Empire: Total War
War Shouldn't Be this much fun. War should be hell and suffering, the debasement of mankind. It should be scooping beans from a can with the rib of a dead comrade then swallowing it into your dysenteric stomach. But not fun. Only Empire, Creative Assembly's most ambitious and epic Total War game to date, is just that. Fun. How do I know this? Because I've just spent two hours playing the latest code, and as my fingers fumble to strike the correct keys to type these words, I can't help feel that Empire has the potential to utterly eclipse its illustrious predecessors.
During my playtest, I sampled Empire's Road to Independence campaign: a series of bite-sized, story-driven episodes based on the American War of Independence. Divided into four chapters, The Road to Independence is likely to offer a more focused experience for newcomers daunted by the prospect of diving straight into the largest Total War turn-based campaign to date. Episode one begins circa 1607, with you marshalling the British as they try to gain a foothold in the US and hold off the natives, who've impertinently lived there for many thousands of years without a letter of permission from His Royal Highness.
Chapter two sees the natives on the back foot, but augmented by the military might of the French. (Stop sniggering. The French were quite the military power back then.) As the Brits you must defeat this unlikely alliance in short order.
Chapter three tasks you with leading the Americans to victory over the Brits in the War of Independence, and it was this episode that provided the setting for my session.
Set Me Free
Unlike the main campaign, The Road to Independence isn't just an open sandbox, as each chapter is punctuated by CGI cutscenes detailing the birth of the modern-day US. While purists may scoff, the cutscenes I witnessed were adequate proof that the plot should add an extra layer of depth and meaning to your actions. Also readily apparent was the more focused nature of these episodes, making them ideal for newcomers before they're thrown into the main campaign in the final fourth chapter.
Chapter three kicked off with a real-time 3D recreation of the Battle of Bunker Hill, an epic clash between the Brits and Americans on an undulating battlefield dotted with patches of forest. Playing as the sovereignty-seeking Yanks, my heavily outnumbered forces began atop a hill. The interface, familiar yet distinctively different from Medieval II. took just seconds to learn, allowing hostilities to quickly commence.
Calling upon nearly a decade of Total War experience I arrayed my troops at the hill summit, though one fundamental difference forced me to reassess my tried and tested tactics. While cannons and muskets featured in Medieval II, they were so wayward as to verge on useless. Empire's gunpowder weapons now have accuracy to match their power, creating a new set of variables when outlining your battle plan.
Horse-drawn cannons allow for the rapid deployment and movement of your artillery. Whereas shifting artillery was previously akin to pushing a bear up a downward escalator, cannons can now be moved to a new location in seconds. Placing them intelligently is also paramount. This became painfully apparent when I sent a cannonball scything through the spines of dozens of my own troops standing directly in front of my artillery. It was a flash of military genius to rival even Field Marshal Haig's brilliant WWI strategy of marching thousands of men towards German machine-guns.
With the Brits advancing up the steep gradient from three directions, I wheeled my cavalry around their left flank in a bid to drive a wedge through the heart of their forces. My men bayed a war cry that mingled with the stampeding hooves of their mounts, charging for glory with swords outstretched, racing past an abandoned farm before collapsing en masse as a group of garrisoned enemy snipers parted them from their brains as they rode past. This was going to be tougher than I thought.
Moments like these proved Creative Assembly's commitment to ensuring that Empire's Al is a marked improvement over the irritatingly predictable and moronically static opposition tactics we often witnessed in Medieval II. Where troops once attacked in a single tide they now spread out and probe, searching for gaps in my lines to divide my forces.
Still smarting from the loss of half my cavalry and with the advancing Brits tenderized by some well-placed cannon balls, I ordered my troops to open fire. A cloud of smoke formed from 500 musket puffs as balls of lead cut into the enemy ranks. Scores of Redcoats dropped. The bombardment continued, each volley reducing the enemy's forces by 10 and sometimes 20 men. The two armies traded salvos as they closed, each volley more devastating than the last. With a single mouse click I changed my troops' attack orders to melee and sent a sea of blue uniforms sweeping down the hill at the enemy.
