So, say you're the Empire Earth franchise. You started out as a bit of a nerd; you had a fascination with history and got a little bit too excited about statistics sometimes, but a lot of people seemed to like you anyway. They appreciated your geeky side, and you got along just fine even if you were never going to be the most popular kid in class (not with the flashier Rise of Nations and Age of Empires around, both of whom were bought convertibles by their parents for their 17th birthdays).
Then it all went a little bit wrong - you got even nerdier, even more obsessed with statistics, and people were put off a little bit. Yes, Empire Earth 2 was the American High School Drama equivalent of the likeable, slightly geeky guy in the class suddenly revealing that he also writes Spock / Kirk slash fanfiction in his spare time. It just went a little too far for many people's tastes; it wasn't a bad game, but it took some critical bodyslamming for just being unnecessarily impenetrable (unlike Kirk in that fanfiction, presumably).
Empire Earth 3 is the recoil. The nerdy kid, filled with a newfound desperation to be popular, has just turned up at the gates of the school with a new haircut, outfit and attitude - but it looks like he's taken styling tips from MC Hammer and watched clips of Tobey Maguire's bizarre turn as "emo" Peter Parker in SpiderMan 3 as a behaviour guide. You take one look and know he's going to get beaten up. His lunch money is going to be public property for months to come. You feel bad, because he's trying so hard, but the law of the playground awards no free passes for effort.
Nor, we fear, does the law of the review. The third instalment in the franchise tries bloody hard to please, and in fact, it makes all the right noises at the outset. That can't, however, change the fact that the game ultimately finds itself tottering unsteadily along the dividing line between mediocrity and being genuinely awful.
Mad Doc's whole approach with Empire Earth 3 is all about two things; simplification, and diversification. So, the large number of different civilisations you could play as in the previous games have been chopped out, and replaced with three forces - the West, the Middle East and the East - which are more significantly different from one another than the old civilisations. The eras you progress through have also been chopped down, and there are now only five transitions between banging rocks together and marching giant death-robots across the scorched nuclear wastelands.
In theory, these are good ideas, and we were impressed by their potential when we previewed the game only a few weeks ago. In practise, however, they utterly fail to live up to their promise. This isn't a careful paring away of complexity to reveal the graceful, streamlined game experience at the heart - rather, it's a wholescale attack by a madman with a machete, hacking away vast chunks of the things which made Empire Earth good as well as the things which made it inaccessible.
The three forces follow a model not dissimilar to Starcraft in their technology trees, and in theory, each one should provide a different play experience. In practice, this doesn't really work. The Middle East stands out from the other two by having buildings which you can pack up and move, but other attempts to establish a unique play style for the races fall somewhat flat. You need to allow for blatant, incredibly obvious differences from the outset (building loads of cheap infantry as the East, say, or rapidly researching tech as the West), but differences to the tactical options in front of you only really emerge in the end-game, during the Future era, when each race gets high-end units with unique abilities.
The eras, too, are not structured in a way which compensates adequately for the over-simplification. It's simply too easy to blast straight through the research tree in a skirmish or multiplayer game, and each era transition is too powerful for its own good. The lovely balancing act at the heart of previous EE games - "shall I focus on research and risk having a small army, or build up my army and risk falling an era behind the enemy?" - is dead in the water as a result. The answer now is always to do more research, because the rewards for moving up an era are so incredibly over-powered, and the speed with which you can do so is so rapid.