Real-time strategy games can be divided roughly into two camps. There's the 'here and now' model, which confronts the player with a single battle - be it ancient history, futuristic sci-fi or anything in between - and presents a tech tree that offers various battlefield upgrades. Think Starcraft, Company of Heroes and the Dawn of War games. The other camp is the 'historical span' model, which involves taking a civilization from dirt-eating scumbags to some technologically evolved ideal. The tech tree is divided into eras, and various improvements are only available once a civilization has made the jump to a particular era. Age of Empires and Rise of Nations are the most well-known examples of this style, though the Empire Earth games have made a significant impression in this area over the years as well.
More than anything, the EE games stood out by offering a broader, 'soup to nuts' span of civ building. You could play all the way from caveman to spaceman, working through a large number of eras and units on the way. The whole of human history, and beyond, was there to dabble with. This inevitably made the first two EE games a little bit more complicated than others in the genre. Depending on who you talk to, that was either a good or a bad thing. Mad Doc, developers of Empire Earth III, appear to have been firmly in the 'bad thing' category, as EEIII presents a significantly simplified version of EE's traditionally dense gameplay.
Simplicity is not necessarily unwelcome. A lot of the innovations in RTS games over the years - unit construction queues, squad sized units, resource control points - have been about simplifying and streamlining gameplay, and as a result has lifted the genre out of micromanagement hell and let the strategic side of things come to the fore. The main problem with Empire Earth III is that it has been simplified so much that the actual game - and therefore anything to keep the player involved - has almost vanished. Real-time? Yup. Strategy? Um... sort of.
Resource gathering is as good a place as any to start. EEIII only has two resources, wealth and raw materials. Wealth is generated by building marketplaces and raw materials are gathered by building warehouses next to resources such as forests, mines and quarries. As long as you're plonking down both of these buildings fairly regularly, with maybe a fortress or two to keep them safe, your economy will blossom. Simple, yes, but strangely uninvolving and unsatisfying. Far be it for us to demand more resource gathering in an RTS, but it needs to feel a smidge more significant. If there's no real skill to setting up a solid foundation, everything that comes after feels a bit, well, cheap. The game might as well start with a steady revenue stream, and let you get on with churning out units.
There's a decent selection of units spread across the three different factions in EEIII, though they do come in very familiar flavours. Archers, swordsmen, catapults, tanks, bombers - trust us, you know what you're in for. While there are differences between the factions, they're not different enough that playing a new faction is like playing a new game. Heck, even to this day, despite being confident Zerg masters, we're still not entirely competent with Starcraft's tricksy Protoss. With Empire Earth III, on the other hand, a few games will see you pretty much familiar with everything in the game. Even units that you haven't yet built will most likely fail to surprise you. Rather than generating curiosity about deadly hi-tech hardware, the words 'phase tank' merely conjure up images of a tired Tuesday afternoon meeting in which nobody could be bothered to flick through a thesaurus.
Instead of a typical RTS campaign, Empire Earth III offers up a World Domination mode. World Domination is essentially a turn-based overlay to the real-time strategy, providing a globe of Earth that's divided into territories. Each territory provides different bonuses, either military, economic, research or imperial. If you think of a very (here's that word again) simplified version of the strategic map in the Total War games, you'll know what we mean. Each turn you can move and build armies and spies, make improvements to your territories, change resource allocations and so on. If you invade a territory occupied by either an AI enemy or a native tribe, the game switches into the standard RTS mode. Handily, many battles can be auto-resolved, though you always have to face native tribes on the battlefield. It's telling, then, that we ultimately found ourselves auto-resolving as many battles as possible, because the turn-based mode was, relatively speaking, more engaging that the real-time combat.
Which is not to say that World Domination is, by any means, a saving grace. It feels clunky and awkward, and while it does provide some context to the real-time fighting, it suffers from the same middle-of-the-road averageness as the rest of the game. There's nothing even remotely new and exciting about the gameplay, and it all unfolds with a kind of plodding, yawing indifference. EEIII never really seems to rise above its own lack of ambition and imagination.
Matters aren't helped by a number of other irritations. The unit pathfinding is dim-witted, with units frequently getting stuck, taking the long way round or sometimes just rotating in place. The real-time minimap is unhelpful to the point of irrelevance. There's no really comfortable zoom level, so you're always stuck with an awkwardly close, 'nose-pressed-against-the-TV' point of view. Load times are horribly long and the game has an overall feeling of ragged unfinished-ness. It can't be a good sign when the front menu has frame-rate issues and the opening credit movies don't play properly.
The game comes fully stocked with all the usual multiplayer options, while lacking one crucial component - multiple players. We couldn't find one single internet game on the official servers, and doubt that it's become a firm favourite at LAN parties. Why would it, when something like Rise of Nations is cheaper, runs better and is far more enjoyable?
EEIII looks attractive enough, with some good explosion effects and neat unit animations. There's an almost cartoony look to things, a bit like the early Warcraft games, that fits with the game's light and fluffy approach. We were also quite chuffed with the way buildings have chunks blown off them when under attack. It must be said, though, that the game is a mystifying resource hog. It's not that good looking, yet still needs a reasonably beefy system to run smoothly. The aging Dawn of War runs happily on a thimbleful of steam and a AAA battery (or something), but arguably gives EEIII a run for its money in the looks department, and gives it a sound thrashing when it comes to gameplay.
The sound is a predictable mix of generic orchestral bluster, explosions and irritatingly 'funny' unit responses. Thankfully, the music and unit responses can be turned off and everything else sounds pretty much as it should, without breaking any new ground or doing anything that will snap you out of an afternoon nap.
Empire Earth III ultimately proves to be a predictable, tired, uninspired lump of a game. It could be argued that EEIII's basic approach to RTS gameplay would make it a good starting point for novices, but then that'd be like using Police Academy 6 to introduce someone to the wonders of cinema. While the game never veers into the realm of the spectacularly bad, it's so fundamentally flawed that even the most rabid, game-starved RTS fan will find little reason to pick up the game.