BUYER BEWARE: The first thing you need to know is that Empire: Total War is suffering from a ton of bugs and technical problems. CTDs, lock ups and in general, the game isn’t working for a lot of people. I’ve yet to run into a single significant issue, so results will vary. This review is based off of the 3/30/09 update.
For ten years now, Creative Assembly has been churning out Total War games, with each installment boggling the mind with its sheer scope. For ten years now, the AI, notorious for being erratically moronic in every installment, is still fully present in Empire: Total War, but does little to actually take away the sensation of being a megalomaniac. If anything, I praise Creative Assembly for pulling that off with aplomb, because rarely have I played a strategy game that feels so rewarding when I really haven’t exerted much of an intellectual effort. Empire: Total War is massive, grand, big, really big, and massively grand. It suffers from fundamental problems that almost undermine the entire point of the game and technical issues that will vary among users. It’s ultimately a game worth playing, and, if you’re new to the series, this is easily the most viable break-in point.
Just like the Total War games before it, the Grand Campaign is where you will spend all your time in. Pick a nation, each with its own unique starting point, and then go on to your military and economic conquest by planning out your macro-scale plans on the turn-based strategy map, handle thousand-man skirmishes on real-time maps, and finally get to have direct control in the brand new naval battles.
The turn-based portion is where you get your Big Picture of Wartime Fun Plan in motion as you recruit men, enter in diplomatic relations, attack opposing nations, and build brothels to keep the public order. Raid trade routes, boot ministers you don’t like, invest time in research and development to gain a technological lead against other nations, and more. This is all familiar territory for anyone who has given previous Total War games an iota of their time and attention, but a couple big changes are introduced.
Regions are now completely decentralized. Everything used to be housed in your region capital, but now, many structures can only be built in villages you accrue as the population in a region increases. Logistically, this can become a total nightmare as your empire expands, because you need to keep track of what has been built where and what can be improved and upgraded, as you browse the building list or scroll through the map of your empire.
This is a problem. Empire: Total War gains little from these decentralized conquests. Opposing armies can attack and take over outlying settlements, but the conquered structure still adds to the region wealth, which means you still collect tax from that settlement, one not under your control. Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. What this could have done was introduce the concept of economic warfare. Imagine taking farms and steel mills and ruining nations by crippling and destroying profit margins. This is what should have happened, but it didn’t. Something of the kind is possible with trade routes, but tax is where most of the income is drawn from, so losing a route is more like losing a minor bonus. As it stands, the decentralized model only simulates the amount of paperwork and approving and disapproving of building proposals any one monarch or president has to go through. I suppose that has its own kind of appeal. It is undeniably fun to manage a huge empire in this way. It is micromanagement, but micromanagement can bring both good and bad connotations with it, and here, it is kind of good.
A completely new addition is the technology tree. While not a new concept, it is for the Total War series, and this is easily the best new gameplay inclusion the turn-based portion has received. Three branches – military, industrial, and philosophical – all have technology and ideas that can be researched through schools to hopefully gain a lead on other nations. Some of it opens up new build options; some, like fire by rank, improves the efficiency of your line infantry tenfold; and some can cut back on your expenditures. It is implemented extremely well.
Diplomacy, an always important facet, feels like it suffered from oversights. It is perfectly functional, and the ability to instantly make contact with other nations rather than sending diplomats is convenient, albeit a bit odd. I imagine guys chatting with jawbones and sealing trade deals while inside the 18th century equivalent of Starbucks… but I digress. It works, and, while nations are intensely adamant with even the most lucrative of proposals, the resulting alliances, region exchanges, and technology trades are important and can and will successfully engineered. The problems have to do with the lack of what seem like obvious functions, like demanding allied nations to keep their troops off your turf or ask recently-allied nations to join your war after you’ve already started one.
There’s a lot to do in this half of the game alone. It’s no Europa Universalis in terms of sheer depth and involvement, but Empire’s turn-based game can stand up as its own stand-alone game. Some of the more minor issues, like the time disparities (it takes nearly three Total War-years to reach America from Europe), are just queer quirks. The game does suffer in the late-game, because you probably will fulfill all victory conditions way before you hit the time limit. Still, it manages to pass the “one more turn” test. You can easily auto-resolve all your battles to fully concentrate on the war and not the battles that are born out of your conquests. However, if you were to do that, you’d miss out on the series’ trademark – the gigantic, colossal real-time battles.
Total War has always been known for its frighteningly huge battles, where you control literally thousands of men to charge right into thousands of others. Obviously, with the time period shift, the way you approach combat is different, because of nearly all units having access to really, really fast projectiles. As much of a game-changer as this might sound like, the way I approached combat didn’t really change. Instead of direct melee, units just fire rounds into one another. Just imagine the muskets are swords that are yards long, and you shouldn’t need to trash all the knowledge you’ve accumulated with previous Total War games. Flanking is still the most effective tactic for victory, and cavalry is slightly less tank-like. As a consequence, these titanic clashes are less exciting to watch, because all they’re doing is lining up and shooting each other. At least it is appropriately bizarre, especially if you know little of this time period, and the scale of said bizarreness still makes quite a spectacle of this strange, obtuse time in the history of warfare.
