Empire: Total War Reader Review
The total war series makes its grand return to PC gaming with another slice of real-time combat and political manuevering. As the 4th title in the series (excluding the many expansions) this total war takes us into the year 1700, and nothing will be the same.
The main feature of Empire is the grand campaign. You get the choice to play several major nations of the time and aim to take them to glory across Europe, America and India at the cost of your neighbours lands and resources. Like the previous titles, it stays true to the total war method of play. Another first for the series is a full singleplayer mini-campaign where you play George Washington as a British colonial officer and then leading the rebellion and forming the United States. Other game features include local and online battles where you can earn ranks and achievements. Naval combat makes its debut in this title and is probably the biggest wow factor of the game, more on that in a minute. Quick battles ranging from siege, land and naval are available for armchair generals to get their fix and the ability to view your statistics is also available to measure your greatness. Empire total war is also the first game in the series to use STEAM as its platform for launching and updating, along with multiplayer.
The singleplayer tutorial campaign is a bit of a blessing and a curse. Although it does the job of introducing players to the controls of the game well, it is the only time you can play as the US. Even after completing the tutorial campaign, you cannot select the US as a nation in the grand campaign. This is because the game starts in 1700 and they only have a small chance of rebelling in the campaign. This is kind of a loss for American fans of the series who were looking forward to playing as their country for the first time in a total war game in the full campaign setting, but there could be a chance of a future expansion to add them in fully.
When playing the grand campaign you are presented with 11 nations to play as overall, ranging from Great Britain to the Maratha Confederacy in India. Sadly these 11 are the only playable nations as it has been confirmed that the other nations on the campaign map are not unlockable. When choosing a nation you can alter several factors, such as campaign length, victory conditions and difficulty. Then you will start your campaign and be taken to the campaign map, showing you what territory or provinces you control along with the other nations provinces. This is where you will engage in diplomacy, making alliances and trade along with declaring war and various other political dealings. You will also constuct new buildings in your province's cities to improve your citizens lives, strengthen your armies and navies. Another change for Empire compared to previous titles is the way your provinces work. Each will contain a capital city, which can house several building types such as barracks, ordnance factories, observatories etc, while the smaller towns, which can range from between 1-5 in a single province, allow you to build textile mills, coaching houses, churces and colleges. Each building plays an important part in your economy and can be attacked and defended, but to control the province you must capture the capital city. Some buildings add new elements to the campaign map such as the college, which is an essential structure as it produces gentlemen that can research new technologies for your nation. Research is done by ordering any number of gentlemen into the college and then opening the new research tab to assign them a task. Although research can be done without gentlemen it is a very slow process. It comes in three flavours, military, industrial and Philosophy, each unlocking new building upgrades, types of building and weapons.
Fitting with the time, government plays a big role in Empire and depending on what nation you play as, your options are different. Government officials take on the roles of treasurer, head of state, justice, army and navy, and each member has traits that alter their performance. Traits can be earned or lost depending on actions taken by the player and some government types allow you to change your cabinet as often as you like each turn, while others are locked. Managing your people is another element to be mindful of, unless you want the peasants getting wild ideas of revolution. Several factors play into this, such as tax levels for the poor and middle class, religious buildings, educational buildings and industrial growth. All effect the people of your nation and you need to find a balance between economic growth and pleasing your citizens.
To aid you in these endeavours outside of military might, are your rakes and gentlemen. Rakes replace assassins and spies but perform the same task of killing important generals, religious figures, gentlemen and also sabotaging buildings and spying on your enemy. Gentlemen, aswell as being able to perform research at your colleges, can also attempt to steal technology from other nations and play an important role in keeping your nation afloat. The more gentlemen in a college, the faster that college will research new technologies for you. If you encounter a neighbouring nations gentlemen, you can send either a rake or one of your own gentlemen to challenge him to a duel. The duel plays out as a pistols at dawn affair or with rapiers, in the popular CG movie style, showing your man's success or failure. It can be a gamble to order a duel but if you do succeed then they will earn traits as a duelist and can be useful from then on for keeping your enemies research level to a minimum. Finally, the good word is spread by your religious figures who can either convert the local populace in your own lands, or be sent to preach in your enemies lands, provided they are of a different religious leaning to stir up trouble. The better they do, the more likely they are to gain positive traits and increase their effectiveness overall.
Empire has expanded trade considerably by adding new sea trade only locations. These locations are shown as coastal areas of Brazil, the east indies and africa. Unlike previous total war games that simply allowed you to agree to trade and the money came rolling in, now you must aggressively defend your ports and keep trade routes open. The trade zones have several points that allow a trade vessel, which can be built from any port you own to dock there and begin sending goods back to the homeland. The more of these you control, the bigger the profit. Understandably the AI will wander into these areas to claim ports for their own, so you might want to weigh up your options when looking to expand your trade empire. You can raid existing trade routes of your enemies with your fleets and deny them money from the trade lanes but be prepared to fight if you choose this route.
Now of course in total war no matter how hard you try, someone is going to decide your an easy target and declare war on you and this is when the fun begins. When you march an army into contact with your opponents, battle begins and you are taken to the deployment screen allowing you to position your forces however you want before starting the battle. Land combat in Empire is just as fun as always and in some ways even better with the technological advances of the time period.
