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Sleek, profound, and thoroughly addictive, Empire is undeniably Total War's defining chapter, so far...
- A perfect blend of turn-based and real-time strategy.
- Unit compass system is inspired.
- Fantastic presentation.
- Naval battles fail to deliver.
- Looses the drive a little towards the end.
- Occasionally iffy performance.
Setting sail towards largely uncharted waters there’s no denying a new title from The Creative Assembly is one of a few PC titles worth getting excited about, content in the knowledge that it sits quite comfortably on the format and offers an experience unlikely to ever be replicated on the consoles.
Having conquered Rome and emerged through the dark ages Empire continues the series legacy, fast forwarding through time to the early modern era of the 1700s and with it the discovery of the New World, vast technological advances, along with the rise of liberty and democracy. Posing the challenge of global domination by taking charge of a particular nation and engaging in a hearty mix of tactical might, shrewd diplomacy, and devious espionage, Empire: Total War offers near endless levels of scope and scale in a deeply enthralling and satisfyingly time consuming experience.
Splitting the game between the traditional two phases, Empire is played out between turns on the global map by establishing settlements, improving technology, amassing armies, setting taxes, securing trade routes, and gradually gaining control over the 18th century map using whatever devious means necessary. The second phase bears closer similarities to an RTS, coming into play whenever two factions come into contact and decide to settle their differences on the battlefield – or the open waters. It’s essentially the same format that has governed the Total War series since day one, however, despite the similarities, Empires undoubtedly sits on the “new and improved” shelf. Major changes to the turn-based campaign map result in a more efficient approach, yet one that offers enough depth to bewilder even a Total War fan - initially it's all wonderfully overwhelming. Somehow (and we’re not entirely sure how), The Creative Assembly has managed to streamline the entire process and take the slight chore out of Medieval and Rome, but at the same time added a tremendous amount of new features and depth. Total War has often fallen short in the strategy offerings compared to the likes of Civilization and certain other more dedicated 4X offerings, however there’s little denying the series has come of age and can now hold its own against the more serious alternatives.
The campaign map has changed quite considerably. Buildings (barracks, farms, etc...) are now spread individually across each region instead of being located in each town or city, making it easier to spot exactly what you have and the respective stages of development. Equally the process of recruiting troops has undergone a vast reorganisation, resulting in a unified setup that makes it much easier to keep your generals' numbers well stocked. The tech tree governing advances in infrastructure, politics, agriculture, and military, offers the same compelling sense of progress and reward, unlocking new technologies which in turn provide crucial benefits on the battlefield (advanced formations), industrial revolutions (steam engine) and philosophical advances (abolition of slavery). Like Medieval II before it, the tech-tree underpins the entire Total War experience expertly, the key to balancing Empire's many facets requiring a close eye and careful management.
Although tax rates, trade routes, and the new political elements provide a near-perfect take on the turn-based strategy, there's little getting away from the fact that war got you places in the 18th century, where the battlefield itself is littered with equally considerable improvements. Whereas battles were a ferocious clash of brute force in previous Total War titles, the increasing role of gunpowder with the invention of cannons and the musket brings about a significant change to the battlefield tactics. It’s much more a case of holding the line and keeping a steady nerve, yet knowing the significance of when to order the final charge. One of the smaller but nevertheless appreciated introductions is the unit compass system, which further enhances the significance Total War places on tactical manoeuvring. Effectively allowing groups of units to advance, full back, and rotate, the setup provides a highly effective ability to move a wider selection of units while retaining a crucial sense of formation. Empire also boasts a pleasing degree of interaction with the terrain with walls providing defensive cover, horses and troops leaping over obstacles and cannons taking advantage from a variety of defensive installations.
Unfortunately despite the promise of fully featured sea battles naval combat largely fails to impress and ultimately left us returning back to the old days of automatically generating the results. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but naval combat largely fails to capture the tactical significance that defines the traditional land battles. Although important aspects such as wind direction and broadside fire are aptly handled, coordinating attack between fleets is a fiddly affair confused by AI movement decisions that would have Nelson rocking in his grave. Often breaking down into individual skirmishes, it's quite a difficult challenge to maintain the line of battle, which, while probably indicative of the complications of naval combat, ultimately fails to offer the satisfyingly grand tactical majesty of Empire’s land based warfare.
AI, however, by and large is suitably impressive and rarely demonstrates any of the foibles occasionally levelled at Medieval II. Although the upper hand is always gained by keeping a close eye over each individual unit, we’ve been suitably impressed by the decisions that units will make when left to their own devices. A cannon firing upon enemy troops decided to switch targets when an ill-informed friendly cavalry charge burst into the same area. Equally the opponent AI packs plenty of ingenuity and always manages to cause a surprise when you least expect it, which can also be levelled at the shrewdness demonstrated on the campaign map. Fortunately Empire also appears to suffer less from the dreaded bugs and glitches that thwarted Medieval II upon release. Although we’ve incurred the occasional game crash and stuttering performance during intense battles on a rig that should be able to play this without too many problems, by and large Empires offers a strong and tight experience.
The addition of a narrative driven mode labelled The Road to Independence provides a rewarding introductory experience for Total War fans and newcomers alike. With a definitive structure to provide guidance during the early stages of the four chapters, The Road To Independence chronicles the discovery of America, the French and Indian War, and ultimately the Americans decision to usurp foreign control and establish a country of their own with the War of Independence. Scripted superbly enough to threaten balding history teachers pay packet, the initial list of tasks serve as an ideal tutorial of sorts to the Total War gameplay, before ultimately opening up into something closer to the traditional epic proportions of the Grand Campaign.
Featuring three theatres of operations – America, Europe and India – and with a considerable number of nations to guide to global supremacy, Empire's Grand Campaign offers an enticing variety of challenges to undertake in a thoroughly classic “one more turn” addictive manner. Although multiplayer is currently the traditional offering of skirmishes on land or sea with Steam functionality and game rankings allegedly set to drag it up to date, the promise of the complete Total War campaign experience finally emerging into multiplayer with a post-release update is something we can’t wait to get our hands on.