There are some parts of the real-time segment that feel incomplete, however. The town invasions are laughably pathetic. Towns are cheaply put together with generic town assets pasted onto the map in some arbitrary formation, with no roads or any signs of basic infrastructure. It’s kind of funny, if only for its sheer incompleteness, but from a gameplay standpoint, this barely impacts the game. Forts are more problematic than incomplete, because path-finding problems make them more death traps than protective sanctuaries. It’s hard to wonder why these features exist in the game, because of how undeveloped and unpolished they are.
Naval battles finally make an appearance, and this is something that either needed more time to develop or just needed a complete redesign. Wind is the crucial factor. You will need to fuel your sails and to just make a 3-point turn takes time. Wind is what the naval battles are entirely based around. So, it should all work, except its gameplay foundation is severely borked. Path-finding is a major issue, and ordering a ship to just attack another will not get you any results. Your ship will float around aimlessly, without ever taking the direction of the wind into consideration. This is an aspect of the game I so want to see work correctly. In the brief moments when it does, the naval battles are refreshing tactical exercises, and they look spectacular. Using formations definitely helps, but there are too many elements that are too unreliable for this slice of the game to be genuinely fun. As of now, I’d rather slam on the auto-resolve.
The two sub-genres are direct antitheses of one another, but they meld into one logical and cohesive whole. It just makes sense to play the game on a turn-based map when you want to look at the macro scale of your conflict, and the battles that culminate over time in your war effort should be played over on a real-time playfield, if only for the punctual excitement this provides.
This can all initially be daunting, but Creative Assembly eases the player in with a very long and layered tutorial campaign, Road to Independence. Consisting of four episodes, each one will take place in a certain period of time before opening up to the founding of the 13 colonies. The first episode will provide you a primer of the basics, like the harrowing task of adjusting taxes or teaching you the relevance of troop morale, before it throws you into a full-blown Grand Campaign, where you play as America. It’s extremely well done, and it will teach you everything you need to know before you dive into the other nations.
You can imagine with a game so intensely focused on tactics and strategy that shoddy AI could completely undo everything Creative Assembly was shooting for. For the most part, it comes awfully close. The AI is flawed in some way or another in every single aspect of the game. Nations you are at war with are extremely bi-polar with their actions – occasionally, they’ll stun with stacks of infantry attacking many regions at once, but mostly, they sit back, harassing your outlying settlements rather than directly attacking your capital. It’ll never call peace even when all they have is just one region bound to their name. Arguably the biggest blunder is the lack of naval invasions, making many of my coastal regions completely safe. The list drags on. On the real-time side, the AI fares much better, but it has a tendency to get confused when it is flanked on both sides. The idea of retreating and reforming doesn’t seem to be coded into your enemies’ thought process.
And yet, it’s still a whole lot of fun to completely clean house. It’s something when my Sweden campaign starts with two regions and then takes over most of Western Europe in a matter of 65 years. There’s a satisfaction in zooming out in the strategy map, knowing full well that my empire won’t be displayed in its entirety, because it’s just so dang big. The stories and narratives that are naturally generated from just playing alone warrant a purchase, if only to you show your friends how awesome you are, and how awesome your system is.
Empire is a system hog if you plan on cranking up all those settings. It’s almost hard to justify it for the land battles, because when zoomed out, it’s hard to judge if Empire has a true graphical advantage over Medieval II. Without a doubt, Empire looks great even on long, but the naval encounters are something else. These look fantastic. The undulating waves, the way massive frigates capsize and explode – really amazing. A great-looking game on all fronts, but the performance leaves something to be desired. And for a game that advertises Intel’s i7 processors, you’d think it would have multi-core support. No such luck.
The sound design in the Total War series has always been excellent, but in Empire, it’s slightly less so. The sound effects don’t have the same amount of attention to detail or loudness. When everyone gets locked down in melee, the audio doesn’t really convey the craziness and chaos that’s going on in the game. You can sort of hear bayonets clashing and men yelling their guts out, but it’s nowhere near the standards set by its predecessors. Strangely enough, the game’s loading screens house the best battle sounds in the entire game. I don’t really get it, but if Creative Assembly put as much effort into the actual sounds in the game as they did for the loading screens, then these audio criticisms would be non-existent. Fortunately, Total War continues to use some really awesome music. Fantastic atmospheric and melodic strings grace the strategy map, while and bombastic epicness pounds on in the real-time shoot’em-ups.
Empire: Total War is a lot of game. There’s a multi-player mode, which fluctuates between working and not working, but really, this game is meant to be played for its sprawling single-player campaign. It’s a game that’s springing leaks in every conceivable layer of its design, but it somehow sails on, always sure of what it’s setting out to do, even if it falls short in some areas. Maybe you should hold off until a lot of the path-finding, AI and other technical problems are ironed out, but what’s out there now is an ambitious and huge product, that’s easy to admire and just as easy to enjoy.