Ever since I first learned about Empire: Total War at the German Games Convention in 2007, it's been at the top of my most-wanted list. Creative Assembly's Total War is one of the most compelling historical strategy series in the PC catalog, so it's fair to say that my expectations were high. We've been playing the final version for over a week now and can say that, with the exception of a few rough spots, this game has succeeded in creating an immensely engaging experience that captures the grand national strategies and battlefield tactics of the 18th century. And though it refines several elements of the Total War formula, it also offers up several new surprises.
If you've been out of the loop altogether on this one, Empire combines the thoughtful turn-based grand strategy of 4X games with the urgent intensity of real time historical tactical games. Players alternate between the roles of national leader and battlefield commander. One moment you'll be setting tax policies, paying for dock construction and negotiating alliances. The next moment, you'll be on the field of battle, maneuvering your infantry lines and ordering massive cavalry charges. Empire focuses that action on Europe and the two colonial theaters of North America and India in the 18th century.
Despite the numerous additions to the series, Total War veterans will feel right at home here, and the numerous tool tips and tutorial messages will explain how the new elements of Empire fit within the existing scheme. The new Road to Independence campaign begins with a series of limited, scripted objectives that will guide you through some of the basic concepts of the game, from fighting off a Native raiding party at the start, to waging battles on the campaign map, to using ships to move your land units around obstacles. After the first handful of missions in the new campaign, you're dropped into the American theater, where you'll learn some of the finer points of empire management.
Though I'm strictly a grand campaign kind of player, I found a lot to love about the more directed experience of the Road to Independence campaign. First, the storytelling and overall presentation is excellent. The cutscenes establish a firm context for the battles, and makes them more than just isolated exercises in strategic thinking. There's a considerable emotional element as well; that first shot of the American flags at Bunker Hill really got to me. Knowing how the battle turns out, it was especially motivating and helped to put me in the right mood when, with only one army and one city, I'm asked to secure the entire seaboard from Georgia to Maine
The Grand Campaign doesn't have as many emotionally effective story elements but it does benefit from a much wider scope, in terms of both time and geographic area. Here players will have the chance to lead one of the main powers of Europe through the entire 18th century. Leaders of each nation will have to consider war and peace, trade and taxation, government and technology, infrastructure and recruitment, alliances and expansion, and a host of other competing national priorities. And with several other major powers (and many more lesser ones) competing for the same resources, armed conflict is inevitable.
Each playable nation has their own unique starting situation and the game weighs the requirements for victory based on the resources and challenges you have at the start. England, for instance, will need to develop a strong navy to protect her shores. While this might leave her unable to field a large enough army to compete for glory on the European mainland, she have ample opportunity to exploit the uncertain situations in North America and India to create a large overseas empire. Austria's situation in central Europe requires a different approach. With Ottoman invasions threatening the South and Prussian ambitions quickly growing in the North, she needs to field large armies and maintain reliable alliances.
The nations all have a number of specific territories they must capture in order to claim victory, which gives the game a bit of direction. The English, for instance, need to hold Gibraltar, Egypt, Malta, and a couple of other specific territories in order to win when the 200th turn ends in 1799. They also need to obtain a number of extra provinces of their choosing. Even then, there are some short term goals for the English. If they can strike out against the French in Canada and take out the Cherokee in the south, the entire colonial protectorate, from the Carolinas up through Maine, will merge with the British empire. The victory conditions can be scaled back for a shorter game, but even this lasts a full 100 turns, so it's likely to take at least a day or two, and longer if you want to make the most of each of your strategic decisions.
In terms of finding the right balance for your empire, things are a bit more complicated than in previous Total Wars. Medieval 2 asked players to shift each province towards support of the military or the economy, but Empire takes things much further than that. Each territory is dominated by a single regional capital that you can upgrade with better barracks, theaters or government houses, but there are also a number of outlying resources you'll need to develop as well. You might have a province that contains a farm, or an iron mine, or a port, and you'll need to spend money to develop these in specific ways. One port might be focused on fishing, for instance, while another could focus on trade or shipbuilding. As a region develops, new towns will spring up nearby and they can be upgraded with tech-researching colleges. So each region will have a number of smaller towns and farms within it that can be targeted by your enemies.
