Early Access Preview: Oriental Empires

By Jeff Renaud 22 Jun 2017 0

One might be tempted to dismiss Oriental Empires (OE), the upcoming release from Iceberg Interactive, as a Total War™/Civilization™ clone – or a morph – but in my opinion, doing so would be to a strategy gamer’s detriment.  Especially if one is a fan of those venerable franchises, since OE has a fresh and interesting take on much of what is good about those games, and little of the bad.  At least, it has thus far managed to keep my interest for some 50-ish hours, and I’ve barely finished one of two campaigns begun, with every intention of coming back to try again (I lost, but at least I came in second, though it wasn’t that close).

Having stated that Oriental Empires is not a ‘clone’, it still merges features of the above-mentioned franchises while managing to stake a claim to its own territory. For example, although it’s likely obvious that the game’s setting is ancient China, the combat mechanics, for one, are different than either TW or Civ, in my opinion deeper than either of the latter. But I perhaps get ahead of myself; more on combat in a bit.

BACK TO THE BEGINNING

Players start as one of several early dynasties – Shang, Zhou, Qin, etc. – leading their nascent civilisation from the Bronze Age through the Warring States Era to the Imperial Era, with the intention of uniting the land under oneself as emperor, or at least earning enough Victory Points (see later on) to triumph. Others tribes, including the Xiongnu ‘barbarians’ and the Xianbei, precursors of the Mongols, unlock after 200 total turns played, but all factions not chosen by the player – 15 total – are in play at the outset (custom games and multiplayer is featured, but as of this writing the latter had just entered open beta, neither of which this writer has had opportunity to test). The turn limit can be adjusted from its default 200 maximum to thousands (thus allowing a virtually unlimited game, I would surmise), and turns seem to equate to a half ‘season’ at a time – indicated by quite striking graphics. Difficulty can also be set from Easy to Very Hard, presumably affecting combat AI and campaign AI, whilst also lowering the thresholds for Unrest and Unhappiness – again see later on – as Civ-TW players will attest.

Cheng Du

The quaint little village of Cheng Du… is about to be overrun by barbarians!

Also similar to the above comparison games, each faction has strengths, e.g. trade advantages, stronger combat units, and often penalties/bonuses in certain Development paths (Technology and Culture; see below). One difference is that each will be either a farming or herding society; yet farming appears crucial to economy, so pastoralists appear to be at an initial disadvantage until Agriculture is discovered (a comparatively lengthy process, based on the once I played). Even so, it should be noted that free nomad settlers – normally 500 cash! – which herders earn with a little more research, very likely offset this disadvantage. As for these traits, some clans have only a couple, others five or six, while most have three or four; it’s hard to say if all are balanced till I have a lot more play time in, but most penalties in my completed game were largely negated by Encounters, which are the equivalent of Civ’s so-called ‘goodie huts’.

Even here, though, one finds variety such as being able to pay for information on resources or maps; recruiting units or learning techs; increasing research speed; and so on. Sometimes they’re even free, but ambushes and unsavoury events can happen, and this is where a couple of minor quibbles arise with the game: First, I wish there were indicators of which have been previously visited – sometimes one might have already discovered the tech or resources, I take it – but the icons don’t disappear until they get rid of their goodies. It’s also annoying to be unable to defend vs. some arbitrariness, e.g., bandits who took 425-ish coins once, equal to about half my treasury at the time. Others are relatively insignificant, though: 10-20-or-so to pay for some poor sod’s funeral whom you weren’t in time to save.

The next recognisable ‘Civ’ element is the hex-grid and city-siting; one founds a city near resources/farm- pastureland, but once more OE veers from the former game, as a large city can sprawl over eleven hexes – after upgrades – so it behoves one to spread out. Again at first glance, the interfaces – city and otherwise – might be almost overwhelming for non-Civ players, yet I doubt hardcore strategy gamers will have a tough time with them. I quickly became accustomed to the variances, and could soon more or less tell at a glance important information indicated by colour, icons, and so on, and where/how to find more.

Yin

The city interface

Having a quick look at the city interface, for instance, one sees below the city nameplate, icons for Food Production, Unrest, Finance, and Population. Clicking for details brings up other menus where Unrest is broken down into Peasant and Noble; Finance to Taxes, Mining, and Internal/External Trade, the latter even further by city. Bottom of the screen shows a breakdown of labour working on various projects – constructing farms, roads, buildings – plus Stored Food and number of Flocks or Farms; plus an Auto-construct menu (AI can be told to concentrate on Growth, Culture, Military, etc., but I had no time to test this).

