Empires in Arms PC
Published by: Matrix Games
Developed by: Australian Design Group
Release Date: Out Now
You might think that taking an award winning, grand strategy Napoleonic era wargame from 1983 and making a PC turn-based wargame based on it would be a sure-fire recipe for success. Unfortunately it hasn't turned out that way and what should have been a Napoleonic wargame to savour, ends up being a game that few will persevere with. That's not to say it is a bad game by any means but so many areas of the game could have been so much better and the game sadly has a half-finished feel to it.
Empires in Arms comes with a single campaign that's set between the years 1805 to 1815. You can play as one of the great nations of the period: France, Great Britain, Spain, Prussia, Turkey, Russia or Austria. You can play the game as a single-player experience, with the AI taking the role of your six main opponents. Hotseat multiplayer gaming is supported or you can participate in PBEM (Play by Email) games. Each turn represents a month of game time and each turn is made up of a diplomacy, reinforcement, naval, and land phase. In addition to these phases you'll begin the game with a setup phase and you'll have an economic phase too, which only occurs at the end of March, June, September and December. The game stays true to the board game format and if you're already acquainted with the original board game you'll have little problem getting to grips with it. If you haven't played the board game however you're in for a pretty rough ride.
It seems ridiculous in this day and age but the developers decided not to include an interactive tutorial with Empires in Arms. Yes, the game comes with a manual but it's practically useless for learning how to play the game. It's almost as if the developers just took it for granted that everyone who buys the PC version of Empires in Arms was already acquainted with the board game. Whilst you could eventually figure out what needs to be done it would take a few hours of experimentation (although this is hard work as few things in the game are intuitive) and even then you wouldn't fully appreciate the game. Essentially this is a problem that is serious enough to make the game avoidable. Thankfully Matrix Games have taken the time to write a tutorial and have made this available to download for all those who have purchased the game. Whilst this tutorial does manage to reduce the awkwardness of learning the game, it's still not the ideal solution and an interactive tutorial should have been included in the game.
The game's problems don't end there. The release version had a long list of bugs and even in its current state, with the latest non-beta patch applied, the game still needs work. Even the latest beta patches are claiming to fix stability problems and the game has been available since December 2007. The AI is lacklustre, at times predictable and often makes questionable decisions. Whilst you're going to want to play the single-player game to get yourself up to speed with how the game plays, it's certainly not a single-player experience you're going to want to return to once you're au fait with the game play. Another reason you're not going to want to bother with the single-player game much is that there is only one campaign. The lack of alternative campaigns or scenarios seriously harms the game's replay value. With no editor on offer you won't even be able to create your own campaigns or scenarios, so there is little hope of any custom content.
The game's presentation is also lacking. The lists of complaints in this respect are numerous. The game is displayed at a screen resolution of 1024x768 and there's no way to change this so if you are using a 17" TFT monitor or above (and in this day and age you most likely are), you're going to have a slightly blurred or stretched view of the game. There is no zoom feature on the map and whilst there is a mini-map you don't have a variety of filters to convey different kinds of political, military and economic information. Many strategy games have had this for years now and it's inexcusable that it's missing in Empires in Arms. Icons clutter the map and can obscure place names. Whatever happened to using hotkeys? It feels like you have to use the mouse for everything and with the interface generally being a mess it means you're moving the mouse around the screen far too much. The game is generally fine for deaf gamers as all the information is given in text, icons or numbers. A lot of the information is poorly presented however.
Empires in Arms should have been an excellent game but there are just so many things that haven't been done as well as they could have that it's tough to recommend to all but those who know they can engage in hotseat or PBEM games. The game as a whole seems half-baked and that's a real shame because you can imagine how impressive it would have been had the developers took care to tighten the AI up, improve the interface and include an interactive tutorial amongst other things. Could future patches bring it up to speed? I'm not fully convinced they can in all honesty. Sure the AI might be improved and the latest beta updates claim to improve the stability of the game (although this wasn't really an issue for us), but you can't see the interface being overhauled in the fashion that it so desperately needs and after eight months you're probably not going to see an interactive tutorial included. Still with the bugs sorted out and hopefully another campaign or two, the game would be more appealing and as a single-player experience it would be much more worthwhile than it currently is.