This is the grandest, most spectacular work of strategy gaming on the PC. If you’ve not tackled a Total War game before, or assume that they’re not for you, we challenge you to play Empire and not be impressed, or even fundamentally changed by the experience. This is one of the most playable, and therefore important and accomplished strategy games ever created.
Total War occupies its own territory between Civ, classic RTSes, and the hex-based wargames armchair generals get all excited about. It is both a vast turn-based historical escapade and a gritty real-time battlefield engine that delivers the most cogent picture of mass conflict we’ve yet seen. The field of conflict in Empire, most global of the Total War games, is the 18th century. Assuming you’re going to play the gigantic Grand Campaign, you’ll start in 1700 and have a turn every six months until 1799. At the back of your mind, you’re always aware of that clock, ticking down toward victory or defeat.
If you’re playing as Britain, as we did, victory means controlling Egypt and a chunk of both India and North America. This is a game in itself. And when you’re done there, you’ll want to try a different nation, and its different victory conditions. Whatever you do, this game is a colossal undertaking. Completing a campaign is one of those gaming exploits that you know will be with you for the rest of your life, simply because it will consume so much time. Even when you’re not playing, you’re thinking about it. Planning, plotting your colonial ambitions.
Yes, colonial. Unlike the Medieval and Roman-era empire building, these are very much colonial enterprises. Empire takes a great deal of its design philosophy from the events and trends of its era, and that real history is reflected in the core challenges different nations face, and in the smaller tasks you’ll have to deal with to grasp the upper hand in war. Playing as the European powers, for example, places you in a fascinating position – one that seems astonishingly close to how the real colonial powers must have played their real world game. Your fortune lies across oceans, but you cannot lose your foothold in Europe. As Great Britain our fate was closely tied to that of the Thirteen Colonies in North America, and only by being a remarkably strong international power were we going to keep them as a protectorate.
What’s more, we knew that we could not afford a land or sea war with local European powers, and spent many early years buttering up France and Spain with gifts to reduce the pressure that hostilities might place on our shipping. Empire for Great Britain means a powerful Royal Navy – in the game, just as in real life. Play as land-locked Poland, on the other hand, and you face a different challenge. You’ll want to pick off all the smaller one-state nations, one at a time, before facing down the Russian Bear.
There had been rumblings about Total War being simplified for the US market, especially with its introductory mini-campaign ‘The Road to Independence’. This may indeed have been included to guide newcomers, but don’t think the complexity of the main game has been sacrificed. Empire: Total War is more, and better, than we’ve ever had before. The Creative Assembly do not seem to have shirked their responsibility, or ever stepped back from including more features, or more detail. Empire is the opposite of dumbed down. It has a superabundance of smart gaming.
And while it feels familiar, Empire manages to deliver more nuance on the campaign map than ever before. What’s most immediately obvious is the effect of international trade. While some trade does occur between trade partners over land, it’s the maritime trade routes that really print money.
The trade routes arc around the huge main map, which is itself divided into two principle sections: North America and Eurasia. The core map stretches from Iceland on the top left to Sri Lanka on the bottom right. Scrolling across an empire that spans this vast distance is a pleasure indeed. Red, yellow and green status marks materialise to show who you’re sharing that sea-route with and how threatened you are. Pirates camping the route will need to be physically removed.
The trade routes then snake off into the rest of the world, including the four ‘trade regions’ – South America, the Ivory Coast, the straits of Madagascar, and the East Indies. These are purely coastal regions, in which fleets can be placed to generate money. It’s then down to your diplomacy, and the grit of your admirals, to keep those trade routes open, and to keep your nation rich. Once at war with the Ottoman Empire, our Great Britain campaign saw us bottling up the Ottoman fleet in the Mediterranean, keeping our Atlantic traders safe from attack. Had we picked a fight with Portugal or Spain, with their Atlantic-facing coastlines, things would have been very different.
Inevitably, the real action still goes down in the main, land-based conquerable regions of the campaign map. These are far more detailed than anything we’ve seen previously. Each region still has a capital, but there are now separate ports, towns, and farms. All of these can be built upon and upgraded, bringing you farming estates, ports for military or trade use, mines, schools, centres for religious learning, or even defensive forts.
How all this infrastructure builds up will depend largely on your schools, which allow you to research different streams of technology. An empire can have up to four educational establishments and use them to research many different technologies at once. Balancing the flow of your funds is a constant challenge. Putting all of your money into industry and military research might give you an edge on the battlefield, but it will leave your populace undeveloped and result in negative sentiment in the electorate. If you don’t let your academics develop democracy, you might have a domestic revolution on your hands.
One of the new agent types is a ‘gentleman’ and these can be installed in schools to speed up learning. This means you can push industrial, military, agricultural, or social research at different levels and reap the rewards. In fact, the tech tree and research process is one of the areas that Empire seems to have nailed down best. It’s genuinely satisfying to see your efforts poured into agriculture result in a leap in taxation profits from farming. Or to know your men are going to fight more effectively on the battlefield because they’ve got well-made bayonets on their muskets. Early races into particular areas of technology really do pay off, especially when you combine them with the diplomacy screen, trading technological supremacy with your friends for advantage over your enemies. Truly, this is a multi-layered game of cold-blooded strategy.
It’s the thirst for detail – much of it historically accurate, some of it simply entertaining – that defines the entire game. It’s on the turn-based campaign map that we see the best of it. It’s now genuinely possible for a region to become war-torn, as enemy units occupy and torch outlying settlements – devastating your infrastructure if your armies remain safely garrisoned inside a fort or walled city. Seeing the columns of smoke rising reminds you how much work you still have to do.
