China is old. Like, really, really old. I am not talking about when the area was first settled two-million to one-quarter million years ago, no. I am talking about the proto-Chinese culture that may have existed as far back as 7000 BCE. How does one go about capturing all of that history? Especially since the takeover of the Communist party and the formation of the People’s Republic of China destroyed most of it after World War II? Stick around, and I’ll tell you how.
Oriental Empires (OE), published by Iceberg Interactive and developed by Shining Pixel Studios, tries to answer that question by covering a 3000 year period between 1500 BCE (BC), around the start of the Chinese Bronze Age, to 1500 CE (aka AD) during the twilight of the Chinese Imperial Era in the Grand Campaign. Typically, when one thinks of that time period, attention is immediately drawn to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Rot3K) games, which is a genre unto itself. Epic heroes. Epic battles. Mysticism and magic. It’s like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but a much older and grander story. If that’s the game you’re picturing, OE is not the game for you… Just kidding. Sure, there is a scenario within the game that is similar to but different than Rot3K (169-280CE). But there is no fantasy or magic involved in the Warring States Era (dated to 407 BCE), just a reinterpretation of history.
So, what IS Oriental Empires really? In short, it is a historical, turn-based 4X game, with mostly hands-off simultaneous combat. It draws from the annals of history as well as the Civilization franchise and the multitude of Total War games (which OE developer Bob Smith worked on). OE assembles the various components, mixes them up, puts the result in the digital oven and voila, we have a unique experience. Let’s take a closer look.
Oriental Empires offers a historically accurate map of Asia for you to explore, settle, and potentially conquer. If that isn’t your cup of tea, you could always generate a map randomly and change the parameters to your liking. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The world is beautifully rendered with mountains, rivers, flood plains, forests, deserts, and all kinds of other terrain. You also have to contend with changing seasons that have a direct impact on a settlement’s output, the odd natural disaster, and the survival of your wandering armies. That’s right, random events in the game can sometimes take the form of earthquakes, floods, and fires. However, it’s not all doom and gloom in ancient China.
As you search for your second settlement location (you begin with one in the Grand Campaign), you must keep an eye out for natural resources like fish in the rivers and lakes, copper and jade in the mountains, mulberries, and many others. This reminds me of the Civ games, but the resource variety is not nearly as diverse. You also get random encounters, you know, the “goodie” huts of old, but it’s people this time. Sometimes you get a free favor, but mostly you end up having to pay because even back then, nothing was free. You can get research bonuses from a sage, robbed by a bandit, a local map from a cartographer, a blessing from a hedge witch, or a kiss from a beautiful woman, and many other positive and negative outcomes. Global and local random events fire every now and then. They range from plagues to bountiful harvests. Everything you do takes time, and a single turn is the length of a season. I don’t know how many there are in total, but I’ve encountered some really interesting ones. I like this mechanic because it feels like you are always accomplishing something.
During your exploration, you will notice the seasons change and weather patterns shift. All of which is shown, in great detail, on the map. You can actually see people going about their day in your settlements, toiling in the surrounding fields or tending their flocks. You will also see how your settlement develops with a dynamic and highly zoomable camera. Go ahead, zoom in. It’s all very pretty.
Another major difference is that all unit movement is simultaneous. During your turn you’ll end up taking many actions, but the unit movement is really interesting. You pick where you’d like your chosen unit to move and then press the end turn button. Depending on how far it has to move, it could take a few turns actually. Should it end up on a tile with another unit nearby, they might end up interacting. More specifically, have a friendly conversation using armaments and compliments… You know, a fight!
When you finally find perfect settlement location, you need to use the civilian settler that you started with. Because in OE, you have to expand or you will be quickly overrun by your neighbors. A good location will include plenty of arable land to grow your rice or maybe raise cattle. But be careful of marshes, they not only slow down your travel, but they often flood and can be a source of disease until the right mitigation tech is discovered. Speaking of terrain, there is much to contend with. Forests slow you down and block your vision. Crossing a river eats up your whole turn. How about the mountains? Well, you have to go around them completely. When was the last time you saw a peasant “volunteer” army cross the mountains? This isn’t Hannibal with his war elephants.
