Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Empires of Steel Review

Empires of Steel, developed by Atomicboy Software and published by
The Good: Simple game mechanics, helpful interface clearly indicates idle buildings and units, good support for Internet multiplayer, randomized maps, robust editors for game worlds and rules, streamlined research
The Not So Good: Limited units and technologies reduce strategic variety, pricey, difficult to find a multiplayer game
What say you? A decent simplified strategy game: 6/8

Released for the PC in 1987, Empire was a strategy game that predates the Civilization franchise that offered a more military-focused approach in taking over the world. It was more straightforward and less confusing than more detailed wargames, and served as a good introduction to the genre. Empires of Steel is an update/remake/rip-off of that classic title, tasking you with taking down all those opposed to your supreme rule. I had early beta access to the game and posted some initial impressions, but the full version is now released and ready for scrutiny. Will simplicity make for an approachable strategy title?

Empires of Steel has a nice cartoon style for the visuals, starting with the map: it looks hand-drawn, which is a nice touch to make a unique looking game. The units could use some better animations, as turning clearly shows that most units are only animated from a couple of angles. The battle effects are simple as well, but since you’ll be playing from a distant perspective, detailed effects are frankly unnecessary. Empires of Steel plays quite nicely in a window, always a nice feature for games that aren’t computer-intensive. As for the sound, there are only minor, abrupt effects that accompany the battles and some background music that I muted in favor for some jammin’ MP3s. Empires of Steel is better than a typical 2-D wargame in terms of the presentation, replacing the bland hexes and NATO counters for a distinct visual style.

Empires of Steel is a turn-based strategy game where you capture resources and cities, build armies, research improved units, and take over the world. The game supports between two and ten players on random maps that are designed well. There is also a map editor for creating your own layouts, and you can actually download other people’s maps from within the game. Games can be customized with different production or research bonuses to handicap certain players (or the AI). Rules can also be changed, and the rules editor is impressive in its scope: you can change everything in the game, from units to the tech tree, quite easily. While the base game only includes two rules sets, custom options will most likely be available soon once the modders get their grubby little hands on it. Empires of Steel is really designed for Internet multiplayer, but sadly the game is quite unpopular and it’s terribly difficult to find others to play against unless you coordinate in advance. The real-time multiplayer of Empires of Steel, as opposed to being play by e-mail and completed at your leisure, probably decreases the potential opponent list.

One of the positive aspects of Empires of Steel is the user interface: the game clearly displays idle things (units, buildings, research) in a list along the left side of the screen, making it easy to keep tabs of all your units and construction matters. A typical problem with strategy games is losing track of units or forgetting about doing things, and the interface makes it easy to stay informed. Cities are useful for one thing: building stuff to capture more cities. Unlike most (if not all) other strategy games, cities actually cost resources, rather than producing them; in fact, it’s a good idea to hold off on invasion if you can’t sustain the upkeep. Resources are a very important part of Empires of Steel: you must balance your use of money, steel, oil, and food. Luckily, most units use a set amount of resources (like infantry needs one food), so it’s relatively straightforward to plan ahead for future resource use. You can also trade resources with others to compensate for shortcomings. Still, the early game is a scramble for resources as you scout the map, and the resource points serve as good chokepoints for future conflict. You can construct forts and airfields to assist in defense away from cities, useful for tending to the aforementioned resource locations.

Despite covering over 100 years of conflict, Empires of Steel has a bland selection of units. All of the unit types are there: infantry, tanks, artillery, bombers, missiles, destroyers, battleships, submarines, et cetera. However, more advanced units gained through research are given terribly generic names like “Infantry 3” instead of having unique, period-specific names like Rise of Nations did. To be fair, I clearly remember how “Tank 2” won World War II. You can, of course, use the rules editor to easily alter the names, but this detail should have been attended to already. Researching these new units is very simple: just click on a unit and the game will automatically queue up all of the prerequisites. Units can be issued generic orders: move and attack. You can stack units together to move more cohesively, use the interface to load units onto a transport craft, and assign field orders if units encounter an enemy in the middle of a turn. Empires of Steel is turn-based, but each turn consists of ten real seconds, similar to the Combat Mission mix of real-time and turn-based strategy. You can issue units additional orders if their current instructions end in the middle of a turn; while this works most of the time, it’s usually just easier to load units between turns instead of in the middle of one.

Since Empires of Steel is all about war, diplomatic options are few: there are alliances and teams (permanent alliance), but most of the time you’ll just declare war on others. Trade can be important if you do not have a self-sufficient economy, so you probably don’t want to declare war on everyone at the same time. Essentially, Empires of Steel boils down to three phases: scout for resources, build units, and attack. Strategies tend to be a little bit limited because of the heavy focus on military combat and the single victory condition of conquest. Still, Empires of Steel offers some nice, basic strategy gaming. The AI is an OK opponent: they are competent once you declare war, though they generally prefer a defensive position. The AI does tend to throw single units at you instead of mixed forces, though, so fortifying against an attack can be too easy.

As strategy games seem to increasingly favor more complexity, it’s nice to play a game that is a bit more straightforward. Of course, this simplification comes at a cost of game depth: there’s only a limited suite of units to choose from that use generic, non-historical names. This is really a game of resource management: you must carefully monitor your expenses and avoid over-building and over-colonizing, as cities actually cost resources instead of producing them. You scout resource locations, capture those goods, produce an army, and use that army to inevitably fight the enemy. Empires of Steel is that clear-cut, and the turn-based game is a good choice for novices. The interface is effective, clearly indicating idle units and buildings, while the graphical style if nice to look at. The game does come with some nice customization features, like editors for maps and the game rules, and randomized map layouts always increase replay value. The AI is a competent opponent, though typically not terribly aggressive. The game is really designed for multiplayer, so it’s too bad that there aren’t very many people online to play against. I would feel a lot better about recommending Empires of Steel if it were $30 instead of $45, but there are still some things to like that strategy gamers will appreciate. The editors will play a large part in determining whether the game will have long-term longevity, but as the game stands now, it’s a bit too limited in scope to endorse to all.