Review: Empire: Total War

EmpireTotalWar.jpg The mantra ‘change is good’ seems to be resonating through the real-time strategy (RTS) genre lately – from Tales of Valor shaking up the Company of Heroes franchise, to Dawn of War II turning its back on some fan-favored gameplay elements, to Stalin vs. Martians abandoning many core RTS elements entirely, it appears that there is universal agreement that the genre was in dire need of a serious shake-up and a slimming down. Well, perhaps not the ‘universal’ agreement, as it appears at least one developer believes that creating a massive and masterful RTS full of traditional building elements and massive armies is a worthwhile pursuit. Sega is the publisher, The Creative Assembly is the developer, and Empire: Total War is the masterful RTS in question.

It is a daunting task to begin looking at a game with such scope and breadth as Empire: Total War, so I’ll just dive right in to the technical aspects. To put it simply, Empire: Total War is the best looking RTS I have ever played. It goes beyond the stunning details on the models of the sea and land battles, the realistic rendering of environments and battle effects, and gets down into the huge amounts of STUFF that is on the screen at any time – all of which is amazingly detailed. Dead bodies and damage to buildings and ground remains for the entirety of the battle, showing the massive scope of some of the conflicts. The seasons are all modeled, and the terrain and landscapes are highly detailed and accurate, which is even more amazing since the game takes place across such a variety of locations.

The audio is also extremely well done, from voice acting in the tutorial and throughout the campaign to a stirring soundtrack that adds excitement to battles and keeps things lively throughout. The battle music and environmental sounds are amazingly well done, placing you right into the battles of the 18th century in a highly realistic manner. Other technical stuff such as controls and performance continue to be highly flexible and work nicely – for a game of this scope you will want a powerful computer, but any reasonably modern system will handle it well enough. And the controls themselves are an evolution of previous games in the series such as Medieval II and Rome Total War.

Prior to release there were two things that had folks buzzing – the naval battles and the new campaign map. Both of these are wonderful, but there is a third major thing worth mentioning: the improved AI. While previous games have had solid enemy intelligence, Empire: Total War takes things to an entirely new level. With most strategy games you knew that playing the single player mode was fun but that the real challenge was engaging other humans in multiplayer. With Empire: Total War, the computer AI has progressed to a level where you will need to exercise everything at your disposal to gain victory! It is a major innovation that threads through everything in the game and makes even existing battle scenarios feel fresh.

Before getting to the other new features, let me back up and describe the scope of the game. It takes place across the tumultuous 18th century, a time when a fledgling imperial settlement struggled for freedom, a continent fought to stave off oppression after a historical revolution threw off an entrenched monarchy, and existing imperial powers struggled to expand their powers and maintain their relevance in a shifting world. The game covers North and parts of South America, all of Europe and even into the tip of Northern Africa. Before you run away scared from the massive scope, the game starts off nicely with a full scale tutorial and then a long opening campaign called ‘The Road to Independence’ that tracks developments on the North American continent from the early 1600’s on through the revolution. As time passes you gain more troops and capabilities and slowly learn the capabilities of the game.

The campaign map has been improved and expanded to handle the massive scale of the game, but hasn’t become more complex – indeed, find and and working with resources is as easy as ever … and even more engaging. As you zoom in on regions you will find them filled with smaller settlements. Each settlement can contain upgradeable agricultural or industrial elements such as farms, factories or mines. These generate more income and resources for you, but also open up a huge potential for conflict because just as you can destroy enemy settlements rather than just going at their capital, they can do the same and cripple you economically.

Of course, the other major news is the massive 3D naval battles. These definitely live up to all possible hype and expectation, with up to twenty ships per side, all dealing with the problems of slow maneuvering speeds, variable wind speeds and directions while trying to gain positional advantage and fire upon the enemy. You can manually control each element of every ship, or allow them autonomous actions. Some amount of automation is probably the best bet, since there are three sails per ship and three types of cannon shots. You can try to take out the crew, drop their masts or attempt to sink them outright. Of course, during battles a fire can start on your own ship causing you to redirect crew to deal with that before it hits the gunpowder stores and ignites your ship.

Naval battles are chaotic, and can get overwhelming when it is a full on twenty-per-side battle. They can also be overwhelming to your video card, as it is the most graphically demanding part of the game. But it is worth every bit of the pain you’ll endure mastering the challenge: this is an amazing segment of the game that is at once entirely new yet feels tightly integrated with the rest of the more traditional RTS fare. This is what every new RTS will be measured against from now on. And I hope someone brings this level of detail and prowess to modern naval battles … and soon!

Make no mistake, Empire: Total War changes everything. You can no longer just plow across the map on a rampage of destruction. You need to balance aggression and diplomacy, walk the narrow path of building a massive army and appeasing rivals. Because if you start to look like Napoleon, your neighbors will treat you that way – and they don’t behave like binary switches, they slowly alter their decision making in response to yours and eventually make alliances to wipe you off the map. And without proper thought and planning they WILL wipe you off the map.

After working through some single-player campaigns you will likely want to try your hand at some multiplayer. Compared with the onslaught of innovation in the single player campaigns, multiplayer doesn’t steal the show – it is simply working with or against others using the same tactics you’ve learned in the single player mode. This is perhaps yet another nod to the stellar AI in the single player game offers. In nearly every other RTS ever made the difference between the computer AI and playing against another person is stark, but here the computer does a great job. Still there is no match for battling against friends with whom you’ve matched wits through campaigns in several RTS, and that is true here. The new features and enhancements of standard features all come together to give you loads of options to take on opponents in new ways.

One complaint – the game requires Steam for activation. No complaint about that in general – I love Steam and have more than 50 games on the service. It makes installation and management of games trivially easy. However, I dislike the growing trend that even retail disc versions of games get tied into Steam as a requirement rather than an option. While I understand the need to address piracy, this also kills the second-hand market, limiting sales to those who like to play for a few months and then trade the game either to a store like GameStop or online on a site like GameTZ or Goozex.

So what else don’t I like? There is nothing major – a few performance issues particularly with naval battles, the changes to special units enhanced ease at the expense of variety and … well, not much else. In a game of this size and scale to have no major glaring issues is simply stunning. Having played all of the major RTS releases this year, the fact that I am amazed is … well, amazing. It really punctuates the old maxim that if you make a quality product with features people want, they will abandon their hard-line stance about making certain changes and flock to the product. Empire: Total War has sold very well and received universal acclaim for good reason – it is a truly great game, definitely at the very pinnacle of the RTS genre. If you have a PC capable of high-end gaming, and have any interest at all in the RTS genre, consider this a must-buy.

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Pros:
+ Stunning graphical details and scope
+ Excellent audio
+ Massive game
+ Great new features
+ Easy enough for beginners but scales for masters
+ Naval battles are excellent

Cons:
– Limited variety of special units
– Requires Steam for activation of retail copies

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Sega
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Release Date: 3/3/09
Genre: RTS
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-8
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!