The art of war is beautifully reunited with Ancient China.
Copious hours are blissfully spent by a mass of armchair Generals, all sat in their comfy gaming chairs, frantically clicking away with their eyes glued to a screen, on an extensive path to ultimate domination — they are the strategy gamers: an analytical and patient breed. Many strategy gamers have managed to build an economic and military superpower out of an uncivilised minnow tribe, amass the largest empire ever known to man and tactfully coerced all other rival civilisations into bowing to their will through a series of well-timed diplomatic decisions — concurrently, diplomatic and conflict strategy is taking place across the globe for real (it’s just not as fun, and considerably more daunting). We wouldn’t be able to enjoy games such as Civilization and Total War, if strategy behind international diplomacy and warfare was never conceptualised and used in the real world — it is fitting, therefore, that this indie 4x game is set in Ancient China: the birthplace of Sun Tzu, author of the earliest, influential, writings on strategy.
Ancient China is a refreshing setting that has rarely ever been touched upon in the gaming world and this provides a distinctive, worthwhile experience for gamers: early Chinese history is fascinating and is definitely worthy of some long-overdue attention — and in Oriental Empires, it looks absolutely beautiful.
The brilliant decision to make a 4x game around Ancient China was made by a small, unfamiliar, indie firm called Shining Pixel Studios and subsequently published by Iceberg Interactive, known for their involvement with the outstanding Endless Space and Endless Legend games.
With its hardy Unity Engine foundations, the aesthetics of this game are stunning and for a 4x game, quite intricately detailed too. Depending on the specific improvements you decide to make in each city — and you definitely will not want to be building absolutely everything — they’ll all individually have visible differences, when you scroll right down to ground level, and unlike in certain other popular 4x games, these changes merge into settlements seamlessly: no aqueducts precariously protruding over a marketplace, to be found here! The change of seasons, in Oriental Empires, is particularly pleasing, as forested areas become a patchwork of reds, yellow and oranges in Autumn and the entire landscape is blanketed in white, as snowflakes trickle down the screen, in Winter.
Most of your time in this game will surely be spent in the Grand Campaign, where you’ll guide a Chinese civilisation from the Bronze Age to the period in which gunpowder was widely adopted. You’ll eventually have a choice of fifteen different clans to lead, but ten of these are initially locked. Factions have a few mildly different perks and abilities but they’re all generally a bit samey, both aesthetically and in terms of what they offer to the gameplay.
Anyone who has played any of the Civilization games, from the fifth instalment onwards, will inevitably immediately notice the striking resemblance. The map, by default, consists of many hexagonal sections à-la Civ and these ‘hexes’ may potentially be naturally rich in resources, such as jade, gold, fish and rhinoceroses, all of which you’ll later be able to exploit — just watch out for those pesky Civ-esque bandits as you go exploring.
Civilization’s ‘great people’ are also essentially present within the game, but are merely referred to as ‘characters’ and can be assigned to lead armies and fleets, or to govern particularly troublesome cities — just don’t wait to find any artists, prophets or scientists. Diplomacy is also yet another aspect which is heavily influenced by Civ: in fact, the diplomacy screen is basically an identical reproduction, and you won’t find any original diplomatic options either.
However, Oriental Empires is not without its fair share of its own refreshing mechanics that do set this game apart from its more well-known competitors. When at war, for example, you’ll have considerably greater freedom over the strategy you undertake to attack your foes — your men will then carry your battle plans in real-time and usual factors such as the terrain and morale of troops should also be considered.
Multiple units within one hex become a ‘stack’ and will form one army that’ll all move collectively — unless you decide to split them apart of course — but, each individual unit within a stack can be issued a different order for battle. The military tactics range from defensive orders; to plans intended to outsmart or generally confuse and distract the enemy, such as outflanking and harassing the enemy from afar with projectiles; to the overly aggressive orders that include one labelled as ‘CHARGE!!!’, which will see the selected unit/s attack promptly out of their battle lines in essentially berserker mode. Witnessing huge armies clash on the battlefield, as each of your individual units carry out their respective orders, all in real-time, is a delight and you will frequently witness multiple battles taking place across different areas of the map simultaneously, including battles that you’re not personally involved in. Combat certainly fails to emulate a Total War level of freedom but any Civ or Paradox gamer will love the considerably less abstract feel to battles and will inevitably feel greater involvement in the outcome of each and every skirmish.