Zooming into the action revealed a previously unmatched level of battlefield realism and detail, with each motion captured soldier actively seeking out an opponent before engaging in a mortal shoving and stabbing match. Men toppled into the mud, squirming with terror before receiving a deft bayonet jab to the windpipe. After a titanic, 20-minute struggle the tide turned my way with the enemy hightailing it thanks in no small part to a bullet to the British general's head that broke his men's morale.
With the real-time battle ended, it was time to test out the campaign map. Once again, while initially familiar to any Total War veteran, the first impressions proved deceptive with further probing revealing some subtle nuances.
One of the most fundamental transformations was how regions were pocked with settlements. While the capital city remains the heart of each one, a series of smaller towns also make up your holdings. A region can still only be captured by conquering the capital, but you now have other options too. With the Battle of Bunker Hill successfully navigated, I advanced my troops into enemy territory, only to find the Brits firmly entrenched inside the towering walls of the region's key city. But with the outlying towns only lightly defended, I channelled all my efforts into attacking them instead, strangling the region's income and forcing the hiding enemy into the open for a face-to-face confrontation.
In a clear attempt to provide greater flexibility, Creative Assembly have expended a great deal of effort in fleshing out Empire's non-combat features. The developer even claim that you'll be able to play the whole game with the minimal amount of conflict if you're canny enough, though sadly my playtest wasn't long enough to test this theory.
Empire's diplomacy system has been greatly streamlined, with a single diplomatic interface negating the tedium of micromanaging individual diplomats on the campaign map. Alliances have become far more complex affairs, and you can even try to manipulate other nations to do the fighting for you. Attack an enemy and your allies will be reluctant to come to your aid, but goad your foe into an invasion and your allies will send reinforcements without hesitating. Ally with a faction sandwiched between you and your enemy, and the opposition will have to come through them, before they can get to you.
One of the best ways of needling the enemy is to use a new unit called the Gentleman. This loveable rogue can be sent into enemy territory to duel opposition commanders or assassinate dignitaries, allowing high rankers to be eliminated without the need for battlefield confrontation. Wipe out a number of a faction's generals and they'll declare war. The Gentleman also has several other key skills. Ensconce him in an enemy's university and he'll steal their research, or if he's placed in one of yours, speed your discovery of new technologies. The Rake is another debuting unit that acts as an all-in-one spy, diplomat and saboteur, making for a far more streamlined approach to subterfuge.
As my playtest drew to its inevitable close and with both the land battles and campaign map exuding the kind of potential that should have every strategy gamer palpitating, there was just enough time to sample Empire's all-new naval battles.
These watery conflicts proved far slower, more considered affairs than their terra firma equivalents. Wind speed and direction were major factors in determining the manoeuvrability of vessels, with ships battling the elements while exchanging cannon fire with a British fleet.
Turning each ship so that enemy vessels came into a hull's shooting range proved the greatest challenge, one made all the more difficult by the need to manually reload cannons after firing at the enemy.
A secondary challenge was gauging which of the three shot types to use. Besides the basic cannonball, you've got chain-shot - half-cannonballs linked together by thick chains. These take down enemy masts and leave ships sitting duck targets for barrages by standard cannonballs that knock gaping holes in enemy hulls. Finally, there is grapeshot. This a canvas bag full of metal balls turns a ship's crew into hunks of flesh, softening up the enemy in preparation for boarding.
While these battles were certainly tense and tactical, it's still too early to make any concrete judgements on them. We'll save that for the review. Make no mistake, Empire: Total War is shaping up to be one the most ambitious war simulations around. Not only is its scope superior to its predecessors, it's also promising to scale previously uncharted heights of accessibility. With land battles bolstered by some radically improved Al and the added tactical dimension provided by gunpowder weapons and the ability to garrison troops, along with a highly promising first attempt at real-time 3D naval warfare, Empire: Total War has the tools to take strategy gaming to the next level.
If the polish can match the vision then Empire won't just be another war simulation, it'll be pure, unadulterated strategy entertainment of the very highest calibre. Or in a word, fun.
The cerebral cortex is mightier than the bayonet
If you're the kind of strategy gamer who likes to use their mind just as much as their might, Empire's research makeover will come as welcome news. A far greater emphasis is being placed on research flexibility, with extensive philosophical, military and industrial research trees on show. Focusing on any one could fundamentally transform the way you're able to approach the main campaign.
