come off rather realistically, though to a point; not unlike many Command and Conquer titles, ships can seem smaller than they should otherwise be while Leaders stand out like giants. On the other hand, some of the visual effects can come off a tad underwhelming, with explosions in particular not quite having enough impact. Given everything that could happen on-screen at any given moment, along with the PIP feature, it’s also not unheard for some PC builds (even more modern ones) to experience slowdowns. It can thus, make you wonder whether the engine itself had been properly optimized.
The audio isn’t much to write home about, either, which is also a shame. EE2’s menu theme, while somber and more ominous is also fittingly grand, harkening back to the bombastic melodies of the original. Its soundtrack is also far more varied, filled with myriad atmospheric pieces that reflect the faction or region you’re playing as; on top of tracks that actually sound like they’re from the Middle East or Mesoamerica, towards the late-game the music even incorporates military march motifs to reflect the changing times. If only the rest was consistently as memorable, not quite succeeding in really capturing the on-screen action. As for the voice-acting, though not as amateurish or laughably bad as before, it comes off similarly underwhelming. Not even the otherwise serviceable sound effects could distract from the blandness.
Then there’s the nagging sense, gameplay-wise, that EE2 is being more complex than it needed to be. With so many features, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed by everything being presented, even with the tutorials. More than that, some of those mechanics don’t seem at a glance all that useful. The PIPs, for instance, could be disabled in the options menu without really missing anything. While whole matches could pass by before you actually look into the Citizen Manager or Crown system. This isn’t to say that there’s no value in mastering those complicated mechanics. Knowing how to develop specific territories and when to use your faction or region’s bonuses, for example, can help turn the tide of battle. But rewarding as they may be, such perks don’t fully mask the occasional pathfinding bugs, somewhat muddled counter system or the tendency for larger battles to grow messy even with formations. Nor dissuade from the notion that the game’s biting off more than it could chew.
Such sentiments were expressed by a number of games journalists at the time of its release, alongside comments about a not too robust mission editor and how the game failed to fully break from the conventional RTS mold. Fans of the burgeoning series were similarly torn over it, alongside a combination of nostalgia for the original and disagreements over the changes made (like the removal of the old Civ mechanics). That it’s soon overshadowed by the launch of Age of Empires III on October 15, 2005 certainly didn’t help matters.
Yet even with shortcomings, EE2 managed to win over critics and gamers alike. Whether it’s because of the solid gameplay, epic scale or the myriad customization options, it’s not for nothing that the game earned an average of 79% on Metacritic and GameRankings; PC Gamer not only deemed it an “Editor’s Choice” in its review, but even made it a finalist for its “Best Real-Time Strategy Game” Award for 2005. Although debates persist to this day on whether it’s genuinely better than the original, few would deny how it’s a solid entry in and of itself. All while reassuring fans that the spirit of Goodman’s vision was in the right hands.
Mad Doc Software, though, weren’t quite finished just yet.
Empire Earth: The Art of Supremacy
The success of Empire Earth 2 was such that it warranted an expansion pack. But rather than simply adding new features, however, Mad Doc Software envisioned delivering the full experience. According to a 2006 Gamespot Q&A with Associate Producer Matt Stokes, the aim was to incorporate various elements that weren’t quite ready at launch, as well as to address gamers’ issues with the base game.
On February 14, 2006, those lofty goals were put to the test with the release of EE2: The Art of Supremacy. The title, coincidentally, invokes that of the first game’s expansion, The Art of Conquest. And its fate would be remarkably similar, for good and ill.
The very first thing you would notice upon loading up the game is the return of the “Civilization Builder” from the first Empire Earth. Conspicuously absent in EE2 proper, the new “Civilization Editor” allows you to create custom factions from the ground up. Whether it’s being able to name cities and territories, choosing bonuses and regional powers or selecting what unique units to deploy, the myriad options open up a potential multitude of possibilities. Granted, the Civ Points mechanic isn’t carried over, and the perks available aren’t quite as varied as in the original. But the ability to customize different builds to suit your playstyle, alongside being able to similarly customize your starting forces and structures from the menu, more than makes up for its relative limitations.
