If you're a real time strategy fan then all you need to know about Empire Earth II is that you need to buy it. Don't even bother reading the rest of this review - you'll need all the spare time you can get to learn all the intricacies of this sprawling title.
Empire Earth II is packed with an astonishing level of detail and depth, allowing you to micromanage practically all aspects of your chosen civilisation's journey from Stone Age nomads to futuristic superpower. RTS fans will geek out at the sheer complexity of the game, but newbies be warned: there's a sharp learning curve here that needs dedication and plenty of play hours to overcome. Even the opening tutorials can be daunting, throwing dozens of concepts and keyboard shortcuts at you that all need to be memorised to ensure in-game success.
Basic gameplay is pretty stock standard for the genre - gather resources, build armies, research technology trees, build alliances or wage war, all with the goal of ensuring your people stay on top of the food chain. But that's about as 'basic' as Empire Earth II gets. Nearly all levels of gameplay are infused with a range of different layers and management options, making control of your civilisation more complex as you pass forward through time.
As in the first Empire Earth, the normal skirmish mode sees you taking one of 14 civilisations through a few thousand years of history. The game has 15 different epochs to move through, starting from the Stone Age all the way through the near future. Each civilisation has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and each different epoch heralds new advances in technology and warfare that can be utilised. Players will find plenty of customisation options available to them in skirmish mode, including how many opponent civilisations they'll face, terrain, time limits, goals and much more. You can also take Skirmish mode online to play against up to 10 human opponents.
Empire Earth II's single player component also comes with some preset campaigns that by themselves would take many hours to successfully complete. Players can take control of 2000 BC Korea, guide the Germans through the Middle Ages, and direct the United States to world domination starting from the 19th century. Two major 'Turning Point' campaigns are also available, where players are given the opportunity to play through real historical events. The Turning Points campaigns allow you to take control of the Axis or Allies at Normandy, or as either the Wei or Wu factions during China's Three Kingdoms period.
Once you're in the game RTS buffs will immediately feel at home. Citizens are needed to gather resources or build new structures, universities are required to research new technologies, barracks need to start pumping out your armed forces, and so on. What becomes apparent early on is the need for continual expansion into new territories, as each territory your people occupy can only be home to one university, barracks and other useful structures. Claiming new territories also increases the population number you're allowed to have.
Diplomacy in Empire Earth II is more detailed than in other games in the genre. Not only can you set treaties with friendly nations, but you can also customise that treaty to whatever level you see fit. Options include what level of access to your lands you give your new allies (civilians only, for example), whether any tributes need to paid, how long the treaty will last, and more.
Empire Earth II also has some impressive options when it comes to warfare. Each unit can be upgraded several times, and can be arrayed in different formations depending on what the situation needs. The game also has a nifty war plans mode, which allows you to draw a basic plan of attack against an enemy that you can send to any of your allies to better coordinate your efforts. Or, if you're the devious type, you can deliberately send misleading plans if you're planning on turning on your friends.
Moving forward in the game requires you to research technologies at your universities. Research enough of them (there are 12 for each epoch) and you're able to move into the next epoch, which opens up new abilities and advantages. Planning exactly when to move up into a new epoch is one of the great strategic decisions you'll have to make in Empire Earth II - do you stay and build your strengths in an earlier epoch, or do you move forward and build up again?
The game's complexity can be overwhelming at times, but thankfully Empire Earth II comes with some handy functions that can make the task of managing a sprawling civilisation a little easier. One particularly useful thing is the Citizen Manager, a screen which shows you all of the resources on the map and what citizens you have harvesting them. It even allows you to add or swap citizens to tasks, which makes the tough job of allocation on a congested map much more manageable. Empire Earth II also has picture in picture functionality, where you can set a 'camera' on any part of the map which then appears in a small box at the bottom of the screen. This allows you to see what's happening at particularly strategic points (at an outpost looking into enemy territory, for example) without having to switch it into the main screen. Better still is the ability to actually direct orders through the picture in picture box.
The game is no winner visually, but with the ability to have hundreds of units on screen at the same time, graphical finesse was probably a secondary consideration to smooth gameplay. We found that the game did run smoothly for the most part, but there was noticeable lag at some particularly large battles during CNET.com.au's play through. The game's minimum specs says it needs a 64MB video card, 1.5Ghz processor and 256MB RAM.
Empire Earth II does suffer from poor pathfinding, where your troops or citizens won't always find the most intelligent or efficient way to travel across the map. Character models are also decidedly low in definition, making it difficult to differentiate units from one another, particularly in the later stages of a campaign when you've got dozens of little sprites running across your screen.
This review has only touched on the level of depth available in this game - we haven't even mentioned weather effects, crown bonuses for completing tech trees and more. It's this depth that will surely find it a place in any RTS fan's heart, as Empire Earth II provides a complex and layered challenge both as a single player and multiplayer title. Put away your social calendar strategy fans - this game will eat out months out of your life.
Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!