Oriental Empires: 4X Strategy and Tactical Combat

Oriental Empires Review (PC)

Oriental Empires is a lot of things, and the vast majority of them are good. This is made even better by the clear effort that that the team have made in trying to emulate the visual styling of the last two entries in the Civilization series; namely clear iconography and scaling when at more extreme levels of zoom.

A massive shame, then, that the game falls down in the same places as most of the genre: pacing and accessibility. Obviously, it being in that company, I suppose it shouldn’t really be taken as that massive a negative, I just feel it’s of note as the game is otherwise very impressive, especially when it comes to its scale.

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Oriental Empires spans around 3000 years, from the earliest periods of the Shang and Zhou through to the advent of gunpowder. This means that it covers an absolutely massive period, however much like its contemporary in the 4X genre, Civilization V, the game’s structure leaves the game capable of referencing history, but not possessing of the tools to replicate it. Unlike Civ, however, the game definitely has a heavy focus on one era in particular: The Warring States.

When it comes to Chinese history in video games they have almost always focused on the war of the Three Kingdoms: The chaotic power-struggle which occurred around and following the decline of the Han Dynasty. As such, it’s refreshing that Oriental Empires takes place before that dynasty has even been birthed, even though one of the nations in the game does share it’s regional namesake.

With three-thousand years of history to cover, one might imagine that the game has an extensive research and advancement tree — it, in fact, has four. Each of the game’s progress trees —Research, Culture, Philosophical, Religion— are densely packed, and well structured. There are even milestones which require technologies from other trees to be in place as to progress, ensuring that a faction which excels on the trading technology which comes from the Culture tree can’t run too far ahead regardless of the amount of boons they’ve managed to stack up.

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While all of the progress milestones have benefits to them, the vast majority of them simply result in buffs to the two variables which the developers implemented to pace the faction growth: Culture and Authority. Both of these are influences on the opinion of your peasants and nobles respectively, with authority also serving as a soft cap on player growth — players are recommended to not control more cities than the sum of their authority lest the nobles grow anxious and rebel.

The stone cold listing of ‘Authority’ and ‘Culture’ as simple numerals does make the progress trees feel a little numb, which is a shame because it undermines the process, and leaves most choices feeling arbitrary. Especially so when military, infrastructure, and trading advancements reside within set trees, leaving you already ticking up those numerals by simply continuing to exist.

There are, that said, plenty of advancements which do have an affect on the game at large; Troop types, armour types, and siege weapons unlock at a rapid rate, as do city buildings (both internal and external) and improvements, and so there’s almost always something to be rolling out through your cities as the game progresses.

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Anyway, I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. Let’s wind back a little bit and I’ll talk about the presentation of the game, shall we?

One of Oriental Empires‘ strengths lie in it’s accessible and readable map, as well as a decent tool-tip and prompt system. Denser strategy sub-genres, like wargaming and 4X, regularly have issues when it comes to how they display information at various zoom levels, or even how they handle zoom levels. With OE the developer, Shining Pixel Studios, have opted for a full-scale zoom approach to their hexagonal maps — coming in nearest to Fixaris’ 2010 Civilization V. Unlike Civ however, army composition is visible on the map, the map can be rotated, and combats are multi-unit affairs.

The vast majority of the components players interact with are hidden behind unlabled menus on the game’s UI; a negative considering the game’s tool-tip system and otherwise clean visuals. An example would be that building a city wall requires the clicking of a city, then the selecting of the building tile before selecting the object. Three clicks isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but each city screen comes complete with a mass of information and actions nestled in it: four action filters— chopping down forests, build roads, build external improvement, build farm; two construction options, buildings and troops; as well as about 8-9 information points. It’s all a little excessive, and a circumstance of having only one non-combat unit in the game: settlers.

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The game is more than willing to give up too much information in certain areas, for instance when looking at victory conditions between the factions, or when negotiating with another faction — where beads move to indicate who has the advantage in a trade, basically spelling out exactly how far you can push your rival. Yet, in other areas the game is surprisingly restrained. Combat, for instance, there’s no real order to engagement for your troops, and no rough guides on combat effectiveness for the units — you’ll have to do the math yourself.

Another example is the unrest screen (for peasants, or nobles, on a city-by-city level) which not only chalks up a random amount to general weariness, but divides unrest into several factors without specifying their direct causes. For example, we know there are bandits nearby which are causing dissent, but the screen never underlines the reasoning behind that number; is it proximity or quantity based? How much impact do those two factors play in the number served up?

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To battle then.

Unlike most of the titles which Oriental Empires rubs shoulders with, the game rewards those who use their military power well. Not only is combat the easiest, and in many cases only, way to solve conflicts with rivals, but it’s also one of elements of the game that the developers have clearly taken the most care over, and they’ve managed to build a system which interlinks with almost all of the game’s elements wonderfully.

Each individual squad/group can be moved independently or as an army, and can also be given tactical/formation advice. This level of control over each of the units gives the game’s combat a tactical feeling similar to Total War, and while the combat animations sometimes lack it’s impossible to deny that when flanking and pincer movements are correctly executed they work perfectly.

Combat plays out between turns, with the player turns used for planning out moves before End Turn executes the queued movements. Even in the earlier stages of the game this can be nail-bitingly tense as units accidentally outmanoeuvre one another, or enemies abandon a siege to reinforce as a reaction to your diversion in the last season.

Winning a mid–late game siege feels fantastic as dozens of units from each side dance and contort around city walls, chasing away the defeated while awaiting reinforcements. A siege requires ranged or siege units to break and breach city walls, meaning that one can be ended rapidly if troops are not kept safe — this and the fact that cities can rapidly replenish troops from the population assuming it has enough free pop.

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As a matter of fact, it’s that rapid assembly of units which makes the game stand out from it’s contemporaries. If your cities are well established, secure, and happy, you can churn out and extensive force from it and send that force to war, in the same turn. This means that a solid road infrastructure and lots of farms can see you going from a skeleton force to a hundred squad strong army within a few clicks.

While the game certainly has it’s weaknesses, the combat is always interesting, and unlike most 4X titles the game doesn’t drag in the middle. Fans of Civ & Total War might well enjoy Oriental Empires, however a 4X genre die-hard will likely bounce off the experience due to the heavier reliance on combat.

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