After being put off by the poor reception of the first version of Empires, itself largely due to lag, I decided to give it a whirl again with version 2.0. I could see the team -admirably- hadn't given up on their baby, and sometimes that alone is enough reason to discover what it is that fuels a developer's passion for a project. What do they see that we haven't yet grasped about the game?
Empires isn't an easy game to get into, though. In spite of a prompt to read the manual after installing Empires, I decided to go in blind, as I intended to write a review from the perspective of a total beginner. Sadly there are a lot of areas that haven't been fully developed with beginners in mind, and I can only assume this is seriously hurting the mod's chances of achieving classic status by perpetuating an insular, inward-looking community.
I should make it clear that this isn't my review of Empires. There are many, many good things that I'd like to say about the mod that will go into a more definitive review (currently in the works). Here I have listed of all of its bad points in a separate article so they don't weigh down my praise for the mod to be found in said review. But, since this list is quicker to write and more immediately helpful for the developers, I decided to do it first.
Some people reading this might ask why I don't mention the low-detail models in this list. The answer to that is simple: I don't care if Empires hasn't got the most fantastic quality art ever seen in a videogame, there are the problems to do with the underlying design of various parts of the mod that do much more to harm the enjoyment factor. I want to concentrate on the sorts of things that encumber, hinder and frustrate the player. So if you agree with anything said, let us (and the developers) know. I'd also encourage others to offer any other suggestions for improvement, that we can discuss in the comments below.
- Specular effects on many models overdone to the point they become a distraction and actually mask the diffuse maps underneath. Solution: Tone down specular effects game-wide, but especially on the engineer structures.
- Position of Ammo/Health crates in the BE armoury are by the doorway causing a major obstruction considering this mod has team sizes frequently at the 20 mark. The ammo crate in particular only has space around it for 3 people to re-arm at a time and one has to stand in the doorway with his back vulnerable to attack. Worse still, this prevents friendlies from exiting via this entrance. The ammo crate lid also intersects with the shelving geometry behind it when open. Solution: Redesign interior of this structure to allow fluid navigation within and to maximise the amount of players able to resupply at any one time. Move health and ammo crates away from the doorway to a safer spot. Create a space in-between health/ammo crates to allow more people to resupply at once. Ensure the 'open' animation frame of the models does not intersect with any other geometry inside the armoury.
- Several unbalancing discrepancies between NF and BE structures. NF Armoury has 1 entrance, BE Armoury has 2. The BE Amory also has significantly more cover in its crates on the structure exterior. This means it is easier to camp the NF Armoury, whether by sniping, with a machine gun, with mine placement, or plain old shooting from the hip. Solution: In line with bug#2, change BE Armoury to have one entrance at the end like the NF Armory. Then move the crates so the ammo is on one side and the health is on the other side, thus improving movement flow.
- NF Vehicle Factory can be accessed from the front and side, BE Vehicle Factory can only be accessed from the side. This not only means it takes (beginner level) BE infantry longer to get to the VF screen to construct their vehicles (most probably don't use the hotkey), it also means if a NF tank blocks the VF runway, it can only be attacked from one direction, giving the tank a massive defensive advantage while it halts all BE vehicle production. What's more, it means if someone buys a tank before you have a chance to -exhausting the team resources in the process- you can't quickly run to the runway and jump on the back of the tank, whereas NF have this option which enables them faster reinforcement. Solution: Redesign: BE Vehicle Factory to allow entry onto the runway from the console room.
- BE Vehicle Factory has several fatal stuck points in and around its perimeter. You can get stuck behind crates with no possible means of exit other than suicide. Solution: Amend collision bounding to prevent all stuck points.
- Structure design is often very generic, to the point where beginners will have absolutely no idea what structure does what. There's nothing to tell you that the Commander is in a vehicle, and that they should protect this vehicle. Some, like the Vehicle Factory and the Repair Bay are designed well enough that their function is obvious. Others, like the Barracks and Armoury, have zero external indicators to tell the player what they are for. Solution: Unless you have plans to redesign the structures to be more intuitive in their appearance, the simplest fix would be to use on-screen text to tell a player what a building is. Add green HUD text with the name of the building that is displayed whenever a player (within x units) mouses over it. It should be set to only flash up if the player is up close to the building, otherwise it will provide information when none is required and add to screen clutter.
- Insufficient visual cues to tell players a building is unconstructed and needs building. When a building is dropped it is textured exactly the same as a usable building and also has the same collision. This wrongly implies to the beginner it is 'pre-built' and does not need to be constructed. Solution: Add a simple 'build' icon (e.g. a spanner) to the HUD that shows up whenever a player (within y units) mouses over an unbuilt structure. The radius within which this effect should occur should be larger than the 'structure name' distance above to account for newly-built Refineries in the corner of the base or in the distance.
- Insufficient HUD information for resupply. When a player resupplies from the Armory or an ammo crate, a series of non-specific numbers come up that tell the player nothing about what ammo is being reloaded in which order. Indeed, some ammunition types play the reload sound but have no HUD info at all. This frequently results in players leaving the Armoury without fully re-stocking items like grenades and mortar shells. Solution: Add ammunition type-specific HUD icons to show how much of which type of ammo is being resupplied in which order.
- No indication of when a new spawn location is available. If a new Barracks is built or a player spawns an APC, all players should be informed of this fact so they can reinforce to the area of the map they are most needed. In the current build what often happens is that you have to constantly check your map for new spawn locations or rely on Commanders and players informing their team of new spawn points. This frequently leads to you spawning 100 miles back from your previous position, checking your map and realising you could have spawned a mere 10 second walk away, and if you're really unlucky, having to walk all the way back to your previous position because the Commander has restricted vehicle construction. Solution: Have a small, unobstrusive HUD element in a dedicated area of the screen to inform you of when a new spawn location has become available. This could be an icon or basic text (e.g. "New spawn location: Barracks, A1"), so long as it pops up on the screen, lingers for 3 seconds to allow it to be read at an opportune moment, before disappearing.
- Only very few levels have their maps and minimaps labelled on the axes with grid letters and numbers. Since grid co-ordinates are used extensively in waypointing commands and player-to-player communication, ALL maps should -as a basic requirement- have their maps and minimaps labelled with the grid letters and numbers down the sides to make navigation and communication as user-friendly as possible. Solution: Require all official maps and all candidate maps for official status to have grid references clearly indicated on the bottom and left axes.
- Getting upgrades from the 'Radar' makes little to no sense whatsoever. Nothing about the outside of the Radar implies its primary use is for research. In fact, this breaks a longstanding RTS tradition that the Radar structure is used primarily for vision and tracking. This is an extremely unintuitive design point, not only because new Commanders will not find out that this structure unlocks reseach capabilities until they run out of building types to drop, but because the players on the ground who have never commanded before will never know the true value of the structure, and will not understand just how important it is to protect. Solution: Re-name the structure to involve the notion of 'research' in its name (e.g. Research Uplink, Research Communications, Satellite Data Transfer, etc.) and/or change the building structure to look like it can perform some sort of chemical, electrical, mechanical, nuclear, etc. research.