The good news is that the developers have increased the complexity of the strategic mode without necessarily increasing the management burden. To be sure, the game does require a lot of time and attention of the player, and the later stages of the game still bog down in lots of repetitive administrative tasks, but this time around many of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks have been streamlined tremendously. When one of your regional areas can be improved, you'll see a small golden hammer spinning above it. Better still, when you select a regional improvement, you can scroll through all the corresponding areas in your empire and upgrade them at once. This is a particularly useful feature if you happen to have researched a new farm technology and want to put it into practice throughout your empire.
Trade has been simplified now so you won't be marching merchants all around the map. Now trade is handled through the development of trading posts that let you buy improved facilities that produce the goods you need for trade. In order to trade them with other nations, you simply have to use the diplomacy screen to open up a general trading agreement. Once that's done the AI handles the rest, shuttling your goods off by land and sea and selling them for profit.
Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't some compelling ways to interact with the trade system. Because the goods are transported along specific routes, you can see where the goods are flowing. Mouse over a trading line and you'll even see how much cash it's generating for each nation that's using it. From there it's a simply matter to drop your fleets on a trade route (or even blockade an enemy port) to keep the cash from reaching your enemies.
There are also a few separate trading theaters in the game and you'll need to use your navies to claim and protect them. If you manage to claim a few spots along the Ivory Coast or the coast of Brazil, you can park your merchant ships there and begin raking in the cash. In all it's a much more active kind of trading system that focuses more on direct conflict and competition between the players than on the boring placement of merchants in previous Total War games. And because of the added importance that fleets play in this new system, the naval side of the game is considerably more interesting and influential than before.
With the merchants removed from the game, the diplomats followed. Diplomacy is now controlled through a single interface that lets you negotiate with other nations any time you want. You no longer need to dispatch a diplomat in order to talk to another country. And with so many interactions going on at once and so much distance between the nations involved, it's a welcome change. Unfortunately, as convenient as the whole affair is, there are still some options that are missing and some strange balance issues. For one thing, it seems that your own success inspires other nations to hate you, and I've found that it's harder to make friends when I'm doing well than it is when I've got my back against the wall. Secondly, the AI never really comes back with a counterproposal when they reject an offer, so players aren't ever really going to be sure what they need to do to sweeten the pot.
Spies, called Rakes here, seem to have managed to stay in the game somehow, despite their limited utility. I like the idea of having distinct spy units on the map to infiltrate enemy cities and assassinate rival generals, but their ability to gather information or to turn the tide of a battle seems a bit too limited. We almost rather would have seen a system like that in Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword where players simply fund an overall espionage effort against a rival and then slowly acquire more intelligence over time.
There are plenty of other ways the game has smoothed out the rougher spots of empire management. Taxes are now controlled across the entire empire by a single pair of sliders, one for the nobility and one for the commoners, so you won't need to go through each and every province, setting their tax levels independently. The tax screen even shows you the levels of unrest across your entire empire, so you'll be able to tell if high taxes are a problem. If you require a bit of fine-tuning, then you can go to the most riotous provinces and simply exempt them from taxes altogether until things stabilize.
Your fleets and armies and agents are all shown in a single list now that you can check to make sure that each and every element in your military has been given orders. The lists not only shows where the unit is and how much movement it has left, but also gives you a chance to jump straight to that unit. That way you won't waste time searching and searching for a province called Moose Factory. There's less shuffling of troops overall now, thanks to the ability to recruit units at the armies themselves. If you order reinforcements at an army, those orders will be transmitted to nearby towns and the newly created units will march automatically to the recruiting army. It's not a fast process, but it definitely removes a lot of the time the player used to spend doing it all by hand.
Rome: Total War opened up the provinces so players could move armies all through a territory, seizing passes and bypassing unimportant forts to get at the real objectives. Since Empire introduces meaningful structures outside of the regional capital, there's more of an opportunity to raid an enemy province without ever touching the capital. You can simply march in, burn down a farm, capture a mine, or eject his ships from a port.
Because these battles aren't so focused on the main strongholds, you'll find that Empire offers a lot more battles out in the open than we've ever seen in the series before. The previous games always seemed to progress from siege to siege as the enemies you were fighting always preferred to fight from behind their strongholds. This new focus on battles in the countryside also means a lot more variety in terms of locations as well. You might be fighting over a field of square farm plots, or beside a small native settlement or against the backdrop of a small college town. When you throw in the spectacular time of day and weather effects, it really makes each battlefield feel unique.