Another thing to consider is that you don’t want to leave your towns undefended. An errant peasant army (bandits) or a pesky neighbor can raze your farmlands and destroy other tile improvements in the blink of an eye with few repercussions to them (besides fatter pocketbooks). So consider your farm development wisely. Thankfully, unlike many similar titles, you don’t have a spawn location where barbarians are constantly generated to harass you.
This new town will need to be protected, and earlier I mentioned that you want to garrison some troops in there as well, but you also want to build a wooden palisade to defend your settlement. This structure is actually a rudimentary wall and one of the first buildings that I construct. It not only protects your town from enemies, but it also creates natural choke points as defenders rally to save their homes.
That’s not all you can build. There are many different structures that need to be constructed to grow your town and satisfy the needs of the peasants and nobles that inhabit it. That’s why you want to make sure to have nearby luxury resources like a rhinoceros crash and mulberry bushes. Sure, in today’s world, a rhino is protected and hunting these majestic creatures is highly frowned upon, but in ancient China? They had many uses that resulted in a steady income and a trade good.
Speaking of trade, OE has two varieties: land and sea. Land trade is done by land (duh). Roads help expedite the process, but they do need to get built. Land trade is faster and cheaper to setup, but harder to protect since the trade routes can be robbed. Ultimately, it is less profitable. Sea trade is more expensive and requires a settlement near water (like a river), a special type of structure, called a quay (river docks), to move the goods and a lot of patience. But in the end, you get more back from your investment.
So, how do you build up your settlement? Research. Good ol’ research. Unlike the typical 4X affair, you can conduct research in four different branches (Power, Craft, Thought, and Knowledge) at the same time.
The Power branch is mostly about the military. You research weapons, and their support structures like basic farming and roads. That’s right, you read that correctly. You can’t field a large army unless it is fed well and equipped properly. An additional benefit of this branch is faster settlement growth and trade due to better crops and roads.
The Craft branch is all about the goods and services. This is where you develop your trade goods to satisfy the needs of your populace and sell to neighboring empires. One way to improve diplomacy is when you have something worth talking about like that sweet jade dragon statue. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need paper to write your insults on and armor to protect the nobles and their fabulous chariots during the combat engagements that results from said written correspondence.
The Thought branch is all about religion and philosophy. How else are you going to record your strange dreams and share the resulting hypothesis with your illiterate peasants? Poetry and theaters is how! Another major use for this branch is the discovery and creation of edicts. Those are essentially rules and orders sent from up on high about what is allowed and how it shall be done. It’s also how you control happiness and other high-falutin’ concepts like that. But every edict does have its downside. Your people don’t want you to change them too often, or cancel them outright. Who likes change, right? I’ll leave it at that.
Finally we have the Knowledge branch. This is where the pure research is conducted. Discoveries like the calendar, acupuncture, medicine, mathematics, and more originate here. It should be self explanatory, but this branch is very important for developing in technological leads.
All in all, the tech tree does a good job in breaking down the knowledge base of the Chinese civilization into usable bits. It also connects the dots between the different branches, because some tech discoveries require multiple branches flowing together, like the crossbow. While I certainly like having the ability to research down multiple paths at the same time, the whole affair ends up being serviceable but not very exciting.
So far, we have settled two cities, met some interesting people along the way, done some research, explored the map, and discovered some interesting locations for further utilization. Yet, there’s still one nagging question – is that it? No, no it is not.
During the whole eXploration and eXpansion phases, we’ve been running up against our “neighbors.” They look like us, they talk like us (unfortunately, since China has A LOT of dialects), and they want the same things we do. But they are different. Oh, how different are they really, you might ask? We get a bonus to farming, and culture, and they get a bonus to horse-riding and authority. We sing like songbirds, and they trample our crops like the Mongols. Boring!!! This, in my opinion, is one of the weakest parts of the game.
