Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: March 3, 2009
When the eyes of Western Europe were looking toward the New World, the Russian Bear stirred in its slumber and exploded like a cruel winter storm across the unsuspecting Iberian Peninsula. The 13 colonies would find no enemy to fight when England fell, only to feel the oncoming frost nipping at their shores five years later. Mexico rose from the ashes of Spain and was indebted to the czar for its freedom. Rome would belong to a new master as Russian warships frolicked in the Mediterranean. Cross-dressing assassins would silence prominent leaders among my trading partners in preparation for their impending conquest. Peppers, gloriously spicy peppers, would flow from India.
This is only one scenario among a mind-boggling number of ways that players can alter history in Creative Assembly's Empire: Total War, the newest chapter in their famously epic RTS series. From its humble beginnings with Shogun: Total War, the developers at Creative Assembly have raised the bar on real-time strategy titles with each offering as they set the player loose across the pages of history. As the series evolved over time, the formula continued to be refined, soon emerging as a cross between Sid Meier's Civilization series and the tactical wars fought across countless other strategy titles, such as Ensemble's Age of Empires.
Empire: Total War focuses on the 18th century, a time of revolution and colonial conquest, delivering everything that an aspiring emperor or president may need on land and sea to chase their imperial ambitions. It doesn't try to be historically accurate, as it focuses more on providing an entertaining, tactical challenge for new players and hardcore fans dressed up in an 18th century uniform. It peppers plenty of entertainingly written facts throughout its vast library of units, special events and inventions to entice armchair historians.
After installing two DVDs of material and having Steam activate the game, players can enjoy it without needing to have the discs in the DVD drive. Reading through the included manual isn't much help because it feels a lot skimpier than the one that came with Rome: Total War. It summarizes the changes from that title and glosses over the controls, so it feels as if it were aimed squarely at series veterans. Fortunately, there are battle tutorials available, including an introductory campaign that serves as the "story" mode by tracing the founding of Jamestown in North America to the American Revolution across four scenarios. There is also an in-game adviser feature that gives pointers on running your empire, so newcomers won't feel entirely lost.
Even with these helpful tools, the sheer breadth of what can be done in Empire: Total War can be intimidating, but the streamlined interface makes it deceptively easy to get into, even if you haven't mastered the finer nuances of war. Two different views divide the world: the campaign view and the battle interface. Most of the game will be seen from the campaign view, which gives the player a bird's eye look each of the three major theaters: Europe, India and the New World. Since everything is based on the 18th century, only the world as it was known to the colonial powers at the time are shown, though some liberties have been taken. For example, despite Spain's expansion into South America, only the Gulf region is shown as a part of the New World. That might not sound like much, until you realize that each region is further divided into a large number of territories that you can negotiate for or conquer.
Players will choose from 11 major nations ranging from Great Britain to India, each of which has units that speak their own language and often look just as unique, although this doesn't include the large number of minor nations that also populate Empire's world. Another large change from Rome: Total War is that cities no longer have everything centralized within them, although they still provide a home to a territory's most important buildings so the player can recruit soldiers, build artillery and keep the population happy. Factories, schools, mosques, churches and a variety of other building types are built atop towns that sprout up as the local population grows, giving the player a choice as to what they should be.
Turning a town into a school allows you to research social and scientific advances, while constructing a plant will make the region more valuable to your bottom line. Forgetting to provide a few churches or pleasure gardens as distractions wouldn't be wise, either, as the locals can often stoke feelings of dissatisfaction into an open rebellion. This adds another layer of strategic complication when an enemy army arrives and wrecks everything in the territory while avoiding a fight with your forces at the regional capital. Do you sally forth and deal with the raids or sit tight and wait for reinforcements?
The campaign view also allows the player to manage his empire and move pieces across the vast, beautifully detailed world as he challenges the other powers, who may or may not be at war with each other. Managing diplomatic ties is also performed from this view, and the interlocking alliances make the simple act of marching across neighboring borders a much riskier proposition. At the same time, players may even be drawn into fights against enemies that they've never met because a friend requested aid. With so many neighbors, it's important to establish allegiances that can watch your back while you're away on a conquest.
