A real-time strategy game, Empires requires players to command armies and combat opponents from a complete 3D perspective to achieve victory. Matches end when all but one player have resigned or been defeated; the last player standing is awarded the victory. To win, players must develop and micromanage balanced and organized armies. The game features land, sea and air units, whose availabilities depend on the selected era. These units have strengths and weaknesses in a format similar to Rock, Paper, Scissors; each type of unit affects other units differently. Each unit represents one soldier or machine, whose speed and range depend on its type and civilization. A unit can be ordered to scout, guard, act defensively, or act aggressively. Resources—food, wood, gold, and stone—are required in different combinations to build structures and armies. Throughout the game, citizens gather resources and deposit them in Town Center structures.
Empires' multiplayer component, powered by GameSpy, is freely available to any player who has an updated version of the game. Though as of 2007, this game is no longer supported by GameSpy for online play. Two to eight people or artificial intelligence opponents compete in either the shorter, battle-oriented Action Mode or the longer, defense-oriented Empire Builder Mode. The modes, civilizations, and map types are available in both single-player and multiplayer. Maps are randomly generated for each match, but conform to a general landform chosen by the host player of the match. The player also chooses the size of the map and the amount of units that each player can create. Multiplayer mode features groups of allied players called clans, which appear on the Empires Heaven clan list.
There are nine civilizations in Empires. The first four civilizations exist from 950 A.D. to 1900 A.D., which covers the first three ages: the Medieval, Gunpowder and Imperial ages. The other five civilizations roughly cover the years 1900 A.D. to 1950 A.D., which is during the ages of World War I and World War II. The Japanese are opponents in the game's campaign mode, but they are not playable in the game. Age progression requires a large amount of resources, which varies in size depending on the age and game type. Once a new age has been entered, new upgrades become available. New upgrades cost different combinations of resources, and can do anything from improving a civilization's fishing rate to upgrading units with enhanced technology. Once this change occurs, older unit types cannot be created.
Richard the Lionhearted's campaign details his path to the English throne. The campaign begins as King Henry's first son, Prince Henry, conspires to take England's throne before his father's death. Ensuing scenarios involve three of Henry II's sons and the imprisonment of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's wife, during the English revolt of 1173–1174. Phillip II of France, who has ascended unexpectedly early to the French throne, also appears. Richard and Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany, one of Henry's other sons, are playable units; however, the other historical figures appear only in cut scenes. Even so, this campaign is ahistorical. Several English units such as the highlander were never employed by the English. The French units do not include the Swiss pikemen and German pikemen used by the French armies; it is also not possible to employ battering rams or siege towers as used by both the English and the French historically.
The campaign of Admiral Yi (historically Yi Sun-Sin) occurs in the 1590s, and chronicles Korea's battles against Manchurians and the Japanese. The campaign focuses on the Imjin Wars−a six-year period when Japan invaded Korea twice—and the ensuing naval, land, and political fighting. The story includes the development of stronger, technologically superior Turtle ships. Yi Sun-Sin, Kim Shi-min, the king's advisor(Ryu Seong-ryong), and Kwak Chae-u, a citizen who helped lead a revolution at the time, are playable units; other main characters, such as political leaders, appear only in cut scenes. The campaign's conclusion explains the end of the wars and of Yi Sun-Sin's life.
A custom campaign and scenario editor is also available; several unofficial custom campaigns and scenarios are freely available on fan websites such as Empires Heaven.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World was developed from 2002 to 2003 by the now-defunct Stainless Steel Studios. The game is based on an upgraded version of the Titan game engine used in the company's previous title, Empire Earth. In an interview with GameSpot regarding development, Rick Goodman stated, "In my opinion, the development community should spend more time with consumers ... we need to do a better job answering the question, 'What do gamers want?'". Utilizing survey results, the studio focused on gameplay, balance, and innovation.
At E3 2003, Stainless Steel highlighted differences among the game's civilizations, which were created from a civilization tree, a chart of every civilization in Empire Earth. Jon Alenson, the lead designer, said in an interview that a civilization tree is "like a bed of snakes, where the biggest fattest snake represents the biggest strongest civilization." Stainless Steel diversified and balanced the most requested civilizations on their forums by using diagrams, unit families, tactical simulations, and strategy tests. To complement the updated civilizations, the studio revised much of the technology from Empire Earth.
The game became available on Steam on August 30, 2007.
Empires: Dawn of the Modern World received positive critical reaction. Game Informer rated it 8.25/10, calling it "definitely worth your time if you dig the genre...";IGN gave it an 8.8/10, deemed it "a great strategy game", and stated that "Stainless Steel deserves to be proud of their second effort...";GameSpy referred to it as "an excellent RTS."
PC Game World, an online game site, claimed that the game's sound was "as good as it comes with this type of game, with nuclear weapons exploding, bombs going off, weapons firing, people hitting people with swords." Gamezone liked only certain visual elements, claiming that “the backgrounds of forests, meadows and water are very sharp, and are the best looking part of the game."
In a negative comment, GameSpot questioned the game's lack of guidance, stating that "[t]he manual starts off saying as much, and there's no tutorial to walk you through the basics...". Gamezone similarly noted, “As there is also no tutorial to speak of, players not familiar with the first Empires game, or who are new to RTS, may find themselves a bit lost.”PC Gamer stated, "The unit formations are crummy and pathfinding is just as tenuous as in most RTS games ... and the missions are somewhat undercut by ... terrible voice-acting." The magazine found that the pathfinding algorithm often causes units to travel together in a disorganized mass and sometimes take more dangerous routes than necessary to reach locations.Computer Gaming World complained that the campaigns "are excessively story driven and include little in the way of straightforward build-and-raze missions."
Because critics perceived that Empires lacked significant innovations to the real-time strategy genre, they often drew comparisons to other games. Armchair Empire noted, "It's next to impossible to write about Empires ... without mentioning Stainless Steel Studios’ last project, Empire Earth." Many were surprised that the scope was smaller than that of Empire Earth, but agreed that the gameplay focused more on specific time periods by having fewer ages and civilizations. One critic called the game a "dumb man's Rise of Nations." Stratos Group wrote that Empires has "very few land-only maps, unlike Rise of Nations which was full of variety on this score." The progressions among ages were also compared: "Rise of Nations often ended in a flurry of age-rushing until everyone was driving tanks, but the offensive power available to the player in Empires means that advancing to the next age is not necessarily your highest immediate priority." Regarding civilization choices, Stratos stated that "After the cornucopia of choices available in Rise of Nations (18 cultures), the four early and five later cultures of Empires may seem a little small. This is not a real problem, though. The choices available are fun and varied."CNET remarked, "The design puts well-recognized historical action into play and makes believable use of the material, while adding some powerful spell-like effects to keep the action interesting. While it may not have the breadth of Rise of Nations' real-time empire building, the tight scope deals out dividends when it comes to fast-paced battles."