Sure, there are 24 different factions, or, to be more accurate, family clans/lineages. Their buildings all appear to be similar enough. My foundry looks a lot like theirs. Sure, we are all of Chinese descent, but we aren’t all the same people. The small bonus to this and the small malus to that is just a boring way to differentiate all of our choices. Maybe it is historically accurate, but I found it dull.
Anyway, it’s time to discuss the settlement itself. Let’s break it down. You have city buildings and recruitment options that open up their own menus showing what can be built. Then there is a display showing the city’s finances, food production, unrest, and labor force. Finally, you have land improvements broken down into farms, roads, miscellaneous exploitable tiles, and external buildings outside of your borders. That’s a lot of options actually. Thankfully, the user interface isn’t intrusive, and ends up being very usable because of how information is displayed.
Buildings are further broken down by type: temples, military, civic, defensive, and city size. So, as your city grows, you need to upgrade them so that there are more locations for your citizens to live and work. Don’t forget to upgrade your overall settlement too, since each level will only let you build a few more buildings each.
Recruitment is broken down into three types: nobles, peasant militia, and civilians. Nobles make up the elite arm of your army. The peasants make up the bulk of your forces. As you advance in the tech tree, you will discover all kinds of new uses for old tech and your units will change as a result. So, don’t forget to build your support structures so that you can develop new military units. Then there are the civilians, which are your basic settler unit.
Now, let’s briefly look at the farming vs. herding debate. Do you want to be a farming settlement that has a steady income but must find the best land to exploit and deal with overworked peasants? Or maybe a herding settlement that can use poorer soil and have less unrest since the peasants don’t work as hard? Decide early, because it plays a huge role as far as where your settlement will thrive.
No matter which you choose, you’ll have nobles and peasants. Those two groups make up your citizenry. They generate unrest too at different rates and for various reasons. Peasants don’t like the feel of the whip on their backs because of too much authority and “uncalled for” edicts. So don’t overwork them. Nobles like to have a lot of culture and interesting things to do, so be sure to research plenty of technology to keep your bourgeoisie happy. If you grow too fast and your unrest gets too high? Your productivity and military readiness will suffer. You might even have revolts, so stay alert and pay close attention.
Who leads your fledgling nation or massive empire? Your heroes and generals do. These named characters are usually out on the battlefield, but when they are in a settlement, they often quell unrest. Who doesn’t love having an organized military force “hanging out” in their town for the winter?
Okay, we’ve covered a lot so far, so hang in there a bit more while we decode diplomacy. This aspect of the game feels a bit threadbare too. The first issue I have is that the diplomatic text has very little flavor to it. It doesn’t make a huge difference as to which faction you use, because all the options are the same. You can declare war, make peace, plot against others, make bribes and initiate trade deals. Essentially, you use diplomacy to try and establish yourself as the emperor of China, but that’s it really. I find it uninspiring.
Yes, finally, we have arrived at the good stuff. Conquest and destruction! But before we go on a campaign of Total War (see what I did there?) let’s talk about the units. We have a lot to cover.
As mentioned earlier in the review, we have a few different types: peasant conscripts and the noble lords which can be spearmen, swordsmen, archers, cavalry, axemen, and a few other variants. We also have bandits too. Then we move on to more interesting units like siege engines and naval ships. All in all, the variety is not as large as other titles in the genre, but their execution is really good.
The peasant light spearman is one example of a cheap unit. They are inexpensive to recruit and maintain, because, come on, who wants to toil in the rice fields all day when you can stand in the shade protecting the town, right? Then you have the peasant light archers that are eager to serve if they get to siege a neighboring settlement. There are of course tribal variants that are fewer in number but stronger nonetheless. You know how it is. Those city-folk sure are soft.
