Requirements: Atari ST (reviewed here); IBM PC, XT, AT or true compatible; Apple II series; Amiga
WARNING! the box says. This program is highly addictive. Considerable otherwise productive time might be lost. Play only during vacations. Usually, of course, such warnings are best disregarded. Some games are addictive, but few as addictive as the packaging would have us believe. In the case of Interstel's Empire, though, the warning may be worth heeding.
Also on the box is a statement that Empire is an updated version of the popular game of the same name that appeared on mainframes and minicomputers as early as 1977. I never played Empire, and I'm glad I didn't know it existed. As it is, I had enough trouble just writing this review. See, every time I sat down to boot up my word processor, the copy of Empire kept staring at me. Day by day, my resistance weakened....
A Dose Of Documentation
Empire comes with a 72-page Command Manual, a Command Reference Card (specific to your computer), and a disk that is not copy-protected (and is therefore copyable to a hard drive). In place of copy-protection the program opens with a Confirmation system, instructing you to type the first word from line x on page x. Like most elements of the game, even the confirmation system is friendly: Since it always specifies the first word on the line, you need only count lines, not words. Furthermore, the request contains a message stating that distributing the program may be injurious to your conscience. For me, this works far better than the usual legal warnings—I prefer butter to guns.
The manual is complete, well-organized, and daunting. It opens with a memorandum and a short story, both of which relate the game (rather weakly) to Interstel's StarFleet software. The manual provides instructions on backing up the disks and copying the program onto a hard disk. Next come 24 pages on how to load, set up, and play the game, and this is followed by 26 pages describing the individual play commands. After an extremely useful 4-page section on strategy and hints, the manual gives a 7-page overview of the creation of worlds using the game's Map Generator. Last comes some peripheral information, including an interesting description of the programming history of the game.
Any 72-page manual, though, is intimidating, and this is the only unfortunate element of Empire. Like most players, I boot a game and start playing it before I even look at the manual, but a manual this size almost discourages such impetuosity. In Empire's case, especially, the intimidation is needless. I was able to play the game after only 20 minutes or so of experimentation—and I mean really playing it, not just mindlessly moving armies around. Before my first hour was out, I was already planning devious and brilliant strategies for capturing an innocuous-looking peninsula from the green army. By the end of the second hour I was engaged in a full-scale war with that same army (their idea of "innocuous" differed from mine). Only then did I turn to the manual.
Empire is a strategy wargame, but it is much different from most computer wargames. The premise is that you have been sent by Star Fleet Command to oppose the Krellan conquest of a planet. You land in a city, and the rest of the map is black. From that city you begin producing your war machine, with the goal of recapturing all 66 cities from the Krellans. The game allows either a two-player or a three-player version, and the computer will handle as many or as few of the three commands as you wish. All three can be human players.
Strategy Is Everything
What makes Empire different is its strict emphasis on strategy. You create a host of armies, but their attributes are identical. So, too, are the fighters, battleships, transports, carriers, destroyers, and submarines. In other words, the game is not designed for the historical game buff. Its purpose is to let you fight a global war quickly and easily, demanding only your best strategy. It sacrifices small detail for the sake of emphasizing strategy.
The interface is extremely well-designed. You can execute all commands from the keyboard or with a mouse, or you can combine both freely. When you capture a city, an attractive display allows you to set production for that city, and it even insures that you don't start producing battleships in a city not located on the coast. Each city produces only one type of unit at any one time, but you can easily change the production by calling up the production map, selecting the city, and making the change.
Empire is an addictive strategy war-game (Atari ST version pictured above.)
Moving units is what you'll be doing most, and here, the interface shines. The unit to be moved flashes, and you can either go to the (GEM) menus, type a one-letter command on the keyboard, or point with the mouse. With the mouse pointer, you simply go to the desired destination square and press the left button. A white line appears, linking the unit to the square. If you want that destination, simply release the button. The unit may take several turns to reach its destination, after which it will start flashing again, waiting for orders.
Worlds To Conquer
Not content with even this friendly a system, though, Insterstel has provided more. You can lump a bunch of units together (Group Survey command) and issue them all the same order. You can put armies on sentry duty, in which case they won't flash at all until you take them off duty. And you can command a transport unit to load all units that come adjacent to it, without having to load each one individually.
You can fight any adjacent enemy unit. To fight, simply move the unit to the enemy's square. The battle is over when one unit is destroyed. Extremely simple, the system is highly effective. You both destroy and lose many units in this game, especially in a large-scale war.
Two things about Empire are particularly appealing. First, since you learn about the planet only as you actually move across it, the game contains the excitement of exploration (the heart of all adventure games). Second, it truly rewards strategy. To launch a full-scale amphibious invasion, for example, demands a host of armies and transports, protection from enemy fleets, and fighters and ships to bombard the shore. But unlike most games, creating these units and using them is extremely easy; what's difficult is getting everything to the right place intact and at the right time.
Strategy gamers should find nothing to dislike here. Empire contains one of the best interfaces I've seen on any complex game, and its design foundation is strong. It contains a Map Generation system (it produces random maps as well), so you will never run out of new worlds to liberate. It plays as well with three players as it does with one, and the one-player game is a constant challenge. This is a superb, addictive game.
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