Empire: Total War

For months before Creative Assembly finally revealed to us the identity of their new game, we joked with them, back and forth, about its setting. “Hey guys - what can you tell us about Caveman: Total War?” we’d ask, and they’d deftly sidestep the issue, no matter how many beers we’d poured down their throats. “How’s WWII: Total War looking?” we’d pester down the phone. Another chuckle and “no comment” from their well-drilled PR machine. Yet we had our own theory about where this mighty series, which is almost unique in managing to successfully combine battlefields with nation-level strategising, might be heading next.

While the Total War games have always done very well in Europe, they have yet to really crack the US - the holy grail of the PC gaming business. Games set largely in ancient Europe didn’t grab the attention of the strategy masses in the new world. So we feared that their new game would be set around the American Civil War, in order to get Americans interested, and leave out the lands that has made the series so compelling. We shouldn’t have expected so little from the world’s foremost wargame developers.

In fact, although by setting the game from 1700 to about 1820 they’ve sidestepped the Civil War, the game’s partial focus on the Americas should attract more American interest, especially as it covers the more historically and politically interesting War of Independence. We had foolishly anticipated a smaller, tighter focus. Instead, Creative Assembly are giving us most of the world as our military, economic and political playground. But it was only when we visited Creative Assembly this month that we realised how wrong many of our expectations were.

Compared to the bloody, spectacular Roman era and the dramatic, world-shaping Medieval period, we had preconceptions of the 18th century as a rather tedious time. Not much happened between 1700 and 1800, right? After talking to Game Designer Jamie Ferguson, we realised what we’d missed. “This is the time of the industrial revolution - it’s a time of massive change.” True enough: the development of industrial machinery fuelled the economic growth and drive for power that led Britain, among other European countries, to expand their influence across the globe. Yet the time-frame seems tight, surely?

Lead Designer James Russell explains the decision to make Empire cover such a relatively brief period. “It’s just one century, which I suppose for a Total War title is relatively focused (Medieval II covers almost five centuries - Ed) but there’s more dynamism in that century than any era we’ve covered. Europe is completely transforming, from an agrarian backwater to a political powerhouse. Europe projects its power into India, the Americas are developing into separate countries, empire-building is taking place... so much is changing around the world.”

But there’s another reason why CA chose this time frame, and you can see it in the spectacular seaborne screenshots that adorn these pages. As James Russell puts it: “It’s the ultimate setting to showcase naval battles.” Indeed, they’re essential to the period. Dominance of the seas enabled control of the global trade that fuelled expansion and expensive wars. In previous games, watery warfare was handled with unsatisfying auto-resolve systems. It’s been a thorn in Creative Assembly’s side, as Jamie Ferguson admits. “We looked at doing naval combat for previous titles - but to be honest, it’s incredibly difficult. We never had the time before but for this game it was essential to have it, and for it to be exciting.”