Then there are the nobles. They are from the best families, dressed in fine armor, and mounted on horses or riding in the back of the fancy chariots. They are few and far between because they are well trained and expensive to maintain, just like the retinue of your general. These nobles hit hard. The noble heavy spear is very powerful, but does suffer movement penalties when trying to travel through forests. The chariots don’t do any better in hilly or marshy terrain. When used correctly, the nobles and peasants deliver a very hard one-two combo.
If that’s not enough to secure you a victory, then you can go with some specialized units like the convicts and the picked swordsmen. The convicts have a high morale (so they can take more losses before breaking) and do a lot of damage, because what do they have to lose, right? But they are susceptible to ranged weapons and cavalry charges. That’s when the picked swordsmen come to the rescue. They might not be able to defeat another infantry unit, but they are murder on the cavalry especially when ambushing from a forest or marshlands.
OE has many such combinations built in, and when utilized with the right faction? It can be magical. Take the Mongols (in the custom game) for example. They have several maluses to the thought and knowledge branches of the tech tree. You know, the Mongols weren’t the brightest tools in the alchemists bag, but they sure hit hard and fast. They receive all kinds of military bonuses, especially their horse archers. So, when you have the right combination of units in your army? You can be very devious and downright terrifying.
So, what’s the counter? Tactics is what. OE has a very interesting set of mechanics in place to make every single engagement unique, even when fighting on the same terrain with a similar opponent (if the AI doesn’t do something dumb that is).
As a general of great renown, or a complete newb (I can’t tell the difference at a quick glance), you can set the direction they face and which way they will turn. This can be used as a reactionary tactic to a flank or an ambush. You can also set them up as a single, double, triple, or quadruple line formation. This way, when you have mixed arms, some of your tanky units can be up front and your softer but ranged experts can be in the middle or back.
Then you can utilize several orders like:
- Attack – Take a moment and see what’s what before engaging
- Charge – Melee preference, especially effective with cavalry and chariots
- Harass – Skirmishing ranged preference
- Outflank – Skirmishing attack or harass
- Ambush – Sneak attack into flank or rear out of special tiles like forest or marsh, or act as a support/harass unit
- Defend – Form into defensive lines and let them attack, only retaliate if they are nearby or it is favorable
- Support – Take a defensive stance to support friendly units by engaging nearby threats or dangerous attackers, especially good for cavalry and chariot
- Withdraw – Move away from the enemy towards the edge of battle in a skirmishing formation
There is more depth to those commands, and when tactics are utilized with expert units and bonuses it can be rather amazing. But it could result in an utter failure due to the AI anticipating your actions, or just losing its (Combat AI) mind and going completely rogue. But I think you are starting to get the general idea.
Now, let’s look at sieges. A siege happens when an army takes on a walled settlement. Remember the wooden palisades from long ago? Well, if you didn’t take my advice and build them, your settlement will fall rather quickly due to fighting in the the streets and the inability to create choke points to defend the town with a small force. Had you built the wooden palisades or the various upgrades that follow, you would now defend four entrances to your settlement. Small force? Much easier to hold out. If the foreign invaders come in numbers and surround your town, you are effectively blockaded and your people begin to starve. That’s why a siege granary (upgraded granary) is really useful here. If you’ve built up your walls, then you can use lookouts to murder the besiegers with ranged weapons (arrows). Uh oh, here come the siege weapons. Well, you should clear a path and send in the cavalry or convict units to take them out. How about sending in some of your own reinforcements? You can do that too. You are starting to get the idea now I think. The combat here is deep, like Total War deep, but better.
How about naval combat? It is supposed to be there, but to be completely honest with you, in my 70+ hours of play, I have never fought a naval battle. I even conducted a quick YouTube search and didn’t seem to find any. I do see achievements for it, so I have no reason to believe that it is not there, I’ve just never had the opportunity to engage in any.
What can I say that I haven’t said already? Well, I have shared many of the qualities that I like about this game, but let me share some of the ones that I don’t. The combat AI comes to mind. Sometimes during battles it will do something really stupid, and I’ll end up taking unnecessarily heavy casualties or suffering an outright defeat. Is that annoying? Yes, very much so, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Sometimes, your armies do weird things during sieges too. Like when I breakdown a wall with my heavy archers and siege engines, but the melee units just stand around instead of rushing the settlement. The way is open troops – go and conquer this place already. Sheesh!
