In a similar style to its predecessors, Empire: Total War is a game of two halves. But do not be alarmed beloved reader, for I am not talking about football. A massive turn-based campaign map houses empire building, resource management and army movements, while the actual battles are fought out in real-time strategy on both land and sea. Veterans to the Total War family will know that naval battles were one of the few low points in what is a highly successful series, but new cannon wielding warships are deemed the flagship in this new chapter of Total War history. However, other than pirates and scurvy, what else does Empire: Total War pioneer?
Again developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Sega, Empire: Total War is essentially the latest evolution in the Total War series, with the general feeling of the game virtually identical to the Rome and Medieval II: Total War games. There are also plenty of gameplay tweaks and enhancements - including a period change to the 18th century - that all keeps the game fresh and long lasting. Before I mention anything further about the game, let me forewarn you that the game install is roughly 15Gb in size, and that you will need an internet connection to activate the game and Steam to actually play it. This will be frustrating for some, but the auto-update function and the ease of using Steam make it an acceptable platform.
For those completely new to the concept of the Total War series, let me briefly explain what you have been missing out on. As mentioned in my opening paragraph, Empire: Total War is essentially divided into a turn-based campaign map and real-time strategy battles. The former incorporates your empire building in the world - primarily large scale wars, diplomatic negotiations, territory development, trading and just about everything in-between. The latter meanwhile is where you get to control your army in battle in real time, with the headcount often entering thousands. Each part of the game can be left to the AI to deal with, thus ignored if parts of the game do not appeal.
If you are already familiar with basics of Total War, let me explain the key new features that veterans to the series will have to come to terms with in Empire. There are now three "theatres" in the campaign map to wage war on - the largest and most recognisable is Europe, with the addition of America and India as completely separate but inter-connectable areas. There are also four ocean-trading theatres to get involved in, where rather than building cities and waging land wars, you take merchant ships to trade spots and gain increased profits. More emphasis is now placed on trading for income, so you will need to protect these precious trade routes from rival nations and even pirates.
Also new to Empire is technological research, which is similar if not as broad as the Civilization range of games. This does add an extra layer of burden for the player to consider, however this increased choice over the direction of your chosen empire makes this an excellent addition. Another new feature is the government and revolutions system. However, the regular government elections and the resultant effects I encountered made this seem like an unnecessary addition and a relatively pointless new feature, since most players will want to develop their empire and battle foes, not play games of politics.
Now that the year is 1700, gunpowder is in full use by all nations. This means tactics of old are of little use; pikemen and horses make easy targets for rifles and have to be used very carefully if they are to make a valuable impact. Cannons on the field are a more devastating form of artillery than ever before, and if used effectively they can rip an army to shreds. Cover can also be used to gain an advantage and buildings occupied, but using common sense and simply having more guns seemed to be the easiest route to victory in a battle.
No matter what previous experience players might have, everyone will be in the same boat when it comes to navy battles. These water fights play out in the same real time fashion as those on land; however, instead of many units of men you control each individual ship. Since ships fire their cannons from their flanks, you must position your fleet side on, and as such a completely different array of tactics is required. Wind also plays a part in battles, and you can even board an enemy vessel in an attempt to capture it to add to your own armada for future use. However, implementing naval tactics is exceedingly difficult and the inevitable ensuing disorder is quite intimidating. My overall feelings about the new maritime battles are that they are a good addition to the Total War series, but not an exceptional one.
The main feature to this and previous Total War games is the Grand Campaign, which offers victory conditions of either territorial conquest or reputation goals. The different factions - of whom twelve are major and playable with countless other minor factions - have individual characteristics and thus different playing styles. Aside from the main campaign, there is also the "Road to Independence", a story-driven campaign which serves as an introduction to the main game or just a fun history lesson. Alternatively, if you fancy some quick single-player battle action, just fire up a one-off land, sea, siege or scenario battle. If you are feeling brave, you can also battle it out online with multiplayer ranked and casual fights on both land and sea. An exciting prospect of a multiplayer campaign map is also said to be on the way in the coming months.
There are tutorials for both land and naval battles to get you familiarised or refreshed on the battle systems, and there are advisors on hand to provide tips and useful snippets of information to help you get to grips with some of the finer details. With all the new features and additions this has become the most complicated Total War game to date, and as an experienced player I found many of the new features poorly explained, so new players may struggle even further. The game manual also failed to give enough details of some important points and I ended up missing key factors in the campaign that later resulted in regret and frustration.
Unfortunately, Empire: Total War is not without further problems. Enemy AI is often poor, a legacy which has never been addressed in the Total War timeline. A classic example I encountered in Empire was when my rifleman were up against cutlass wielding pirates. The pirates showed no interest in making a move on my men, despite being picked off from a distance - a voluntary firing squad if you like. The AI on the campaign map often makes poor tactical decisions - despite the fact I was playing on hard difficulty - meaning I was given silly advantages and not made to pay for making mistakes.
Further to these gripes, there are a few irritating bugs present. My original game file - where I was leading the fashionable British - failed to load since the file somehow saved corrupt. Further to this - half way though the new game I was forced to begin - my game started crashing when I tried ending my turn. Upon researching these problems I discovered this isn't an isolated case. Other annoyances I encountered included simple things like ordering a group of ships to move forward in a battle, which would result in some going in completely the wrong direction - both bizarre and infuriating. None of the above mentioned woes were enough to deter me from enjoying this game immensely, but I can't help but feel disappointed in the lack of integrity of a long standing series and an otherwise polished and highly professional game.
The graphical personality of Empire: Total War does define excellence. The campaign map is hugely detailed and aesthetic on the eye, while the graphics engine for the battles is improved from previous Total War outings, with a plethora of graphical effects on offer. Land battles feature literally thousands of units on screen at the same time, whilst naval battles enter the series with beautifully detailed ships and gorgeous water effects and physics. Alas, one downside of these good looks is that a meaty computer is required to get Empire looking at its best. I recommend a multi-cored CPU to keep things running smooth and at least 2Gb of RAM to avoid lengthy load times.
Ambient music is also very well done and fits the scene perfectly. Voice acting is well done and the attention to detail in the range sounds is admirable. Unfortunately, on my computer at least, some sounds, such as those of rifles, seemed a bit rough, as if they were from the 16-bit era. It could be that these are the genuine sounds of that age, or alternatively it could be Windows Vista failing to cope as it so often does when it comes to sound. Either way this wasn't game breaking, but the immersion was often jarred with these sound effects feeling below par.
The general feeling of the game is, initially at least, daunting and hard to get into, but there is great fun, enjoyment and satisfaction to be had with the many conquests on the campaign map and memorable victories in the individual battles. The campaign map is bigger, better and somewhat more complicated than ever before, with gameplay tweaks and new features creating a lot of burden for the player to learn. The introduction of gunpowder as the key type of weaponry has created a requirement to learn different tactics, but it does feel like a positive change. Game destroying bugs and crashes are the worst feature to this game, but saving often and in separate files can help avoid tales of woe.
That said, Empire: Total War is the sort of game you can play for hours on end without losing interest taking the dreaded "one more turn" persona that has many people addicted to the Civilization series. I have managed to lose chunks of the weekend and most weekday evenings in my conquest to crush Spain with the adorable Dutch, with the rare excuse of "I have to play this much for the review" on hand to bail me from certain disapproval. You may not have that defence, but you would be missing a very worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable experience if you do not play this early contender for game of 2009.
Fun and satisfying gameplay
Plenty of enjoyment on offer
Superb attention to detail
- Complicated gameplay not explained well enough
- Poor AI
- Game destroying bugs