Military research allows you to improve drilling, increase cannon size, develop advanced artillery, and even basic chemical weapons such as quicklime. Research industrial upgrades and you'll gain access to better agricultural technology and metal forging techniques to strengthen ships' hulls, while philosophical upgrades will help improve your society's happiness and wealth.
Promotion of War
What you know not who you know
Unlike MedievalII, generals in Empire are no longer inbred big-eared family members with a penchant for their sisters, but highly-trained military minds schooled in the art of warfare. The more experience and prestige a commander amasses, the greater their sphere of influence becomes. Whenever an enemy army enters a general's sphere of influence, it's forced into a battlefield confrontation. Of course, generals are also prime battlefield targets, so it's just as well that Empire now allows you to promote regular soldiers to the rank of general.
Recruitment has also been given a makeover, with commanders able to request certain troops, which will be trained in nearby towns and automatically dispatched to join up with his existing forces. However, venture into enemy territory and you'll first need to track back into friendly regions before reinforcements will set out to join you.
Keeping it real, but not too much
We were invited to Creative Assembly's top-secret laboratories recently, where kitted up in white coats and surgical masks, we had the opportunity to be the first journalists to test out the multiplayer naval combat. It was pretty fabulous.
It looks great The sun glints off the rolling waves, individual crewmen man the rigging and we could swear we saw some individually modelled barnacles on the hull of one flagship. Fun with a salty sting of realism. For example, wind affects movement and is tactically crucial in battle, but Creative Assembly hasn't made this too realistic, or only the most aquatic among us would stay in control.
As for the combat, it's impressive both visually and in gameplay. Raking your enemy's sails with chain-shot can bring down masts, and reduce manoeuvrability. Grapeshot wipes out the sailors scurrying about on deck, while regular cannonballs can pierce the hull.
The ship-to-ship combat needs time to learn and specific tactics and intense micro-management of movement and firing is vital. We played only small-scale skirmishes and, having done so, we can't wait to get stuck into some more epic sea battles. This part of the Empire 'gamble' has come off without a hitch.
Has It Really been nearly a decade since we first watched battlefield monks clash with naginata cavalry in Shogun: Total War? So much has changed since then -music has got worse, fashions evolve daily, and Stephen Fry tells us about his life on Twitter - yet here we are, once more preparing to praise an RTS from Creative Assembly.
Empire: Total War is easily the best in the series, primarily because Creative Assembly have addressed issues longterm fans have been having with the games, since the long-past days of geishas and kohu.
Empire: Total War sees the series move from medieval Europe to 18th century Europe, and spread into two new spheres of conflict - the Indian subcontinent and North America - plus four new trade zones (see 'Trade me up, Scotty'). For the first time, a Total War game is a truly global concern, with a huge map and a far larger number of nations to deal with. Now it's entirely possible for the Indian Maratha Empire to be fighting for dominance in the Americas, if you wanted to take history in that direction.
The sea will play a major factor too. In other Total War games, you could ignore the sea until an Al opponent blockaded your ports. Now you'll be managing trade lanes and protecting your merchant ships from dastardly pirate raiders. And, of course, you'll be fighting there too. Gone are the boring auto resolved naval battles of previous TWs, replaced with beautifully-rendered seascapes and the splintering crash of cannonballs shattering oaken hulls. With this new freedom to fight on the seas comes a raft of new skills and tactics to learn. Thankfully, CA haven't gone down the let's-make-everything-hardcore route with the naval combat, but even so, you'll be learning a lot in each battle you play.
For the first time in a long time this is also true in the land battles, which have shifted their focus from the spear to the musket. Although there are still remnants of that old-style combat in here (like cavalry charges, for example), generally you'll be fighting from a distance. Empire's land battles are, in fact, a curious mix of using tried-and-tested skills honed over the years in previous TW games, while also bringing in new tactical manoeuvres and ideas. For example, battle lines don't have to be as compact as they used to be in order to withstand a cavalry charge. Now they can be stretched over a vast area, maximising the number of guns that can be fired at once. Terrain is also more important than ever. Defending on a hill allows for troops in the second row to fire over the heads of those below. With ranged combat being so important, the extra reach they gain from being on a slope can be vital. While veterans will still feel right at home, they'll be learning new things as they progress.