Another issue I have is with the unrest mechanic. It is fleshed out better than many 4X games do these days, but it can still feel like a lot of micromanagement for me, especially if you have many settlements. As a farming nation, you have to constantly rest your peasants and let them be or they might revolt. Ugh, too close to reality if you ask me. Why can’t they just work non-stop until they die to make my empire grand I ask you… I’ll tell you why! Because they aren’t vampires and this isn’t a Civ game (though that was remedied in the latest installment). But still, having to constantly check is obnoxious.
But one thing that I really, really like is the User Interface in this game. ALL of the pop-out tabs on the top, sides and bottom can easily be collapsed or expanded upon as needed. If you want even more info, you can dig deeper too. There’s a lot of great info easily accessible, and I feel companies like Paradox could learn a lot from OE. A LOT!
The music seems authentic and sounds great the first few times you hear it, but I wish there was more of it. It does grow a bit stale after a while.
The graphics are great. I especially love the infinite zoom feature that can be utilized at all times. You can zoom all the way out to get a hawk’s-view and then all the way in and watch combat as if you were a participant. You can rotate it anyway you want. This camera would be a godsend to Amplitude if they could integrate it into their battleviewer for Endless Space 2.
Finally, there are the Win conditions. There are four for all intents and purposes. There is a typical conquest victory where you must control 65% of the population. Basically, go out and conquer the map, or vassalize everyone, if that’s your thing.
There is the somewhat different “Son of Heaven” victory where you need the recognition of 75% of all Chinese citizenry as the Emperor. In other words, this is a diplomatic victory where you must use diplomacy to win (basically bribe like crazy). There is a cultural victory, where you collect Cultural Victory points plus an additional 50% of the second place score (CV point total). So, basically, you must grow your culture and then build some really cool structures to grow it further and there you have it. Then here is a score victory. At the end of the turn limit (300 by default), the nation with the highest score based on all of the other three stats wins. Not too shabby if you ask me.
The one thing that I’m really missing are the unique generals and larger than life characters you would expect from a game set in ancient China. There was so much that could have been done here, but I think this was a decision that was made early on. Not because Bob Smith was trying to cut corners, but because, historically speaking, we can’t tell the truth from the fiction about these times in Chinese history. I’m told the multiplayer is pretty good, but since I am not a multiplayer and seldom delve into that realm, I’ll have to take their word for it. “They” are pretty reliable though, so there is that. At least, that’s what I’d like to think.
TL;DR: Oriental Empires is an epic 4X that takes us back in time to eXplore the Orient and the Chinese empires that dominated it. It is a beautiful game full of meaningful choices from settlement location to army composition. It has a solid tech tree with some great ideas. But the game does feel dull at certain times and the faction similarities are a small drawback. If you want to experience a new take on Total War styled combat, then this game is probably the one you’ve been looking for.
You Might LIKE This Game If:
- You’ve always wanted to play a more focused 4X based in Chinese lore
- You’re a fan of Bob Smith, the original main developer for the Total War games
- You’ve been looking for a better combat system than Total War, sorta
- You’re tired of Civ-like 4X games
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You hate micromanagement
- You’re a fan of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms genre
- You want full control of combat like typical Total War games
- You love fleshed out heroes
Nate’s copy was provided by Iceberg Interactive for the purposes of writing this review. He played for 70+ hours on a Sager NP-8153S (XoticPC Built) Laptop: 15.6″ FHD IPS Display, 6th gen Intel i7-6820 HQ Skylake CPU, 24GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 1070 w/ 8 GB vram, 250 GB Samsung EVO SSD, 1 TB 7200 RPM HD.
Disclosure: eXplorminate received a copy of Oriental Empires for the purposes of review.