Unlike the original’s expansion, there are no new Epochs or space hijinks to be had. Instead, The Art of Supremacy introduces four new civilizations: the Russians, French, Zulu and Maasai. Intended to help make the game more representative of the world’s diversity of cultures, the new arrivals come with their own unique units and bonuses. Indeed, not many RTS titles at the time (or since) have really featured playable factions from Sub-Saharan Africa. Especially ones that manage look authentic enough – whether it’s early-game Zulu villages that resemble real tribal structures, or modern/futuristic soldiers based on more developed African countries like Kenya – without relying too much on stereotypical takes on the continent. In comparison, however, the French and Russians pale in trying to distinguish themselves outside of their particular perks, which isn’t helped by them using the same European palette. All the same, they all manage to blend in rather seamlessly.
There’s also the option to add “Native Tribes” in an average match. Reminiscent of the city-states in later Civilization games, these serve as neutral parties that could be traded with or wiped off the map, if you so wish. At the same time, however, they play into the Assimilation mechanic, in which sharing a border with a tribe (which include various peoples like the Inuit) and sending a Leader makes it possible to not only secure their allegiance as an ally. But doing so also bestows your faction its territories and unique powers, be it longer line-of-sight for units (“Community”) or higher population caps (“Fertility”). Although the execution in practice varies between being a liability and a boon depending on the map, at best such tribes can help turn the tide of a battle while adding another layer of complexity.
Then, there are the other new features and gameplay tweaks that have been put into play. There are new multiplayer modes, for instance, which include Tug-of-War (a kind of endurance bout over several matches) and Fealty (in which you can permanently vassalize defeated foes or become one). Certain units (except planes and ships) that have killed multiple enemies have a chance of becoming “Heroes” (enlarged versions of themselves not unlike the existing Leaders) that are not only more powerful but can also form armies that utilize their bonuses, including reduced damage. Earning a Crown also makes it possible to choose a “Supreme Leader” for faction-wide perks, which could be achieved by appointing existing Leaders or Heroes. Meanwhile, buildings that train enough units or gather enough tech points earn boosts called “Flag Powers” (usually involving reduced build times and costs). Combined with additional options – such as pronounced asymmetrical resources that make some territories more valuable than others, as well as the ability to coordinate, plan and execute control group orders through the War Planner – you’re left with a rather solid experience. Albeit one that’s more complicated and not always that obvious.
Unfortunately, the campaign mode is once more rather underwhelming. Covering 19 scenarios in all, there are three campaigns – following Ancient Egypt, the Russian war against Napoleon and the Maasai’s near-future struggle with a megacorporation – and two Turning Points involving the Battles of Kursk and Rorke’s Drift from both their respective sides. The most notable addition here would be the “Reinforcements” system (also used in Tug-of Wars) in which you can choose units and upgrades at the start of most scenarios, adding both variety and a sense of persistence through different maps. The rest of the package, however, is very similar to the base game, right down to the documentary-esque cinematics. Granted, there are more coherent story arcs this time, due in part to the smaller timeframes involved, as well as more unique structures and units like the French Imperial Guard; these in turn allow the campaigns to have more character as compared to EE2 proper. Nonetheless, it comes off in practice as being more of the same. Which can make some of the effort put here, such as the unique architectural styles used for some Russian structures, seem more like a waste than anything else.
This isn’t to discount the other flaws that grow apparent the more you play. The graphics, though improved to feature better lighting and more physical effects (like artillery having more realistic splash damage against units), still pale in comparison to contemporaries like Age of Empires III and still aren’t quite optimized. Some of the new features and tweaks, meanwhile, can come off either needlessly complicated or seemingly useless. Chances are, you wouldn’t find much use for a Supreme Leader or native tribes right off the bat, while the option to customize your starting unit lineup can seem more redundant, if not a chore, than anything else. And then, there’s the nagging sense that even with all that’s been added, the expansion doesn’t quite have enough to stand on its own merits. To say nothing of how it doesn’t distract from how the gameplay can come off even more daunting and complex than before.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, reviewers were not particularly impressed with The Art of Supremacy, and if anything, were noticeably less forgiving. Critics gave it mediocre ratings, averaging 57% on Metacritic and a marginally better 61% on GameRankings. On top of similar critiques, more than a few chided it for its complications and seeming pointlessness – Gamespot’s review, in particular, remarked how the new additions would have been more appropriate for a patch to EE2 proper, while Computer Gaming World slammed it for feature creep – as well as how other aspects, like playing as the French and Russians, had been done to death by that point. That it delivered more of the same also was also used against it, especially when historical RTS titles were increasingly seen as dinosaurs in a changing PC landscape.