Which brings us neatly onto the campaign map. As said earlier, it's a lot more substantial and epic in scope compared to all previous TW games, both in terms of sheer size and the number of places to conquer/fight over. While Empire never comes close to the almost mind-boggling size of the maps in Paradox's strategy games (such as Hearts of Iron), the majority of players will be perfectly happy with the map's scale. Realism mods will doubtless be unleashed on an unsuspecting public within a few months of this game's release, but we're happy with what CA have given us.
The way the campaign works has also been tweaked since Medieval II. A lot of the buildingsand construction projects that can be undertaken have moved from a region's major city to the outlying countryside, contained within the towns and settlements that pop up as an area's population grows. Investing in farms will lead to more villages growing into towns, which provides more chances to create specialist settlements by building schools, factories and so on.
Each town can only be driven in one particular direction, so if you build a school in one, you can't then build a factory as well. You can build better facilities as your technology improves, but to change a town's focus you have to destroy what's been built before.
What this also means is that the region's capital is no longer the sole focus of combat in a location. There are now lots of different places to besiege or occupy, including permanent forts (these don't disappear when emptied like those in Medieval ID and the towns and industries you construct. Guerrilla warfare is also realistic now, with irregular forces capable of wrecking your carefully planned economic setup while you sit cowering in your heavily fortified capital. At some point, you have to venture out and put a stop to these guerillas, or you'll face bankruptcy and the desertion of your own troops.
There's definitely more scope for tactical play on the campaign map. Occupying an enemy's best source of income can force him to abandon his defences and meet you, while ambushes are now much easier to achieve. Armies now have much larger zones of control, which can be activated when an enemy force unwittingly moves into it. These enlarged zones also affect what units can come to your aid as reinforcements in battle.
Because of the increased number of things on the campaign map for you to deal with, it can be a little bewildering when you first start a game. Playing as someone like Russia, Britain, or Spain is, initially, difficult to get to grips with properly, because their territories are much more numerous than the smaller factions. In fact, we recommend you start with one of the smaller ones, just until you get a handle on how the new campaign concepts worbjt's fine once get the hang of it, but the increased complexity is something that might be a hindrance to new players. What has helped a little, though, is the removal of a number of Irrelevant units from the map - diplomats and merchants. (I've lost count of the amount of times I forgot a merchant or a diplomat existed, and left them standing in a foreign land ignored and unloved.)
As merchants and diplomats are absent, the economic and diplomatic interactions between nations take place through the menu system, mese systems work more realistically this way and also means you don't end up in the situation where you can't sue for peace because you don't have the resources to build a diplomat.
This doesn't mean there aren't any characters other than the armies, though. You'll still have religious zealots to influence the region they are in, plus the assassin and spy characters have been melded to form the Rake (or Thuggee in India), a Dick Turpin-style highwayman character that can do everything the assassin and spy could in 'Medieval II.
There's also a new addition: the Gentleman. Think of him as a Great Leader from Civilization IV: a unit that can boost research or production fldepending on what type spawns in your empire. Britain starts off with Isaac Newton, for example, so sticking him in a school-oriented town will significantly boost your research capability.
You also no longer have to worry about recruiting all these characters from your cities, as they spawn depending on what buildings you've invested in. Build a lot of bawdyhouses and brothels and you will get more Rakes spawning, but construct schools and you'll get Gentlemen. This is a simple system, but it's one that requires you to think ahead about what you'll be wanting to do later on in the game - finding you need better zealots when all you've been spending money on are brothels is a very expensive mistake.
But what of the issues that have plagued previous TW games for years then? By this we primarily mean "have you sorted out the diplomacy and the enemy Al, Creative Assembly?" Thankfully, they have (to an extent).
First of all, diplomacy lias always been one of the weakest, most tacked on elements of the TW series. To many it seemed an afterthought that was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Alliances would be broken for no reason, and smaller nations would refuse peace offerings even if they had virtually no troops or land left, and so on. CA have dealt with this by massively increasing the number of nations you can interact with and, although they haven't increased the number of actual diplomatic options very much, they've made them a little bit more realistic.