Stacked units can also be ordered to march in a certain formation and you’re able to predetermine a extended specific route to proceed upon, allowing you to plan way ahead of your next move. One of the keys to mastering the combat side of this game is ultimately to master efficiently predicting where you’ll enemy will be, in x amount of moves, to intercept them: as opposed to gormlessly leading a huge army towards a hex containing one enemy unit in the vain hope that they’ll still be there to greet you on arrival! You’ll also be able to alter the speed of movement, by adjusting the camera height: scroll up to the heavens and time will fly but zoom in up-close and personal, for some macabre warfare voyeurism, and events will occur at a realistic speed.
Refreshingly, Oriental Empires takes a far more conservative and realistic approach to empire building — expanding both upwards or outwards too swiftly results in facing bankruptcy and revolts. Even if you do strategise effectively, there are a host of disasters to potentially deal with, including flooding and earthquakes that could devastate your cities. Not to mention the fact that the A.I. tends to be overly aggressive, even on lower difficulties: declaring war for no reason and destroying progress made on your precious hexes. Incidentally, I never realised how zealous Ancient Chinese peasants were until playing this game: they’ll continue to contently sow their seeds while a mammoth enemy army watches over menacingly, in the same hex, on the land they have just scorched beyond recognition. Oriental Empires is certainly not a game where you’re expected to paint the map in your clan’s colours. If your aim is to steamroll across the map and ease your way to total domination: look elsewhere.
You will inevitably build a relatively impressive empire but it will take patience and careful planning. Often the best course of action for a turn is to do absolutely other than to hit the Chinese gong, which simulates the actions of that turn. As you slowly build your populace and your riches, your cities will grow in size and stature, opening up the option to construct further buildings and to expand your borders.Each building has an upkeep cost, all of which are quite pricey and difficult to sustain in the early stages of the game, so you’ll need to be able to strategise your economic policy effectively too — aimlessly click ‘build’ too many times and you will not get any results.
The populace of your faction can be identified by two diverse estates —nobles and peasants — and you’ll need to keep an eye on their happiness and appease both in order to succeed; internal politics is just as important as external affairs. Authority, is a key mechanic in Oriental Empires and one you’ll want to quickly appreciate the importance of: if the number of settlements controlled is greater than your authority level, the nobles will get increasingly restless, leading possibly to an uprising. Losing lots of battles or having your leader die without an heir will also see a considerable spike in noble antagonism. Nobles can also be conscripted to fight in battles and they’ll do a much better job of it than their unskilled peasant counterparts, but they will cost a tidy sum to keep raised.
You’ll also need to juggle the needs of the peasants to prevent them from rising up against you. Ordering the peasants to carry out construction tasks too often will piss them off and you’ll have to factor in that you can’t just send off everyone to farm the land either or you’ll have a shortage of men available to conscript. As for the peasants you do have in your ranks, they have no qualms about defecting to the cause of the rebels if your strategic skills leave a lot to be desired.
Paradox-style edicts are also present in this game, which have long-term effects, and you can issue one of these per turn, if you so wish but the positives they bring, will be outweighed by the decline in peasant or noble happiness. Edicts add some extra spice to the game and can drastically change your experience. From patronising the arts and boosting culture, to forming a central bureaucracy or appointing a commandant, you’ll have many possible edicts to enact but as with everything in Oriental Empires, your decisions should not be taken lightly and you should genuinely strategise prior to making a hasty game-changing choice.
No strategy game would be without its tech tree but in Oriental Empires, you have four separate trees to research — Power, Craft, Thought and Knowledge — and you research one thing from each respective tree simultaneously.
Inevitably, you’ll want to know how to win a game of Oriental Empires: well, again much like Civ, there are multiple possible ways of being crowned victorious. Victory can be achieved by good ol’ conquest, by amassing a large number of culture points or by merely having the highest score when all turns have been completed. Alternatively, you can aim to be crowned ‘Son of Heaven’ by coercing at least 75% of the game’s population to recognise you as Emperor — the option that Sun Tzu himself would’ve opted for, after all he did say in The Art of War: ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’
Ultimately, Oriental Empires appears to be nothing more than a glorified Ancient China mod for Civilization but dig a little deeper and you have a stunning 4x game that requires patience and precision and has a multitude of unique mechanics. Shining Pixel Studios delivers an ideal combat system that doesn’t require a degree to master but provides greater direct control and a subsequent greater feeling of involvement in the outcome of every battle. This is an enjoyable and rewarding strategy game that is easy to play, but difficult to master and will inevitably be appreciated by any strategy gamer with an interest in Ancient China and it’s definitely worth a buy if you love Civ but would like to witness realistic real-time battle sequences. Oriental Empires deserves to put little Shining Pixel Studios on the map.