Trade is also a key aspect of Empire, emphasizing how important it was to the colonial powers of the time. Vast amounts of wealth can be traded between each major region, while smaller ports along the shores of Africa or South America allow visiting ships to carry exotic goods where armies cannot tread. Don't forget the pirates that will pillage trade routes, or an enemy nation's fleet that may blockade your ports and starve your nation of precious coin.
Inevitably, the time comes when you have to make your point at the tip of a bayonet, and that's when the battlefield view comes into play. If you crank up the details as high as your rig can handle, your eyes will be rewarded with stunning details, right down to the coat buttons of each soldier on the field. Thousands face each other across no man's land as thunderous blasts of cannon fire and the whipping sound of a near miss raced through my speakers alongside the orchestral score, which keeps pace with the epic battle unfolding against my foes. The only thing missing from all of this was the smell of burning gunpowder from the subwoofer.
As you march among the rows of muskets, cannons and cavalry, learning how to fight using the adopted military tactics of the day provides its own challenge. Battles can easily take a half hour or more to finish if you want to deeply immerse yourself into each fight, adding hours to the campaign. Ordering your army forward is as easy as clicking on a unit and a point on the map, so planning the right strategy is left up to the player's ability to learn about what works and what doesn't. The good news is that battlefield commanders can adjust the difficulty, and if they don't want to fight every battle and rely on statistics to carry them through, they can opt to have the computer automatically resolve it for them — often with higher losses than if they had taken the field.
Naval warfare between wooden ships and iron men is an awesome sight, especially late in a campaign. Cannonballs splinter wooden planks, sailors jump overboard from a sinking ship, and a lucky shot can set off powder kegs and turn a massive warship into a pile of burning kindling as it floats on the ocean's frothy waves. Turning into the wind and using it to your advantage to give the enemy a broadside is sure to wake up everyone in the house. As simple as the controls can make it, though, the unrelenting attention to tactical, and its slower-paced realism can surprise players who expect a more arcade-like treatment. If you take the time to get your sea legs under you, Empire's rendition of 18th century sea combat is one of the most engrossing experiences out there, especially once you gain access to the most powerful ships, which can carry more than 100 cannons.
The polished chessboard also has a few blemishes that are hard to ignore. If any of your units are in a territory where the home country collapses, they are instantly teleported to the nearest friendly area when that territory's political affiliation changes. This is what happened to an army that I had just landed on the shores of South America to raid a Spanish colony. When my forces in Europe had wiped out Spain, the colony found itself liberated as a new nation, and my army was beamed to India. That was something of a convenience, as I was gearing up for a campaign in the sub-continent, but the way it was handled left me wondering if fish men from Atlantis had something to do with it instead. Another time, one of my armies teleported all the way back to Moscow, weakening my offensive along another front. It would have been better to have at least a turn or two to decide whether I wanted to coordinate the withdrawal myself or hear about it in a diplomacy function rather than as a message to negotiate a possible deal with the new power.
On a more technical side, Empire ran without any major problems, but a nasty bug crept into one of my saved games when the Iroquois nation, despite being "very friendly" with me, suddenly decided to declare war. After doing so, the game consistently crashed to the desktop, forcing me to go back to an earlier save, which seemed to fix the issue. Later on, clicking on a group of ships began to heavily lag right before displaying their movement range and crashing the game. Reloading also sent me back to my home province, forcing me to scroll and click back to where I had left off every time. This got annoying really quickly. Movie clips also stuttered from time to time whenever a key moment was reached. Other than these few bumps, Empire was relatively smooth sailing from the start of the campaign to the bitter end.
It's something of a tragedy when you consider that Ensemble Studios, one of the founding fathers of the modern RTS, is forced to close its doors when developer Creative Assembly continues to prove the unsurpassed viability of the PC as the platform of choice for a title as dedicated to real-time strategy as Empire: Total War. This review has only touched on the most basic pieces in the strategic sandbox that awaits players. Without having to fight every single battle, finishing one campaign of world domination easily clocks in at over 30 hours. Repeat that with every other playable side, add in the difficulty levels, choose whether to overthrow the crown to declare your empire a republic, replace the AI with multiplayer minds across the world, and your thirst to rewrite the 18th century may prove to be insatiable.
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