There's also the ability to trade tech research (see 'The science of things') like in Civilization and trade agreements are now limited, meaning they can't just be signed with anyone. Indeed, you need to consider who you do sign them with, because a bad decision will severely hamper your economic performance.
The issue of Al has been at the forefront of all criticism of the TW series since Shogun. Even Medieval II, as good as it was, was plagued by some hilariously inept computer opposition. In that game it wasn't unusual to see the Al's general thunder across the battle straight into your wall of pikes or spears, leaving his entire army miles behind. There were other, less obvious problems too - it was too easy to flank the computer's armies and they'd often just stand there and have more than half their men eliminated by arrows. Siege battles were incredibly difficult to lose, once you realised that just positioning your men in deep lines along one city street would make you practically invulnerable. The Al could, of course, have just gone a different way and caught you in the flank, but it rarely did that, preferring to just send wave after wave crashing into your impregnable defences.
Those days are behind us now, thankfully. Although 7Ws Al will never be perfect and there will always be moments where it makes goofy decisions, CA have significantly advanced the tactical capabilities of computer armies. For example, in one battle I was fighting in the Road to Independence mini-campaign, the French hid a group of Native American musketeers to the side of the battlefield, popping up once I'd engaged their main line and shooting my men in the back.
I still won the battle, but the fact that I now consider potential places I can be ambushed from is excellent. These improvements will never beat the tactical struggle between two human players, but the quality of the Al is certainly at its highest level since the series began. Siege battles are better now too, with buildings that can be fortified and a focus on open spaces, rather than tightly packed streets and tedious hand-to-hand brawls. The core concepts of the game are all present and correct, and better than ever before, which is all that really matters when it comes down to it. But Total War has always been about more than its main elements, it's also the little extra touches that make it special; that make it feel like you're discovering new things each time you play.
Empire has so many of these touches that it's impossible to mention them all here. In fact, I doubt I've discovered the majority of them. As you go through the game, buying new units and gaining new technology, you'll see your options in battle and on the campaign map increase. For example, put a lot of effort into ordnance research and you'll discover new types of cannon shot to use, which could make a big difference to the outcome of a battle. Send a Rake out to do some devious deeds in enemy lands and you'll notice he can challenge high-ranking enemy officials to personal duels, giving you the chance to eliminate a rival's best general without the risk of secret assassination and a potential hit to your reputation, plus the chance of sparking an all-out war.
Back to the battlefield and you'll find you can build fortifications around your cannons, place huge wooden spikes in the ground in front of some of your riflemen and form a diamond formation with your cavalry, enabling quicker and more efficient turning while moving at speed. There's just so many little abilities and things to do, I could easily go on for ages detailing each one.
Empire: Total War is a triumph for Creative Assembly, successfully moving the series into a new sphere of history that some thought they might struggle with. Not only have they prevailed, they've gone beyond what some thought they'd be able to. Hugely epic in scope in both the battles and the campaign map, there's simply nothing else out there, barring other Total War games, that can come close to matching Empire. This game is an exercise in how to bring strategy gaming to a general audience, without compromising a series that doesn't cater too much to either the casual or hardcore players.
Empire is accessible and deep, fun and serious, all at the same time. Strategy novices will enjoy the ability to blow stuff up with cannons and charge about with their cavalry, while those looking for a deeper experience will find that their demands have more than been met by Creative Assembly. All that remains is for the planned multiplayer campaign to meet the lofty expectations of players and you'll have the perfect strategy package.
The science of things
Leading the world in research has distinct advantages
Total War games have never focused on research and science, instead having you construct big buildings that unlock the better units. Empire is different, using Civilization-style technology research. There are a number of tech trees and it's virtually, if not completely, impossible to max out all the trees in one game.
You can choose to concentrate on social research to improve the lot of the public, industrial and agricultural research to help you to improve your infrastructure, or military and naval trees, that provide better weapons and materials for your forces. Make sure you pick the right things to specialise in, or you could find yourself incapable of taking on the big powers.
You can, though, trade your technology with others, although the Al (again like in Civ) won't necessarily be willing to help you out without a significant monetary reimbursement on your part.
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Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode