Empire: Total War – hands-on

Talk about a journalistic conflict of interest: We’re the British. Across a thin stretch of oceanic blue sits the American fleet. I’m a Brit, but I’m writing for an American magazine. There’s not even time to wonder about how the Americans got hold of a proper fleet of their own. With allegiances torn, how does one proceed in such a situation? There’s only one answer: as swiftly as possible. For any fan of Creative Assembly’s magisterial strategy series, hands-on time with the long-awaited addition of real-time fleet combat to a Total War game overwhelms petty colonial alliances.

Naval combat works and feels absolutely like a logical extension of Total War’s maximalist mandate. Ships’ destinations are charted with a mouse click, with the goal of manipulating fields-of-fire to line up much-desired broadsides (directing the cannon-laden flanks of your ship toward the enemy). In an improvement to the grouping systems of previous games, ships can be set not only to group, but to maintain a formation in group. I watch as my British fleets manage to trap the Americans between them, shredding sails and bringing down masts with chain-shot, thinning out the crew with grapeshot, and punching great dirty holes through timbers with dependable solid shot.

It brings to mind Sid Meier’s Pirates! as a strategy game, but with much more realism: the primary goal is to line up as many of your cannons as possible to fire at the right moment. While automatic firing and circling options allow you simply to set a target and step back as your ships engage, you can choose to get more hands-on, such as turning off autofire to unleash a storm of cannonballs at the perfect moment. But I’m not bothering with that on this first playthrough - for now, concentrating on positioning my ships is enough to worry about without forgetting to fire my cannons or some other embarrassing newbie-admiral mistake.

That positioning is crucial, first, because my big ships flanking the Americans allow for a series of devastating volleys, and second, because one of my smaller vessels is about to be rammed by one of the American galleons. Luckily, the wind is with her and she manages to dodge the collision, just barely. This would have been the time to experiment with boarding an enemy vessel, but I decide that beating a speedy retreat is a little wiser. It’s not possible to put boarding planks down between ships of vastly different sizes, so only a limited number of my troops would be able get over via ropes. A handful of men from a tiny ship trying to take over the hulking thing that almost crushed them isn’t exactly tactically sound.

It’s also clear from their morale rating that the British troops would rather do anything than board that enemy ship - and that’s the hallmark of a Total War game. These ships are not robotic vehicles happy to circle and bombard one another into splinters and shark-bait - as in the series’ land battles, the concept of morale is fully implemented here. As their ships are battered and their crew killed, the troops are perfectly capable of turning tail, breaking from the line of battle, and heading toward the horizon.

Luckily, it looks like the British can stay put in their own vessels. A glance at the American fleet reveals it’s in severe trouble - and I don’t just mean its ships. The health-bar representation of the ship’s state is only an approximation of the actual harm suffered by the vessel. While the meters above one ship were informing me that its guns on one side were mostly disabled, when I zoomed in - and this is a Total War game, so zooming in is half the point - I could observe individually destroyed cannons and decks strewn with corpses. Yup. That’s a disabled ship. The watery battlefield rapidly filled as the American Man-of-Wars started to sink. Sailors jumped ship into the ocean, bobbing with realistic buoyancy (alas, the sharks aren’t in yet). Victory to the British! To salve the slighted American spirit, you should be aware that when the same conflict was demoed earlier, the (British) Associate Producer, Mark Sutherns, was sunk with embarrassing haste.