If you ever find yourself at war with a nation who happens to have an ally with a few key cities right on your border, be sure to bribe that ally. And if it is gifts you're sending don't settle for a bag of coins send them a thoroughbred horse, or better yet, some crown jewel of sorts. Of course sending one of the more expensive gifts your nation can afford may leave you with fewer funds to shore up your armed forces, but being at war with one nation is better than being at war with that same nation and all their friends. So keep that in mind next time you find yourself in an 18th century setting as ruler of an empire. Just remember, loyalty can be bought regardless of era.
Total War is a series most PC gamers are familiar with, especially those with a soft spot for strategy gaming. Hint: it's the one with thousands of units on screen with epic, semi-realistic, real-time battles. Battles so intense, they give a sense of 'war' unlike anything else in the genre. Totally! Ahem, so, with the fate of thousands of AI units and victory at large at stake, outcomes more often than not hinge on your overall strategy. Flanking, formation, and decoys, are but some of the key tactical decisions that need to be made in the midst of a heated battle. So you may be asking yourself why the opening paragraph to this review sounds like a description of one of the thousands of possible choices found in a Civilisation game (or Idiots Guide to 18th Century Diplomacy).
Well, that gift-giving scenario comes from Empire: Total War's robust campaign map (and funnily enough happened to occur during a war between America and a tribe of Native Americans) where players essentially take part in a Civilisation-like overview of their empire. That is, moving armies, building up cities, roads, taking part in diplomacy, trade, and quite a bit more. Although comparing one thing to another as the basis of a description is pretty lazy, the biggest change to this new Total War game would be the deep and complex empire simulation aspect. It adds a layer and feel that can only be described as, well, "Civilisation-ey". Now, the 'campaign-view' thingy has been part of the Total War series for a while now, but never like this. It's quite complex and like its comparison's namesake, really immerses the player in virtually every aspect of their empire.
The reason for the comparison will become evident after you get a feel for the game, which by the way, will take quite a long time. So before we dive off into why Empire: Total War is an impressive achievement, which it most certainly is, there's probably one way to best sum up the experience, and that is overall Empire: Total War is essentially two games in one. On one side you have the deep and rewarding battle engine where 18th Century warfare is brought to vivid life. Simply picture a scene with thousands of infantry units firing their muskets at charging enemy soldiers who only minutes earlier were dispersed by a few well placed artillery shots, and you'll get the idea. On the other side, you have diplomacy steeped in historical accuracy (to a degree that doesn't suck out the 'fun') with turn-based empirical governance. Creating and managing trade agreements with neighbouring empires, building schools to research new technologies, using spies to infiltrate enemy cities, are but a few of the activities you can carry out in a single turn. These two sides of the game are equally intensive, and equally engrossing. Developer Creative Assembly is obviously aware of this and give players the choice to simulate either aspect of the game - to a degree of course.
Empire: Total War is not a game for everyone; it's complicated and will take hours to come to grips with. In fact, this time around there's also a story-driven campaign dubbed 'The Road to Independence' that takes part in separate episodes/acts where players take control of rebel British forces and eventually American troops towards the declaration of independence, and the creation of the U.S.A. This campaign eases players into almost every aspect of the game (with help from the in-built advisor system) with everything from battle tactics, recruitment, trading and diplomacy covered intuitively as part of the story progression. However, there's a lot of ground to cover. So much in fact, it will take most players close to 15 hours or so to 'learn the ropes'.
It's definitely a nice addition, and the story-driven campaign adds weight to the series' renown for realism. But more importantly it's also a great training ground to ease new and rusty players into the new 18th Century setting. We're talking thousands of ranged, melee, mounted and artillery units at your disposal and each with their own subset of classes and skills. Even without the fantastic visual overhaul, this is definitely the most impressive Total War yet. Add to this the much hyped naval battles, which although are a little too complicated, you'll begin to realise why Empire requires 15GB of disc space to install. So, once you help Georgey Washingtonface and his pals do their thing to pave the way for a Bush-filled future, you should be ready to tackle the meat of the game - the Grand Campaign. Total War's meat and potatoes, if you will.
Ah Grand Campaign. Why are you so grand? Seriously though, you're massive. With countless unique nations to choose from and three theatres to wage war in, being, Europe, America, and India, the varying degrees of outcome, identity and strategy are virtually limitless. For example, as a first foray into the Grand Campaign you might choose to keep things a little simple by choosing to focus your efforts into a single theatre like India or Eastern Europe, letting the rest of the world sort itself out. It's probably wise to ease yourself into it so for the following demonstration, we'll choose India, mainly because their general's ride on elephants.
Ok, so fighting against the Mughal to recapture the continent of India may seem like a simple enough task, especially when you consider that the Mughal are essentially one centralised force. And although it may be surrounded by water, India can seem pretty self-contained compared to the likes of Western Europe and the Americas. Its shape lends itself quite well to planning the somewhat hostile expansion of the Marathas Empire. That is of course if the pesky Europeans with their techno music can leave you alone and not be lured into the region by little things like 'vast quantities of resources both agricultural and shiny'. With that in mind you may find yourself having to make a difficult choice quite early on. Do you nurture and allow trade with multiple European nations to fund your war to reclaim India? Will the cost of losing key cities and ports and allowing them a foothold into the region be one worth bearing? Difficult to answer really, and the answer itself may contain no region or logic in the context of the game's setting.
Quick look! Portugal has a port in Goa, the place where tripped out trance music was born, let's kick them out! The good thing about being the ruler of an Empire is you rarely have to explain your actions.
The Grand Campaign can be played at varying degrees of difficulty and thankfully at varying lengths too, which puts a cap on the number of years or turns and also gives the player certain goals in their conquests. It's a great way to re-write history too, allowing certain nations like Sweden to take control of entire continents, however unlikely that may sound.
In terms of length the short campaign can be completed in one (really, really long) sitting, with the longer more open campaigns taking much, much longer. As mentioned earlier the varying degrees of outcome and identity essentially means that no two games would be alike, that is, two people could pick up Empire: Total War and initially have similar yet very different experiences. So to effectively list all the games features, strengths, weaknesses, is somewhat pointless. Empire: Total War is a game that, if for you, will keep you occupied for days, weeks, and even months.
'Epic' is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit, especially in the strategy/simulation genre, but its use here has never felt more apt. Empire: Total War is Game Of The Year material, and if you're a fan of the series it's a no-brainer. In fact as resource intensive as this game is, and it will put your CPU, RAM, and GPU through their paces, it scales quite well and runs surprisingly more stable than recent PC fare.
With a game of this magnitude, there's bound to be some shortcomings. But overall these are few and far between, and will most likely be patched in the coming weeks and months. But in the end, the sheer scope of the game makes it a strong contender for best 'war-game' ever made. There's a laundry list of sections not mentioned here that add additional layers to the experience. There's a multiplayer battle-mode, skirmishes, and even some historical battle scenarios to take part in. Empire: Total War is a difficult game to review, mainly due to what one considers a 'review' to be. If that is to play a game in its entirety and comment on each individual aspect, then realistically the first reviews of Empire: Total War should be made available sometime next year.
As it stands, Empire: Total War is an amazing achievement. It feels like the natural progression of years of accumulated cutting-edge technology and gameplay. It definitely deserves your attention, with Creative Assembly cementing themselves as a developer at the forefront of large scale RTS and simulation gaming.