As deep as the grand strategy of Empire is, the battlefield action is just as thrilling in an entirely different way. You'll maneuver your infantry lines around the battlefield and fire volley after volley at your enemies or fix bayonets for a melee clash. Meanwhile, your artillery are parked high on a hill behind your lines, sending cannon fire crashing into enemy formations. Your cavalry might be preparing for a massive charge to break a weak spot in the enemy's lines, or they might be circling around to take the enemy artillery batteries unaware. Rangers could be crouching in the forests, waiting to spring an ambush, while musketeers are garrisoned in a nearby house that gives them not only a field of view of an approaching enemy unit, but also a bit of protection as well.
The combination of brutality and panache that characterizes the warfare of this period is well represented here and presented in a way that captures the cinematic brilliance of it all without ever falling back on obvious exaggerations or pretense. It's one thing to appreciate the reloading animation of the artillery crews or the puffs of smoke from musket volleys, but watching soldiers actually get trampled under the hooves of horses while other members of the line vault over fences to get out of the way really brings the battles to life in a way that exceeds even the high standard set by the previous games in the series. The animations are spot on, and the varied appearances of your soldiers lend a real sense of life to the game.
Things have improved in terms of gameplay as well. The formation controls work much better now, thanks particularly to the addition of locked groupings that allow you to maintain the relative positions of different units when you move them or change their facing. It's not always easy to place your large groups on the sometimes irregular terrain you'll find in Empire, but the interface makes it easy to make adjustments on the fly.
The interface is less obtrusive than in previous games but still offers access to all the same commands for movements, attacks and formation changes. There are also plenty of new commands, like ordering your artillery to fire at the geography itself, so you can take out unoccupied buildings and even fire in front of an enemy formation to stop them from advancing. There's also a slew of new military upgrades you can research that will allow you to build trenches, fire with the bayonets attached, and even build protective walls around your artillery pieces. The battlefield AI shows a keen grasp of all these new features and will definitely keep you on your toes, even when you have the advantage.
Another big change in Empire is the addition of full naval battles. This was the main selling point for the game when we first heard about it, because it was an element that had been neglected in previous games in the series and because it was such an important part of the time period that Empire covers. First, we should say that the sea battles in Empire are visually stunning. The presence of men actively working on the decks, the flutter of the sails and rigging, the natural motion of the water, and the incredible explosion of flame and splinters when the cannons strike their targets make the naval battles every bit as visually pleasing as the land battles. There's nothing like positioning the camera low to the deck or the water and getting a sense of what the battles must look like from the viewpoint of a participant.
There's a gripping game there as well. Trying to line your ships up correctly, making the most of the wind and choosing your targets appropriately is very rewarding, particularly when the outcome is factored into your larger plans on the campaign map. Losing the protecting force of your naval invasion is a bitter, bitter blow. The controls are relatively simple with options to set sail state, shot type and lock into formations.
However, the formations and pathfinding leave a lot be desired. We've ordered ships to form into line astern and had them simply all turn 180 degrees and head off in the opposite direction from the enemy. Even trying to set separate targets and move paths for your ships can sometimes lead to chaotic routes that actually change from second to second during the course of the battle. I understand that factors like wind direction, turning rate and the presence of other ships makes it tough to plot an accurate course during a crowded battle, but on those occasions where the system breaks down, it can leave you completely confused as to what your ships are even attempting to do.
Of course, battles are heard as much as seen, and Empire doesn't disappoint there either. The roar of the cannons and the clash of sabers and bayonets are more than enough to lend an air of realism to the game. Tramping boots and the shouts of your men add another dimension to the combat as well, but for some reason, the infantry sound like a cavalry charge on my machine. Maybe I just have the bass up too high on my speakers, but it is a little distracting. In any case, it's worth paying attention to the details. If you listen carefully enough, you'll even notice that all the armies speak in their native languages. The music fits the martial tone of the game perfectly and definitely helps players get into the mood for the setting.
As you might expect, Empire Total War is a bit of a system hog, so you'll need a fairly powerful machine to get the most out of it. I've been running it mostly on a Quad 2.66GHz processor with 3GB of RAM and a GeForce 8800 GTX and have been able to enjoy most of the visual effects without compromising the frame rate too much. Battles still load a bit slowly, but the performance is generally good even with lots of action on the screen.
With a game like Empire Total War, I can't possibly cover all the cool features gamers will experience when they start playing. There are elective cabinet positions in your government, class friction in your cities, the ability to increase pressure to adapt enlightenment ideals, loads of pirates to deal with in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and dozens of other features that I'd love to talk about, but the Poles have just invaded Austria and I've got transports full of Hessian infantry ready to hit the beaches in Estonia.
©2009-02-27, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved