Empire: Total War Reader Review
Empire: Total War, PC
The Creative Assembly have been rolling out the Total War games for as long as I can remember and every single one has been a success. My love of these games actually began before the first of the series (Shogun), with a little remembered game called Centurion: Defender of Rome. This amazing game was built for the 486 range of PC's and featured a turn based strategy map with real time strategy battles. Obviously somewhat more limited by only having a staggering 4mb of RAM to play with on the average PC of the time, it still managed to achieve an awful lot. So for me that was the birth of the genre - one that very few companies seem to get right or move forward, but CA have managed to do that so far and with the amazing screenshots, videos and press reports about their newest offering, it would seem they have done it again. Unfortunately Empire is a case of two steps forward, one step backwards.
The premise of the Total War games is simply to pick a faction from the chosen historical period and then, through a combination of diplomacy, strategy and of course, conquest, proceed to bring your faction to dominance within a set time period.
Each successive game has shifted time periods and added new depth, but stuck to the fundamentals and Empire is no different. The game is still split into two key parts - the strategy map and the real time battles.
The strategy map is where you will spend most of your time in the game and it is the largest map, in terms of global coverage, to feature in a total war game so far. The game is set between 1700 and 1800, and therefore the map covers what were the key regions of conflict at that time - the Americas, Europe and India. There are also four small sea based trade zones - representing areas where little land conquest is to take place, but historically nations made huge amounts of money by dominating sea based trade in those areas.
Geographically speaking, the map is bigger, but in terms of game play size, I don't think it is much bigger, if at all, than the previous game in the series - Medieval 2. Whereas in that game, a single country may have anything up to six or seven controllable cities or castles, Empire has done away with that system and replaced it with a single region hub in each zone. For example, whereas before Great Britain consisted of London, Caernarvon, Nottingham, York, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin - it is now just Dublin, Edinburgh and London.
The region hub is the main point of control - lose the hub and you lose the region. They have also drastically cut down on your choice of buildings to construct there. You have five types of building to choose - military/governing, naval, artillery, leisure and fortifications. You can also recruit your armies from these hubs, depending on what level of advancement you have - higher levels offer access to better troops and artillery, as well as the ability to recruit more units at the same time.
Outside of the region hub, you then have towns and ports. These spring up as your population grows and you can choose to specialise them in one area - towns can be set to focus on trade/industry, religion, education or leisure. Once you have made your decision, it cannot be changed (at least not that I could tell), its function can be upgraded as you unlock new technologies. Ports work in a similar way and can be specialised to trade, food or military purposes.
Towns and ports can be attacked by your enemies, usually resulting in damage that you then have to repair, for a cost. Other than this minor loss of funds, temporarily losing the benefits of a town is usually nothing much more than a mild irritation, and I found myself only attacking enemy towns when I couldn't reach their region capital or needed to wait for more troops to arrive and join the army before laying siege.
Blockading a port has more of an impact, completely cutting off the trade income that it generated (and as this is the era of global trade, that can really hurt your finances), as well as blocking in any ships docked there.
Which brings me onto trade. Whereas before trade was a passive thing, going on in the background, in Empire it's a key consideration of your campaign. A huge amount of your income is generated through trading the goods produced in your towns all around the world - providing they are linked up to your ports, which in turn are then linked up to your capital and your allies/trade partners ports. These trade lanes are vulnerable to piracy, either to outright piracy (although there is virtually no pirate activity compared to previous games in the series) or to privateering, by the navies of your enemies. Keeping your trade lanes free is essential and drives much of your naval activity. The trade zones I mentioned earlier, are regions where you can send special merchant ships to establish trade there, generating a substantial income, as long as you can keep those ships alive and the trade lanes open. This new focus on trade and security means that your naval forces are now an essential part of your strategy, rather than something you only bothered with when having to transport your soldiers long distances.
There are three other key areas of the strategy map portion of the game - characters, research and diplomacy. Diplomacy in previous TW games has been a bit of a joke, your allies would always inexplicably turn on you and minnow nations would attack your military behemoth when not even threatened by it. This made alliances worthless, but it is something they have improved on with Empire. Allies wont now turn on you, unless you really push them (I still haven't had an ally break their word) and they will aggressively come to your aid when your enemies are within reasonable distance of them. The rest of the diplomacy is not so good though, I've often found it impossible to negotiate something as simple as a trade agreement with some nations, even when they were listed as "friendly" to me, where as some that were openly hostile would happily accept a trade arrangement or military access to their lands. I appreciate that diplomacy isn't an exact science, but it just seems a little bit off in this game.
What is good, is that you are now given access to a useful set of diplomatic tools - interactive maps that give you an instant break down of each factions standings and relationships and what is causing harmonious or strained relations.
Empire also has a new take on agents and generals and sadly the changes they have made are a huge step backwards. The character classes are split two ways - civilian characters and military ones. Civilians include the missionary, the Rake and the Gentleman. The missionary is there to help convert people to your religion and they are recruited from towns that you have specialised to religion. The gentleman can challenge other characters to a duel, aid in research or attempt to steal the research from other nations. Research is now actively managed by you, rather than occurring naturally through population growth, the advancement of time and constructing appropriate sets of buildings. Towns specialised to education produce gentleman and can be tasked to research a specific new technology. The Rake is your nefarious type, he can assassinate other characters or infiltrate and sabotage structures. He is recruited from towns specialised to leisure.
Characters are no longer actively recruited by you, for a fee. They now spawn randomly and in limited numbers. However as most characters, except the gentleman, have no real impact on the game (and even then, the gentleman is only useful to speeding up the research process by sitting idle in your educational towns) it doesn't really matter. I use them as scouts to pull back the fog of war and not a lot else. I definitely miss recruiting armies of assassins and terrorising my opponents.
Military characters are those in charge of your navies and your armies. Generals and Admirals are now actively recruited, rather than waiting for family members to come of age and take on the role. This is an accurate reflection of the time period, as it is when the shift from privilege to merit began. Apparently recruiting too many generals and admirals reduces their quality. There are also brigadiers, which I believe are characters who end up in charge of your armies, when no general is present. They are given a name, but no unique unit card. If you have a unit that has been through a few battles and gained some experience, you can promote that character to a general and he should be higher quality, because of his experience. In practice, I've never seen anything other than a 3 star general with no character traits recruited by any means (in other words, a default general). I would also get confusing messages about brigadiers passing away in towns where there were no armies, no agents and no navies - I have absolutely no idea who they were or where they came from, and certainly could not seem to get any kind of access to them when they were alive. I can't help but think that this feature is broken, it certainly doesn't seem to work how it states in the manual. Perhaps I am missing something?
A huge disappointment for the characters is their lack of individuality. In previous games there were hundreds of traits they could pick up and many accomplices that travelled with them, altering their stats in some way, good or bad. Empire offers a dizzyingly bland and narrow array of these traits, I can't have seen more than twenty across all character types. This is a crying shame, as building up a unique and powerful 10 star general was one of the most satisfying achievements in previous games - seeing how their performance on the strategy map and in the battles then translated into traits - cowardice, bravery, battle scars, an unnerving love of violence, corruption and honour. Even better, these traits would often come out during the generals pre battle speeches - blood thirsty generals baying for.. well blood, drunkards slurring their speech and talking gibberish - it was great stuff. Sadly that is another feature inexplicably missing from Empire - there are no speeches by your generals before a battle anymore. It is true that I often skipped the speeches, but not always and certainly not early in the game when they were all new - they were a great feature and sorely missed from Empire.
The big hook with the Total War series, is their huge battles. Literally thousands of soldiers on screen, pummelling each other to death. This is the area that makes the Total War games such a success, a brilliant combination of action and strategy. Units have specific strengths and weaknesses, they have to work together and careful decisions have to be taken about how best to use them, the terrain and your enemies movements to your advantage.
Previous games have suffered from AI problems, both in terms of the strategy map AI sending hopelessly outnumbered foes to fight you and the battles themselves - not reacting to massed ranged attacks properly, initiating an attack on your army and then sitting stationary on a hill - forcing you to attack them instead (or wait until the timer runs out). On a smaller scale, units behaved oddly at times - getting a cavalry unit to charge properly was more luck than judgement and negotiating the walls and streets of a city could be an interesting experience. Fortunately, many of these issues have now been resolved. Cavalry are much better behaved, the AI factions use small armies to raid your towns and large ones to defend or siege your forts and region hubs. When too large armies meet, there will be heavy casualties on both sides, all you can do is try to minimise the damage they do to your army and out manoeuvre and outgun your opponent.
The battle maps are now much more varied - there are still open fields, hilly terrain and forested areas, but now there are also towns and structures to be fought over and around. Some buildings can be garrisoned, making the troops inside resistant to everything except artillery and melee assault (but drastically reducing their firepower). Troops can take cover behind walls, although this feature seems pretty flaky - often they simply would not fire out from behind cover, despite being well in range of the enemy, I often had to manually pull them out of cover and line them up as normal somewhere behind the wall, just to get them to fire. It sometimes worked.. it sometimes didn't, but it's a real pain having to focus on these troops just to make sure they are defending themselves, when you should be concentrating on moving your units around to face or cause new threats. All in all, the inclusion of buildings and walls/fences into the game is great, but the feature needs some work.
Generally the battles play very differently to previous games, artillery is the king of the battlefield, especially later on, when more advanced ammunition types make an appearance - shrapnel and scatter shot are effective killers and tactics generally revolve around how to neutralise their artillery, maximise your own and control your casualties in the process. Battles last much longer, due to the nature of ranged warfare and require much more micro-management of your units - their positioning is vitally important now - elevation and orientation have to be carefully considered. Units have to be moved to plug gaps in your line, before that gap is exploited by enemy forces rushing through - destroying your weak artillery pieces or hitting the rest of your forces from behind. Similarly, countering enemy attacks with your own flanking moves is essential, as is waiting for their mobile units to become engaged, before unleashing your cavalry against their artillery. The battles are highly satisfying, at least those that take place between the modern forces. Fighting the Native American forces is, quite frankly, like pulling teeth. Their archers somehow manage to outrange rifles and muskets and most of their troops are hand to hand, it simply isn't enjoyable fighting them - a big problem when for many of the big factions, the early part of the game is spent fighting nothing else but them - something that has a big impact on the initial enjoyment on offer from the campaign game.
There are a mixture of technical problems that dog the battles - the AI still does some very strange things, although nowhere near as often as it did in previous games, but that isn't annoying, it's just a shame. What is annoying is the appalling path finding units display when navigating walls and buildings during sieges - it is actually far worse than ever before. For example, one of my units had successfully scaled the wall of a fortress, I issued them a command to move along the wall to the next section, ready to fight the defenders there - a simple case of running along the wall. Not so for these energetic super soldiers - they decided to climb back down their scaling ropes, run along the base of the wall to the section I had ordered them to attack, and then rescale that wall - repeating the difficult scaling process all over again. Genius - and they come up with these amazing ideas to fox the enemy all too often. Other AI issues include things like a serious lack of either consideration on the behalf of your gun crews, or self preservation for your infantry. Ordering units to move around behind your lines is a risky business, guns will fire regardless of what is around them. If you've ordered a unit to move behind the lines in the heat of battle, you will often later find a large pile of them around your artillery pieces, where they blasted them at point blank range. I'm sure in M2TW the guns refused to fire when surrounded by friendly infantry - why the gunners of ETW are any less considerate is beyond me.
Sound is also a big problem - I'm certain the sound for me was bugged - infantry charge into combat in total silence, the yelling and screaming that took place in M2TW are nowhere to be heard here. Musket fire, drums and the clashes of swords are all very quiet, whereas the sound of marching soldiers and cannon fire is extremely loud (as it should be for cannons, but I can't quite see how the marching of 50 soldiers is louder than those 50 soldiers firing their guns?). The music is also pretty uninspiring, which is unusual for a Total War game, as they traditionally have had excellent music to accompany the battles - I ended up turning it off, in the hope that maybe it would help with the sound situation (it didn't).
This poor implementation of sound, combined with the removal of blood and gore from the battlefield (please.. please bring this back!), combined with some dodgy animations (which are more intricate and detailed than before, but there are many instances of units sliding around the map, which I've never seen before in a TW game) can often lessen the impact the game would otherwise achieve.
The other battle area is new to the series - you can now play out the naval battles in the same way as the land battles. I really enjoy the naval battles, they are simple but satisfying, with lots of pleasing detail. You control up to twenty ships of varying sizes, and much like the land battles, the objective is to sink, rout or capture your opponents force. The damage modelling on the ships is really impressive - people, structure and rigging react realistically to incoming fire, with visible damage and visible effects on the performance of the ship itself.
The tactics of a naval battle are very different to those on land, typically you have to be very aggressive, hit your opponents hard, split up and isolate their forces and then gang up on them. The positioning of your ships is key, as they fire from their sides, with shot designed to damage the hull, the rigging or the sailors. I thought the damage modelling was extremely impressive, watching masts and rigging falling part, or spotting a sinking ship, sometimes as much as a minute before it's status actually indicates it is in trouble, all show a great level of detail that has been achieved here.
Unfortunately the naval battles haven't escaped the bugs either, the major one here being a frequent crash whenever boarding a vessel - so much so that I simply don't issue the order to board vessels anymore.
It takes a little while to get to grips with how the naval battles work, but it is well worth the effort to do so, they are a great deal of fun - it is just a pity that there are not more of them.
I've had the opportunity to give the multiplayer a go and I'm pleased to find that it works well - there isn't much lag, the game making system worked first time and without problems and they've introduced a ranking system also. Where they have really messed up with the multiplayer is in how they have cut back on the customisability of your games.
You have two choices that limit the size of the battle - standard or lots of money. You can't specify how much you have to buy - which means there is no way to handicap for a weaker player, or design your own scenario on the fly by tweaking what is on offer. The number of maps is also significantly smaller than in previous games, with only two or three large maps for 2 v 2 type games - and no siege maps for 2 v 1. I could also only find three set piece battle scenarios to play - two of which were included on the demo - this is also significantly less than in previous games. This hamstringing of the multiplayer game seems bizarre to me - why on earth would you cut down on the options available to your players - giving more game play options is surely the easiest part of the development process (maybe not for ranked games where balance has to be maintained, but certainly for unranked games). This lack of options is also something they need to address in the main single player campaign game. For reasons of historical accuracy, each faction beings the game with certain allies and certain starting regions and forces - it would be nice to have a feature to start the campaign with all factions on an equal footing. For example, I'd like to play a campaign as Britain, that is actually challenging, rather than a walkover due to how easy it is to quickly dominate transatlantic trade.
Technically speaking Empire is hugely impressive to look at, the graphics are stunning, although even on Ultra settings they are not nearly as good as the pre-release screenshots would have you believe, it also uses a very heavy handed LOD system, resulting in many units looking no better at moderate distances than they did in Shogun - particularly in large battles - and this is on a 285 GTX, not exactly an underpowered graphics card. Still, even with these irks, the smoke and lighting effects look incredible, the animations (when they go smoothly) are fantastic, and the overall look and feel of the battles is spot on. The sea battles are a particular success here, the water look and ships look simply stunning, with impressive levels of detail up close.
The price to pay for this graphical prowess is in general performance - which, is acceptable for the most part - and lengthy load times, which is not acceptable, especially when you consider how short the load times were with M2TW; Empire doesn't appear to be doing that much more, that the load times are some five times greater. Even the campaign map, which is largely static, suffers from constant stuttering and delays - for some reason selecting my fleets or ports in the English channel, often results in a twenty second pause; navigating around the map usually results in frantic hard disk activity that stalls the game (and I defragged it especially!).
Despite all these problems, I still very much enjoy playing this game - once I've finished writing this I will load it up for a battle or two. Battles are tactically challenging and visually satisfying, even if their audio needs a lot of work. The strategy map, whilst lacking the beautiful simplicity of previous TW games, still offers considerable challenges and reasons to think carefully about your next move. The joys of playing the really big battles with friends, cannot be overstated. If you c an overlook the bugs, and get your head around the many new features and ways of doing things, this is a rewarding game, that I'm sure will only get better as it is patched and mods are released online to add some of the missing functionality - just don't expect it to reach out and grab you from the offset like other games in the series might have.
9 / 10