I am technically savvy. I am intimately familiar with memory management, the tricks and secrets of squeezing better performance from Windows, and many tactics for fixing buggy software. I am a PC-gaming veteran of fifteen years, so I know a thing or two about patching, driver updates, config file work-arounds, the whole nine yards. So I'm not joking when I say that Empire Earth III is inexcusably unstable. I have had psycho girlfriends who are more stable. Crashing every hour, on the hour, isn't gameplay, folks - that's penance.
Empire Earth III is essentially a straight rip-off of Age of Empires, housed in a weak turn-based empire building shell. Were it just that – and it just worked – I would feel content giving the game a C and tottering off for a bottle of whiskey. But constant crashes, disastrous rendering glitches, shadow maps that are literally blocks of black under models, erratic sound that cuts out on occasion, failures to load maps, absolutely insane errors like units beginning a skirmish with zero health, and inconsistent flags for objective completion all prevent me from enjoying the game on any level. If you have to turn the auto-save default to activate every five minutes, your game has stability issues. Developers… you, uh, might wanna patch that.
When you first start up a new campaign in Empire Earth III, you must pick a civilization. Your only options are Western, Middle, and Eastern. So Christians, Muslims, and Asians who are mostly Buddhist, I suppose. The Western civilization has the most technologically advanced units but they’re the most costly. The Asian civilization has a large population of able-bodied men and their production costs are cheap, but the overall quality of their products and units is mediocre and covered in lead paint. No points for originality there. Finally, the Muslim civilization get a mix of those capabilities, with some more strategically oriented units. If you have played Starcraft, this isn’t a surprise - the West is clearly the Protoss, the Asians are the Zerg, and the Muslims represent the Terrans. Actually, this really makes me want to see a Starcraft cutscene done with the Adhan called in the background. Get on that, Blizzard.
Empire Earth III might be 'old school' in its emphasis on unit superiority over tactics, but it has the tactical appeal of a Five Finger Filet. While the game has a simple trumping system – infantry trumps cavalry trumps archers and siege equipment – it doesn't actually matter. This is due to the emphasis on numbers; in fights between two groups of fifty soldiers, it’s hard to specifically send ten pikemen against the enemy's eight hussars. Using terrain or high ground to gain a tactical advantage is also difficult given the generally pathetic sight and weapon range of units. Until fairly late in the game, troops can do little other than beat people with a stick. And by that time, you can use your side's special ability - air strikes, artillery, etc. - while barraging enemies with a constant stream of infantry and tanks.
Another serious flaw lies in pathing and AI. I can't count the number of times I ordered a force to go somewhere, and they would blunder about idiotically into a single file line and then settle back into a box formation. Worse yet, they'll just blindly march to their destination without retaliating if enemies attack them. Stop exploding, you cowards!
Compared to enemy AI, however, things just look boneheaded. While aggressive at the beginning of skirmishes and whenever they've pulled together a serious force, the AI in Empire Earth III spends so much time protecting its assets and massing large forces of troops that they completely fail to consider tactical placement. Victory is frequently attainable just by massing infantry by your base and gathering cavalry and siege equipment at another position on the map. When your foe attacks, it will occasionally spend all its time fighting the detached force, giving your other force the opportunity to plow into their base, sweep away unit-making buildings, and then come back in to flank. It's pitifully easy to pull off. It’s like playing peek-a-boo with an idiot.
The empire-building wrapper over the game is a more unfortunate story. Though encouragingly turn-based, it has a terrible UI and has little that’s interesting to do. You start off with a plot of land and work your way outwards to conquer the world. Most meaningful decisions will require you to either read every bit of tooltip information carefully or sit around with the manual in your lap. More irritating, many of the obvious utilities that would help you plan and manage your empire are missing. There's no tab or screen to see your income for a turn, to analyze your current military assets, or to assess your provinces. Everything has to be done manually, bit by bit. When you're trying to manage all this through constant crashes, it's like having an abusive husband – every little twitch makes you jump.
I also take exception to a game whose empire management system has no model for diplomacy. I wasn't expecting Civilization IV, but there should be more interaction with other empires other than establishing trade routes and invasion. That’s dumb. What's stupider is that the RTS half of the game has a diplomacy model. I have to wonder if the two halves of the game were made by entirely separate development teams, neither of which knew about the existence of the other. In the bleak outlook of Empire Earth III, there is no solution to the world's problems other than genocide. Okay, so that's a bit unfair: This is a game. But it's a standard in world domination titles to include a developed system of diplomacy.
Brunting your efforts further, every time you advance to a new era, the other major empires do as well. Why put effort towards advancement at all? What little reward there may have been for actively participating in empire management is dashed against the brunt of even-handedness. One of the most entertaining parts in a game such as this – taking tanks to mow over guys with javelins – rarely happens. It's a wasted opportunity.
Graphically, Empire Earth III is decent, but scales terribly. If you have to dial the settings down from high for any reason – like not having eight gigs of DDR2 RAM and a DirectX10 capable video card – it will look abysmal. Animations suffer especially, with ships that look like they're stuttering across the water. There are some nice sights to see if you've got a nice rig, but lower-end computer owners shouldn't even bother.
The sound, on the other hand, is the highlight. The music is good, the voice acting is entertaining, and the writing for soldiers' comments is amusing. Some of it doesn't sound right as certain units persist through several technological eras with no changes to their commentary, but the old standard of having funny comments from units in RTS games is adhered to faithfully.
There is no story in Empire Earth III. The game is a game in the purest sense. There's no narrative to get in the way, only an opening cutscene and the gameplay. Unfortunately, this just serves to highlight the lack of utilities and the flimsiness of the empire-building half of the game.
Side-quest events help to differentiate moments in the gameplay, but there is no middle ground for them. You either succeed in the quest and gain some bonus or fail and get penalized. There's no option to refuse, so you'll just rush to complete some event just to avoid dealing with a bullshit penalty, such as having a province lose half its commerce income. You know, things that make people invent new curse words like cocktritus. More infuriating are events that you are assigned to but aren’t informed about. Then of course, you fail, and the game flicks you off with its great big 'objective failed' window.
I think Empire Earth III should get a special patch some time soon. If a user voluntarily chooses to quit, it should pop up a dialog box that states, “Baby, why you gotta make me hit you?” Honestly, if the game didn't try to make you hate it, it would be perfectly tolerable, maybe even enjoyable.