Empire: Total War – hands-on

Empire is the first Creative Assembly game set on a truly global scale, with conflict spanning multiple theaters, so it does much to sidestep the perils of realism. A separate campaign, “The Road To Independence,” covers the era spanning the initial colonization of the Americas through the point where the colonies decided they wanted to keep their tea, thankyouverymuch. You’ll flex your military might in three main theaters - Europe, America, and the Near East, each with its own map - but to minimize donkey work, you can choose to set tax rates at the upper level, rather than for individual regions within each theater. Then there are the trade theaters - such as the Caribbean, East Africa, and the East Indies - to which you’re unable to send land forces, and so must dominate by naval power alone. The more ships you send - and the fewer enemy ships cutting your supply lines - the greater your profits. The desired effect is whole-world scale without a whole world of meaningless clicking and map-scrolling.

Land battles, while less of a radical departure than sea battles, are considerably changed from previous Total War games. Hand-to-hand combat was hardly obsolete during the period, but increased ranged combat and the addition of gunpowder have led to changes, such as the option to order units to take cover and man buildings. Seeing all of this in action was impressive enough that it’s easy to have faith Creative Assembly can pull together a digital Waterloo - though whether the devs can manage a digital Napoleon has actually been the bigger question, given the ongoing criticism of AI in previous Total War efforts.

These are primarily single-player games, so tactical deficiencies are more obvious and painful - as anyone who’s watched an enemy king throw his life away in a meaningless charge will attest. Creative Assembly is sensitive to this, and is making clear efforts to counter the weakness. How? On the Rome: Barbarian Invasion team, just one coder focused on AI, and only part-time. This time around, three coders focus on AI full-time, with others contributing. “We can always say that we’re working really hard on the AI - which we are - and that we think it’s going to be better than before - which we do - but the objective fact is that compared with Rome, we have a lot more staff on it,” says James Russell.

We suspect they’d better - with Empire, the team is promising a game strikingly more advanced than anything a Total War general has seen before. The primary difference: rather than two completely separate AI parts governing the strategic and tactical levels of your opponent’s gameplay, they now feed information to one another, so the enemy general will be aware of the stakes. If defeat is immaterial, they’ll maximize casualties against the opposition, then retreat. If they simply must triumph in this battle in order to win the war, expect a to-the-last-man encounter. The series has always strived to achieve a combined grand-scale view of war. If it succeeds here, it’ll be a welcome difference.