While fan reception was rather similar at the time, as part of the Gold Edition, the merits of the expansion grew more appreciated. Whether it’s being able to play as an African faction with its own motifs and bonuses, using networks of native allies to augment an elaborate battle strategy or simply the thrill of crushing opponents with futuristic HERCs, Mad Doc wasn’t entirely wrong in saying that The Art of Conquest gives the full EE2 experience. Flaws aside, the gameplay still remains engrossing and epic in scope, all while rewarding mastery of its myriad if at times complicated features.
Even with the still persistent debates over which entry is better, it seems as though its faults, for the most part have been forgiven in the intervening years. Indeed, it has helped sustain a loyal fanbase (especially among Eastern European and Russian gamers) that has kept the game, and the wider series for that matter, alive well into the present. Long after the original servers were shut down on October 10, 2012. Warts and all, more than a few fans would rather that this be the last official entry in the franchise. Better, perhaps, it ended on an underwhelming note, rather than the farce that came right after.
Fan Showcase: Empire Earth 2: Unofficial Patch 1.5
Similar to the first Empire Earth, EE2 has since garnered its own modding community. Though smaller and arguably more obscure than others of its kind (such as those for Command and Conquer), it’s not only no less persistent than its more famous peers, but also goes beyond its predecessor. Not content with simply making basic tweaks, fan-made unit models or new scenarios, a few hardcore fans had sought to take the existing game and significantly expound upon it.
The most notable of these efforts is the unassumingly titled Empire Earth 2: Unofficial Patch 1.5. Conceived by DrMonaLisa on August 2, 2014 (currently on “Version 1.5.7.008” as of this post), this fan work is technically speaking not a mod in itself, though it could be mistaken for one and has provisions for supporting others. The underlying idea behind its existence is to improve and refine what’s already present in the game rather than overhauling it entirely; in fact, according to the project team’s website, only about 30% of these improvements are visible to players, the rest being stability fixes (like compatibility). Over time, however, enough changes, tweaks and additions have been made to the source material (with some taken with permission from other mods) that it’s gone past being a simple patch. That being said even its present form remains consistent with its author’s original intent.
Among the more notable aspects of 1.5 are the substantial graphical tweaks made. The engine has been modified to allow for additional animations and effects (such as day-and-night cycles and more convincing weather), without sacrificing performance in modern PC builds. The improved textures on units and buildings, along with a helping of new models that blend well with the existing assets – which range from carts and custom monuments, to modern vehicles and even futuristic architecture salvaged from Empire Earth 3 – also help in letting EE2 age more gracefully. That the refinements give both greater optimization and character certainly go far in making up for earlier shortcomings.
The visuals and stability fixes are complemented by a host of elements that help flesh out the experience. While there are purely cosmetic additions (like city blocks and garden fixtures), many other new units and structures serve a practical purpose; whether it’s sending in hot air balloons to spy on rivals mid-game or building anti-missile defense systems to prevent any potential nuclear attack, you’d be certain to find some use for them almost as soon as they’re made available. Which isn’t to ignore how small tweaks like altering flying height, improved camera views, better sound effects and slight balance adjustments can make bouts feel more immersive and engaging without sacrificing the core gameplay. Or how 1.5 touts several new maps (including myriad fan-made scenarios), better map-making tools and its own multiplayer lobby, which has played its own part in keeping the series alive online. As of April 2019, you’re still likely to find active matches, with usually over a hundred players active at any given time.
It’s not hard to see, then, why 1.5 has over the years come to be something of a must if you like to make the most out of EE2; it’s no exaggeration to say that videos showing its gameplay posted after 2014 are likely to use this “unofficial patch.” With many of its original shortcomings fixed or downplayed, it makes it easier to appreciate the game’s strengths and ambitions for what they’re worth. As well as to glimpse, if imperfectly, what Mad Doc Software tried to do, and what could have been had things played out differently.
Which further makes the next, and final, entry in the franchise all the more infuriating.