Fans of the history RTS genre have long viewed Empire Earth and Age of Empires as the seminal excuse for their excessive power bills. Indeed, it's quite surprising that RTS computer games, with their ability to keep you awake until well past even infomercial broadcasts, haven't been the focus of a carbon footprint study or simply banned outright by Sue Bradford. The reason for this is simple - everyone wants just a little bit more before they walk away. You want to get to that new age because you've spent the last half an hour finding the resources to do so. You want to build those five towers because you've spent the last half an hour getting kicked by the Germans. Before you know it, it's 6am and the only thing you have to show for your entire evening is a save game file you'd happily kill to prevent from being deleted, and several stains on your new desk from the lukewarm cups you placed there because you couldn't wait for the jug to boil fully or track down a coaster.

Of course, this addiction is nothing new. Anyone who ever played the original Sid Meier's Civilization will be fully aware that some weekends can just entirely disappear without your knowledge. The similar appeal of Age of Empires and Empire Earth is no real surprise either, because they were the brainchild of the same man - Rick Goodman, working first for Ensemble on AOE, and later Stainless Steel Studios (which he co-founded in 1997) for EE. The concepts of resource gathering to increase through the ages, and levelling units and structures worked well then, as it has done for the inevitable sequels, and with a few twists and turns along the way we've arrived here with Empire Earth III. There are some changes, however, so before you jump right in and start spawning settlers, let's take a look at the interface..

It's over six years since the original Empire Earth made us all proclaim "I can't believe the AI made it through six layers of walls!", and Mad Doc software - who created Empire Earth II - have returned with the latest instalment. Despite using the same game engine, it's really a very different beast entirely. You still have the obligatory mini-map, and bars that allow you to plot your course through epochs and keep a track of resources, plus the concept of borders and expansion via. new town centres that was introduced with EE II. What you don't get, however, is practically everything that made the first two such wonderful games to play. Gone is the fifteen epoch limit - this has been slashed to five. Gone is the concept of spawning settlers from a town centre to do your bidding - now it's all controlled by simple warehouse and market buildings that require virtually no management whatsoever. Gone are the fourteen detailed civilizations, replaced with three generic ones. Gone is the innovative in-game tech tree consisting of empire, military and economic branches - there is now an all-encompassing "tech point" system to level you up. Have a read of this excerpt from the game manual:

The player purchases worker slots in the City Centre to hire "scholars", which generate a steady stream of tech points. City Centres do not come with any slots - all slots must be bought. All slots produce tech points at the same static rate. However, each new slot bought (per building) costs more than the previous slot. Tech research and Era advancement cost tech points, in addition to other resources.

I wish I was making this up. They've removed possibly the biggest aspect of any RTS game, the "hard resource point grind to level up faster than the enemy in order to buy kick-ass military units to stomp all over them", and replaced it with a few mouse clicks coupled with leisurely expansion through the placement of new City Centres. I wouldn't mind so much, but they've added insult to injury by keeping one of the annoying factors of EE II - the rate of gold accumulation is dictated by the distance your market is from your City Centre. To increase the rate, all you do is buy another wagon (to a maximum of three) and upgrade it to roll slightly faster. Oh sure, I could establish trade relations and make a bit more on the side, but why would I be playing Empire Earth if I wanted to be nice to other players?

In the resource gathering area, we have "raw materials". It's worth reproducing the contents of the instruction manual once more, simply because I can't think of a better way to let everybody down than this:

Maps differ in the number and types of raw material sites they have. A map's climate may also play a factor in what types of sites are most likely to be there. The types of raw material sites are: Mines (ore), Forests (wood), Quarries (stone), Schools of fish (fish). Once collected, all raw materials are interchangeable and go into the same stockpile. Raw materials are used primarily to purchase units and buildings.

In other words, find a resource point, plonk a building down, and short of hiring more workers that's pretty much all you need to do.

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