Review / Empire: Total War (PC)

The Total War series has always been simple to explain in concept but strategically demanding as soon as you pick it up. Receiving mostly praise from those who have played through its various campaigns and battles, each title has delivered epically scaled battles that no other real-time strategy videogame has been able to present. While other titles have centered on the short-term actions of battles with the real-time need to build bases and overwhelm your opponent in the most efficient way possible, Total War has always focused on the actions of building bases on the turn-based map while the strength of your units are demonstrated on the real-time battlefield.

The latest entry into the Total War series by the talented people at Creative Assembly is certainly an impressive one when you compare it to the previous Total War games. Launching with Empire: Total War is a new engine, the largest campaign map of the series and the addition of naval battles. In a videogame where you’re negotiating alliances with other factions one moment, then going to war on the battlefield with another faction the next, managing your empire comes with a mix of satisfaction and frustration but most importantly, entertainment.

Just like its predecessors, the focus of Empire: Total War is the blend between turn-based and real-time strategy. Out of the gate, Empire has everyone covered. Creative Assembly have accommodated for new players in the form of two tutorials covering real-time land and sea battles. These practice skirmishes won’t teach the most advanced techniques but they are enough to get one attuned to the atmosphere of the game.

The learning process doesn’t stop at the real-time tutorials, as it will be vital for new players to familiarize themselves with the turn-based campaign map and its mechanics. That’s where the Road to Independence campaign begins. Starting in April 1607, the player begins the campaign fighting against native tribes in colonial North America and from there on, joins the ranks of the British army where they must help defeat the French by pushing them out of the colonies. This leads up to the player eventually rebelling and taking control of the colonies from the British. All the while, you are being taught the different aspects of maintaining your empire in a well-paced manner through the use of diplomacy, technology, construction and of course, war. Couple this with great in-engine cinematics conveying the story of the United States and its road to independence in between episodes and you’ve got an excellent separate campaign that every new player will find not only helpful but extremely fun. The one hindering thing about the campaign is that the transition between turns becomes slow and experiences performance issues.

The Grand Campaign itself, though not told through cinematics like that of the Road to Independence, is just as entertaining. The Grand Campaign covers the contested colonial portions of the Americas, Europe and India. Though you can adjust the overall difficulty of real-time battles and the turn-based campaign separately, how difficult the development of a faction is determined by which one you chose to play as. If you start as Great Britain, your overall objective will be to expand your navy by defending the mainland while being able to capture certain regions. If you chose to play through the Road to Independence campaign, which then allows you to play as the United States in a mini-campaign, then your objective will be to capture a certain number of regions. At the same time, all the neighboring regions you could potentially capture are held by powerful nations such as Great Britain and Spain, countries you start at peace with, so diplomacy may be the ideal the choice of obtaining regions if you want to avoid war with a nation that has more resources and units than you.

When war isn’t an option, that’s where diplomacy comes in. Diplomacy with all factions is handled through one easy to navigate panel in Empire: Total War. How you improve relations with other factions is determined through the various methods of actions in the diplomacy panel. Want to sway a country that is indifferent to you to more friendly terms? Then giving a state gift to them is sure to boost your reputation and chances at establishing a trade agreement and even an alliance. Being at peace comes with more than the assurance that a faction won’t attack you, as you can demand access to the military of an ally or just simply trade technology in exchange for land. What makes it interesting is that a faction will issue an offer of their own if they find your offer to be within reason but not what they’re looking for.

On the home front, it’s up to you to make sure that the people are content with your ruling while also maintaining a military substantial enough to defend those people and your overall empire. In order to defend your empire, you need money for an army. Obtaining funds is based on several factors, one of which includes the improvement of your farms, towns and capitals, which is actually very easy to keep track of. A symbol above each building will indicate to the player that there is a structure available to build and more importantly, that it is an improvement you can afford, which applies to every building. Just because you can build it doesn’t mean it’s totally beneficial for your empire. For example, building machines to simplify agriculture will bring more wealth to your region, however this always paves the way for industrialization, something the lower class won’t like therefore causing more unrest amongst the population. Building an opera house on the other hand won’t benefit the financial state of your country at all but it will definitely keep the public entertained, suppressing possible revolts and allowing for more leverage on tax management. If keeping tabs on construction and taxes sounds like too much, you can place both on auto-manage and focus on other methods of influence in your region.

