When I was playing the original Command and Conquer, back in 1995, I remember thinking "wouldn't it be cool if all those tanks and soldiers that I'm controlling were real people, running round a 3D battlefield, playing in first person?" I wasn't the only one to think of this. Over the years a few other games have attempted to mix FPS with RTS, but they all seemed to be lacking something. None were on quite a big enough scale for me. Nobody tried to grab the idea and really run with it. But with Empires, after years of disappointment, I'm finally playing the game I dreamt of as a teenager.
Empires is a freely available total-conversion mod for Valve's Source engine. The background story revolves around a war between two fictional enemies -- the Brenodi Empire and the Northern Faction. Players pick a side and fight it out over vast outdoor environments. At the start of a round, each team picks its commander by vote, and that player then views the game from a traditional top-down RTS view. This player is still physically present on the battlefield however, controlling the action from his Command Vehicle. This vehicle is the 'king piece' of the team. If it's destroyed, it's game over. The other players pick one of four classes to play. Sneaky players will strike from the shadows with a Scout. Twitch gamers will be happy running and gunning with a Rifleman. Oldies like me, our reflexes waning, may prefer the more cerebral all-rounder, the Engineer. If you like explosions, the Grenadier is your man. Players fight to control points on the map which generate resources. These resources can then be spent on technology upgrades, vehicles, and buildings.
Now anyone who has followed the small genre of FPS/RTS crossovers won't see anything too special there, but what's hard to describe about Empires is what it feels like to actually play. Everything is just right. Battles are epic. The pacing is just perfect. There is so much freedom of choice. More than any other team-based game out there, teamwork is essential. The result is that attacking an enemy position requires each player to do his part. Riflemen cover the engineers, who are dropping ammo, repairing vehicles and building structures. Tanks pound buildings as grenadiers franticly try to take them out. APCs dash across the battlefield before disgorging a small horde of infantry right into the enemy base. The commander juggles resources across multiple fronts, constantly feeding orders and information to his players, his decisions on research dictating the overall strategies of his team. Perhaps one side, finally getting the technological advantage, creates a force of heavily armed tanks and sweeps the enemy away in a glorious rush. Or maybe a losing team, low on resources and under desperate siege, manages to sneak a task force of men up to the enemy commander and takes him out using surprise and stealth while the aggressors' attention is elsewhere.... the possibilities are vast, and the unpredictable nature of the game is part of it appeal.
What makes all this work is the attention to detail given to each area of the game. For example, most games would be content just give the player a few set vehicles to build and drive. In Empires, each vehicle is customizable. Its exact weapons, armor, and even engine type can be tweaked and altered to suit the players' style and preference, so long as the commander has done the applicable research. And a lot of research is available. Dozens of technologies wait to be discovered. Do I go defensive, and research better gun turrets? Or do I go straight for heavy tanks and an early rush? But there's no point getting tanks if they have poor armor, we'll be throwing cash away if the enemy can take our vehicles out easily. So what armor do I want? Well, that depends on what weapons the enemy is researching…and so on it goes. It’s a strategy gamer's dream.
Infantry get the same loving attention. Killing enemies and helping the team in various ways earns points for each player. Earn enough, and you’re promoted, unlocking selectable skills. These range from generic boosts -- for example, increasing movement speed or weapon accuracy -- to class-specific skills such as the ability to defuse mines, or to revive dead comrades. To encourage teamwork, you get a skill unlocked just for joining a squad. Even the very battlefield is customizable as buildings and walls can be placed almost anywhere, creating chokepoints, and cutting off avenues of attack. The interaction of all these factors is what creates the rich and deep gameplay that Empires offers.
In case you couldn’t guess, I’m a huge fan of this mod. However, it does have its flaws. For one thing, there is a bit of a learning curve. To many, that's part of the appeal. I'm still figuring out the interactions of all the armor and weapon types after many hours play. Many people, however, especially those who believe they are good at games, will get frustrated when they are not top of the scoreboard within ten minutes of installing the thing. Perhaps an interactive tutorial or pop-up hints would help new players get up and running. There are quite a few new concepts to learn for the average FPS gamer and it takes a while to get an idea of what you should be doing, and when. Even more importantly, you have to learn what not to do. The community is generally very friendly, and will usually warn you if you're doing something that is just wasting your team's resources. It's best to listen and take notice when they do, as it's quite easy to ruin a game for everybody else.
This brings me around to the next problem. Due to its inherent mechanics. Empires is very susceptible to griefers, that class of gamer who take pleasure in deliberately spoiling the fun for everyone else. Luckily, most of the servers I play on are well administrated, and persistent offenders are usually banned quickly.
Empires is still under development, and with that come the usual bugs and glitches, but this means we can still look forward to new features. Aircraft are promised as the next major addition. Tantalizing renders of gunboats have appeared on the official forums. The future looks good for Empires, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a commercial version sometime in the future. To anyone who wants more depth and thought in their online FPS sessions, this particular gamer can’t think of any better choice right now than Empires.