A POIGNIARD IN YOUR CODPIECE

Before moving on to the important aspects of Technology and Culture, I promised another word or two on combat. First, however, similar to Total War, OE features characters as leaders, including your faction leader – king, khan – as well as his (sorry, girls… no girls!) heir and other recruit-able generals. Each has an Authority stat, which adds to overall empire Authority, determining how many settlements one can control without risking unrest (more on this aspect later). Personal Authority rises with victories and vice-versa; in addition, succession temporarily reduces empire Authority. Other character traits are ‘Ren’ (Virtue), which equates to leadership morale, and ‘Qi’ (Energy), affecting combat effectiveness of troops. Units – of which there are too many to note here, including peasant militia, nobles, and trained troops – can earn combat experience, but require lots of R&R after repeated engagements.

As for actual battle, two features are critical: Facing and Battle Plan, which can be set for each unit individually in a force of eight, maximum. Shown on Mah-jongg-ish tiles (quite small at high resolution!), again the icons and symbols are quickly learned, as are the fact that tactics and unit mix, as well as terrain, are pivotal in a given battle. Details would take another article, but let me just say that the learning curve, while not exactly steep, isn’t short, either. But that’s a good thing, for a ‘deep’ strategy game, right?

Tech

Technology and Culture, as much as warfare, are key to victory…

CULTURAL PURSUITS

As previously touched upon, players pursue Developments in the fields of Power, Craft, Thought, and Knowledge. There are no ‘research points’, so, other than faction bonuses/penalties, everyone’s progress is the same. One Development can be researched in each category simultaneously, but if a prerequisite is unknown or an advancement to the next Era – achieved by Edicts; more in a bit – is unaffordable, delays will result. For example, Horse Domestication (Knowledge) is required to activate Chariots (Power), so it’s a good idea to check cross-prerequisites so your progress isn’t unduly stalled.

It would be nice to be notified – perhaps by tooltip – of a Development’s category when there’s a prerequisite under another sequence, e.g. that Logographic Script is under Thought, for acquiring Bamboo Strips in Craft. It’s also curious that a landlocked power on unnavigable rivers can research shipbuilding techs… Yet in any event, as expected, Developments enable buildings, units, trade bonuses, increased Culture, etc.

Other ways to affect Culture and myriad other game aspects is by issuing Edicts. Some can be cancelled, and many have temporary effects, e.g. penalising Authority or increasing unrest. Speaking of which, Unrest is a combination of factors including Happiness, Dissatisfaction, and Suppression; in general, the number of settlements exceeding Authority will cause noble unrest, while forced labour and overcrowding upset peasants. When it reaches 60%, expect reduced income; at 90%, rebellion is likely. Fortunately, the city nameplate glows in warning, and if entered, the helpful advisor will tell you what might be wrong and how to fix it, e.g., upgrade the settlement to avoid overcrowding. And speaking of your advisor (like the one in TW), she also has other useful hints, customised to your starting position – which is good because there is no tutorial, despite a decent, though unsearchable, in-game manual.

Jiameng

The Battle of Jiameng

THE END

Aside from the few minor annoyances mentioned above, the only others worth mentioning are the small print in the tooltips (at least at high res), and the lack of customisable hotkeys – or even any hotkeys. Beyond Alt-G to toggle the hex-grid (not very subtle and ruins the beautiful terrain), and Alt-B to toggle banners, there are no Next, Previous keys; (Show) Settlement, Armies, Messages (from the List Panel); or even Home to quickly jump to your capital. Moreover, there’s no mini-map. Its importance may be debatable, however, because even after playing a 200-turn game and completing a 300-turn campaign, in both I only met about 5-6 of the 15 factions. Yes, the playing area is massive; simply exploring the whole thing might take a 1000-turn game, but I can’t imagine scrolling back and forth over all that!

Victory in OE, as mentioned, is determined by Points in several categories including culture, number of settlements, population, military strength, and even enemies killed – minus your own casualties (presumably this is a negative, although I was unable to verify it). Getting there is quite engaging; Oriental Empires, like those franchises I have been mentioning in this article, has that ‘one more turn’ factor of others mentioned herein. Or at least very close. I intend to see how close I can come to my hundreds of hours sunk into those other franchises.

Oriental Empires entered into Steam's Early Access Program on September 20th, 2016. At the time of writing, the page lists Version 1.0 to be ready "early 2017", however no further information has been posted regarding a revised release schedule.

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