Taking over other regions isn’t just a matter of defeating the opposing army and moving to the next region. The people of that region won’t like you initially, so lowering taxes for that region or just exempting that region from paying them for awhile would be the best choices. If you desire a region where the locals don’t necessarily practice the same religion you do or enjoyed their previous government more than yours, then revolt is almost inevitable. But if you suppress the people with some military units sprinkled in the streets, the public won’t rebel against your government. All of the things needed to secure and quell the home front is monitored in panels that are easy to understand and it doesn’t become too repetitive to the point where you have to look at several different over and over again each turn.

Providing for your territory is great and everything but at its core, the Total War series has always been about one thing: war, which is where Empire really starts to show its true face. The graphics are impressively stunning considering how many units you’ll see in one area and though the individuals of certain units look the same with the exception of a few different bags they wear, it doesn’t detract from the visuals. The land battles themselves in Empire continue to shine with epic confrontations between massive columns of infantry and cavalry. Anything can affect battles, taking out a general of either side will discourage their respective forces, making them more likely to fall back, losing control of them in the process. Flanking is also important as it can determine whether you’re winning decisively or slightly. There were are few moments where units felt unresponsive especially when issuing orders to go from one opposing to attacking another.

The sound is a powerful aspect of these battles. Watch the battle as if you’re inches away from the infantry and you’ll hear the roar of the many stomping feet, the firing of the muskets, the explosions of the artillery, the clanging of the swords and men shouting as they run forward to the enemy. Mix this with music that is more than appropriate to convey the sense of urgency and you’ve got a cinematic battle unfolding with each skirmish.

The shortfalls of these battles reside in the AI. In a battle where even you are capable of acknowledging that your overall positioning leaves for some clear flanking by the enemy, the AI sometimes doesn’t even notice or hardly takes advantage of the opportunity. Sometimes the AI will constantly shift its forces around without pause as if adjusting to your battle plans when in reality your forces haven’t moved an inch, but they will not attack. This is not to say the AI doesn’t have its moments, as it definitely targets your general while attempting to avoid the rest of your units in a safe manner using cavalry units, however it’s only one a few positives that can be said about land battle AI.

Another problem is path finding, specifically in fort sieges. If you’re defending from within a fort, more than likely a portion of the enemy will have already grappled their way to top of the walls leading to a melee skirmish between the two armies. Trying to maneuver infantry atop these walls and to the invaders becomes a problem when you have to bypass the grapples of the invaders. If grapple hooks just happen to be near infantry while they’re moving along the top of a fort, it seems that, for the most part, they will grab onto the hooks, moving up and down them even though you specifically gave them the order to attack opposition forces that have already scaled your fort and are on their way towards the center to capture it. To add to this, the AI doesn’t take advantage of their artillery when assaulting a fort. In the case where they could easily rip a wall out of a fort, they‘d rather not use that firepower and instead attack from the sides leaving your forces enough time to meet them.

Naval battles, a new feature of the franchise, holds much to be favored. The individual men on your boats getting in order and attempting to carry out your directions is a surprisingly fun thing to watch. Just like the land battles, sound was well done for the naval battles, hearing the roar of the canons firing is exciting, even hearing the creaking of a ship that attempts to quickly avoid the firing range of an enemy vessel gives Empire an immersive feel. Victory is determined not only by the size and strength of your forces but by such factors as wind direction. Stationing your naval forces is simple when it works. To say the least, path finding has also affected naval skirmishes. While completely aware that wind always plays its role, ships sometimes shift in odd directions following the command of specific orders for those individual units.

Without a doubt, Empire: Total War delivers one of the best gameplay experiences in the strategy genre. Its presentation is wonderful and even in its most frustrating moments, will have you thirsting to complete that next turn that could decide the survival of your faction. It’s a great addition to the franchise and an awe-inspiring title for those who can’t get enough of real-time strategy. To put it simply, all strategy fans should try Empire: Total War.

+

  • Well-paced tutorials help familiarize the game mechanics
  • Entertaining, in-depth campaign mode with streamlined managing tools
  • Cinematic battles with absorbing visuals and audio

  • AI needs improvement, sometimes buggy
  • Level of control in naval battles is questionable
  • Stability issues, especially in between campaign turns
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