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Empire: Total War

Much as I adore the Total War games, there has always been one issue I’ve had with them. It’s not the notoriously buggy AI, nor is it the lack of naval combat: no, it’s just that I’m crap at them. I understand how they work, and I thoroughly enjoy every single Total War game that I play. I’m just inexplicably awful at the series. This time around, Creative Assembly has outdone itself and seems to have fixed all three of these issues (including my ineptitude) with varying levels of success.

The first port of call on firing up the game is the Road to Independence tutorial campaign. This focuses on a small, colonial settlement in the Americas, and the world map gradually expands, as do your responsibilities. You start small, with just a few options for construction and recruitment, before it starts granting you diplomacy options, ports, and everything else. It’s well done, and probably the best tutorial the series has had, despite the irritating simpering of your advisor.

The real meat, though, is in the Grand Campaign. With a choice of 12 nations, I naturally took control of the United Kingdom, circa 1700. Could I lead the country to glory? Could I establish dominance over the Americas, gain a foothold in India, establish lucrative trade routes around the globe, and keep Blighty secure?

I’ve had difficulty with the beginning of campaigns in the Total War games. It takes me a little while to get the hang of where my settlements are, what they’re doing, how sizeable my armies are, how much money I can afford to spend, which direction I should be expanding in, and so on. Rome: Total War fixed this, to a certain extent, by starting you off small and letting you expand from there, with missions from the Senate giving you gentle nudges in the right direction. Empire has your advisor give you an overview of the state of your nation, and describe some likely strategies you might want to employ in the early years. I ignored it completely, though: I had my own plan in mind. See if you can guess.

The first thing was to secure some backing. With a little wheedling, a few gifts, and a couple of death threats, I secured military alliances with some of the smaller European nations dotted around. The diplomacy aspect of Empire is more reminiscent of Civilization than anything, with gifts to be offered, technology to be traded, alliances and trading pacts to form, military access to be granted, and the like. Counter offers are in place – you might want military access, but they might want to charge you for the privilege. As implied, you also have the option to threaten another nation, with the expected results.

My navy was sizeable, but my army left a bit to be desired, so that was next. A few turns later and I had a force that truly could’ve walked into Mordor. Now, technology, and this shows off another aspect of Empire: the regions themselves. Each region only has only one major city in it. England, for instance, has London, while France has Paris. As the region prospers, smaller towns are added, which can be upgraded along various lines. Cambridge, naturally, was a college town, improving research. I installed Isaac Newton there to speed things up – Newton is a Gentleman, a type of agent that can either boost your own research or visit other colleges and steal research. Oxford was a religious school, Bristol was a trading port. All agents can be installed in hostile towns – Rakes (the spy Agent) can sabotage them, or assassinate other agents. Placing the military in a hostile town prevents the nation that owns it from getting the benefits of it, and when your army leaves, the town will have suffered a lot of damage from the occupation. All of these towns have an impact on how your nation grows, and for now, my nation was focused on the military.

This reflected itself on my cabinet and agents quickly. Newton gained experience working on new bayonets for my soldiers, and military research sped up further. The military expenditure gave members of my cabinet new traits, making managing large armies easier. There was one thing left to do, and that was to limit the power of my soon-to-be-opponents. My lone Rake sailed across the channel, sauntered into Paris, and – through sheer blind luck – assassinated the best general in the French army.
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Finally, everything was in place. My army sailed over the channel and landed on France’s shores. One of my fleets immediately blockaded the nearest French port, while the other set up shop along one of the major French trading routes and began robbing the ships passing through.

I declared war on the French. The Spanish, allied with the French, declared war on me. The friends I’d cultivated at the beginning – most of Eastern Europe, and a few smaller nations in the West – declared war on both the French and the Spanish. The Swedish… uh, the Swedish declared war on everyone. No, I have no idea why, but either way, I’d started World War I 200 years early.

The French had a smaller navy than I, but attempted to remove my privateers anyway, as they were leaving the French economy in tatters – trade routes are hugely, hugely important, with entire sections of the map devoted to trading areas. Actual sea battles are a first for the Total War series, as prior to Empire, they’ve just been auto-resolved on the menus, but first things first: they look gorgeous. The attention to detail in these scenarios is utterly staggering – far moreso than on the battlefields. Sadly, despite the sheer beauty of the battles, with hulls splintering into the water, cannon smoke obscuring the air, screams and shouts to reload, creaking thuds as vessels collide, I’m wary of them. I’ve yet to see much in the way of tactics for them, and the micromanagement needed for huge fleets is terrifying. The small battles can be fun, but the large battles are left to the auto-resolution option.

My army razed a few towns on their march, but before long, they reached Paris. The land battles, thankfully, are as pitched and involved as ever, and the emphasis on gunpowder units has charged things up somewhat, with cover and buildings playing an important role. Tactically, a lot of the old stuff still works, but with new nuances, and graphically it’s better than ever.

When the smoke cleared, Paris was mine, but barely. Less than a quarter of my men survived the massacre, and the Catholic French populace were not happy about being under my Protestant fist. The Spanish began moving in earnest towards my new acquisition, and it wasn’t long before a French rebellion sprung up, outnumbering my remaining troops four to one. We held off the untrained rabble, barely, but that skirmish came down, in the end, to one unit against one unit. My army was routed, and my coffers depleted; there was no way to hold France. Reluctantly, I fled, only to discover that Newton had gone mad and died. Worse and worse.

This took about 25 turns, in game. Within another 20, I’d returned. I captured the surrounding areas, and this time, finished the French off for good, turning its colony Quebec into an independent nation. A few smaller skirmishes and I was geared up for war with Spain, despite a war-weary country and no navy – but that’s another story.

Of course, I could’ve focused my attention on the Americas – but this is only the British campaign. As the Ottoman Empire, I wreaked havoc with Hashishin and pushed east towards India, without rifles. As Poland-Lithuania, I fought desperate battles and abused diplomacy to keep my larger neighbours away while building up strength. These may not have been the optimal strategies for those nations, but it was fun, and, more importantly, felt completely different to playing as the British.

Empire: Total War expands upon everything that made the previous games great. The design is impeccable in all areas – the sound is perfect, the animation is varied and realistic, and there’s beauty in the brutal combat. The different nations actually feel different, the game world is absolutely gigantic, the interface is simple and easy to understand, and the game has a wealth of both strategic and tactical depth. While the naval combat is a bit of a misfire at times, everything else is spot on. Yes, the AI is still quirky. Yes, the computer’s turns still take forever, and the game itself will still devour your system resources hungrily, but it’s worth putting up with. Empire has flaws, but they’re tolerable. If the touted multiplayer patch works as well as I hope, this will become even more of a must buy than it already is – and Empire: Total War is a masterpiece.IncGamers Empire Total War Video Interview with Developers

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