With new depth-of-field effects and wispy clouds floating above it, the campaign map is visually arresting. But it’s imaginatively arresting too, as you zoom out and witness the scale of the thing: from the Mid West of North America to the Far East. Then zoom back in and look at the little details, such as the single faction nations: the Knights of St John occupying Malta, for example, or even a pirate outpost on the Windward Isles of the Caribbean. It’s exquisite.
What is even more thrilling, although currently unseen and untested, is that Creative Assembly intend to make the campaign map multiplayer. This feature won’t ship with the release version of the game, but within a couple of months you and a friend could be taking on the AI nations in a battle for 18th-century dominance. We can’t score a game on what it’s going to contain in the future, of course, but it’s worth mentioning, because hey, it’s exciting.
Of course, most of those layers of government, from construction to policy, can be left to the auto-management of the game, leaving you to perform the most cursory state management and unit production, and to concentrate on the thing that truly beats at the heart of Total War: the battlefield itself. While being a great statesman is very useful, victory will ultimately be decided by war. To take the regions required for a grand campaign win condition will always result in armed conflict, and that means spending some time on the battle map, where a human mind is always better than an automated conflict.
Here too the sheer weight of ideas produced by the Creative Assembly team is in evidence. The battlefields are vastly more detailed than ever before, especially around towns, with the smaller scale details now coming into effect in the form of battlefield defences, use of buildings by troops, and accurate cover. Battles play out more convincingly than in previous games. There’s still some errant unit activity, but we’ve seen little evidence of units sitting around waiting to be killed, or getting lost entirely.
Not perfect, perhaps, but certainly more robust. The harder AI has been an absolute bastard to take on toe-to-toe. Enemy generals work to split your ranks, or to funnel you into the firing line of cannons, or to avoid your flanking tactics. They’ll drive through your lines and then fan back around, attempting to split and isolate your troops. When they’re heavily entrenched, firing from the windows of buildings and harrying your troops with veteran skirmishers, it starts to feel like a more mature game.
The nature of war has changed with Empire’s 18th century setting. Firearms are now standard on the battlefield, and only a few units – certain cavalry, pikemen, some of the foot-soldiers on undeveloped nations – go without gunpowder weapons. Line infantry, the staple unit of European armies, now form a huge part of your army. This is no longer a game of massed cavalry charges. It’s about judging firing arcs and reloading times, and coaxing enemies into a killing field. Yes, a good cavalry charge will solve all kinds of problems, but the tactics are there to counter them. Bayonet-armed infantry forming defensive squares will make short work of a cavalry unit. It’s the mobile artillery - horse-drawn cannons - that can completely throw the balance of any given battle - particularly when you’re faced with sieges. The possibility for battlefield variation is more wide open than ever, and consequently even more engaging.
However, we’re not going to be uncritical. The most crucial problem for us is that the new real-time naval battles, although spectacular, are somewhat unconvincing. Naval combat is a major new addition to the series, which previously featured no real-time ship-to-ship conflict. In Empire you can produce fleets in your ports and then direct them into skirmishes on the high seas. From tiny sloops to ornate high-end flagship galleons, the full range of 18th century naval technology is afloat. The detail on these ships is astonishing: you can zoom right in to watch sailors taking pot-shots at the crew of nearby enemy ships, or see the many decks of guns frenziedly reloading between volleys.
Frustratingly, however, you never feel as if you’re actually fighting a major fleet engagement. The ships do not feel like sailing ships, and although the principles of broadsides, tacking against wind and ship-boarding are all in place, they never coalesce into strategy. The potential for micromanagement just seems to cause the battles to descend into a chaos, and it’s comparatively laborious alongside a land battle. Additionally, fighting a battle with more than just a handful of ships is ludicrously daunting, and rapidly becomes a chore.
In exactly the way that suspension of disbelief is absolute in the land battles, it disappears at sea. It feels as if these sea battles needed to be more like simulations, with the battles playing out and allowing you to make minor adjustments, rather than the peculiar battle-map remixing they’ve turned out as. We spent two long evenings trying to master the art of large-scale fleet combat, but it became clear it was never going to be digestible. While the land battles have been honed to the point of being unmissable, we found ourselves rapidly defaulting to auto-resolve fleet conflicts. If the rest of the game wasn’t quite so triumphant in its execution then this maritime misstep might have genuinely impacted on our verdict. As it is, we think there’s a reason why there are so few naval combat sims, and even fewer successful ones. It’s a deeply difficult task, and Creative Assembly have done the best that their game template would allow.
Nor could we really be without this new facet, because the high seas are so utterly integral to this new game. Leaving the ship battles unseen would not be acceptable, especially when naval engagements are crucial to your economic prowess. This is a game that allows you to play your own hand in all things – and that had to include the naval battles too. We’re glad of this new aspect of the game, but even more pleased we are usually able to skip it. There are other troubles too – the AI turns remain achingly slow, and the micromanagement of things such as regional taxes still isn’t quite clear or flexible enough to make fiddling around down there truly satisfying.
Nevertheless we cannot do anything other than play Empire, compulsively, obsessively. It’s not even a period of history we’ve previously taken much interest in, and we’ve still been overwhelmed with desire to keep on spreading our flag across this glorious, beautifully detailed map. Hell, you’re lucky to get a review at all. If we had our way we’d have been getting on with that land-invasion of India right now, which was well overdue. We’ve only just got around to dealing with that particular situation, thanks to getting caught up in Baghdad for the best part of a decade.
A game could be a high scoring instance of a ludicrously niche genre that only a handful of people will ever get a kick out of, and therefore would not earn the Must Buy. Occasionally though, we give a high score to an instance of a ludicrously niche genre that everyone will get a kick out of. That’s precisely why Empire: Total War gets a Must Buy award.
Mar 6, 2009
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