Commanding your troops is simple, using the right mouse button to select locations to march, enemy units to attack, and when held down and dragged, set the formation of the selected unit(s). There are shortcut keys for all orders so players can quickly make orders on the fly and units can be grouped together to act as larger formations for more strategic options. You can also pause and speed up the battle to give orders or avoid having to wait for units to slowly march to their destination. Other orders are handled via the UI, such as fire at will, retreating, rotating and running/walking.
Artillery is a big factor now, as cannon technology has come along way since Mediveal 2, forcing players to strategise their infantry movement with the support of artllery and positioning. Infantry need to be positioned in long lines when firing, to maximise their fire arc, number of shots available and also to change formation quickly when faced with cavalry. Infantry can now hide behind stone walls for cover from both shot and cannon fire, adding a whole new element to the battles. Probably the most interesting addition is the ability to garrison troops inside of certain buildings, making them into mini forts that can hold out for long periods against attacking infantry while garrisoned. Of course artillery will quickly solve that problem, so beware. If you feel the need to quickly overwhelm a smaller force or you run out of ammo, then ordering your men to charge with bayonet is always the way to go. The hand to hand combat still has the death animations seen in Medieval 2 but now with motion capped versions instead. The kills look much more realistic and cooler as the men really do make contact with their weapons, trying to overpower or make opening for the killing blow.
Cavalry is still important, now expanded to include units such as light dragoons that can fire from horseback and dismount, which is a welcome feature. Cavalry still plays the part of the fist of any armed force, smashing into weakened centres, or under guarded flanks before quickly retreating to your lines for another attack later on. Some cannon units are pulled by horses, and can now be limbered and un-limbered to reposition your cannon to keep up the pressure or to fall back. After a battle you can simply highlight your units that have taken casualties and click to reinforce them, no longer requiring you to go back to a town, you can also recruit new units on the selected army provided you have a general leading it, and the towns train and march the units directly to your army in the field. This is a massive improvement over the older methods and really saves time in game and out.
Although there are some issues, and these are minor compared to the fun you can have. The AI makes odd choices on the map and in land battles, sometimes sending small armies to attack your larger forces. The AI will not reinforce armies in the field, nor recruit in the same manner as you can, making it easy for you to wear down their forces and keeping your own fresh. You can sometimes force the AI into a position on the battle map where it doesn't want to charge, but at the same time will not pull back, allowing you to pummel them with cannons. On the campaign map, you may also see gentlemen and armies constantly walking between two towns during the AI's turn. The AI will sign peace treaties with nations it was at war with, but the game will not inform you of this, leaving you to sometimes continue battling without an ally. Diplomacy can be a headache with AI factions declining offers that clearly benefit them unless you give them an adundance of money and other items to get them to agree.
Now as I mentioned earlier Empire total war has finally given fans naval combat, and well they did a pretty good job. Now compared to land combat this is a completely different beast, relying on wind direction and speed, weather and the water itself. You are limited to 20 ships and although that might sound small trust me its more than enough to contend with, when the enemy may have the same number, and then potential allies add more to the mix. The ships range from small fast galleys, brigs and sloops to the massive ships of the line. Each class of ship is easy to recognise and all handle very uniquely. Combat plays out the same way as on land with the right mouse being used to select destinations and attack orders, and left mouse being used for the UI. Ships can be grouped into formation to keep things simple as they tear each other apart with cannon. Ships fire from the side so positioning is more important than land battles as you cannot simply "run" the ship back to try again from a different angle. As the battle rages, your ships take realtime damage, showing gaping holes in the sides of the hull and leaving dead crew on the decks, but you can be a little more subtle with your tactics. If you want to catch your opponents vessel relatively intact, maybe switching to chain shot to take down the sails and masts of your opponents would be more appealing. Or switch to grape shot, which is shorter ranged but quickly whittles down the crew, allowing you to get in for a boarding action. Boarding actions are a gamble but if successful pay off well with the enemy ship joining your fleet. Lucky shots can ignite the powder blowing the ship sky high for an instant kill, and fires can start which can lead to the same fate. At the end of the battle any surrendered vessels can be sold or added to your fleet, and each ship is individually named, giving you a little connection to your ships. Unlike land armies you must send a fleet back to port for repairs and reinforcement.
The naval battles do have problems though, namely that the AI that controls your vessels has a habit of bunching up and shooting each other which can be very frustrating. Unless you have a fairly good system it will lag your game forcing you to lower your settings or auto resolve the combat for larger battles. Again on the campaign map, the AI will send damaged fleets to battle you instead of reinforcing and repairing the fleet.
Siege battles are still a mainstay of the series and it has been given a little bit of work in Empire. Now you must contend with forts lined with cannons, so staying at a good distance is difficult if you are besieging a city. You have a few options though such as using artillery to smash the walls or doors like previous games, but now your infantry can approach the walls and use grappling irons to scale the walls. Once the grapple is on any other unit can use it to climb so it pays to have a couple of units use these and have the rest of your infantry follow behind to overwhelm the defenders. Each fort has thre to four garrisonable buildings for the defenders to fall back into, or allow attackers to stall counter-attacks. The objective is still to capture the centre though, so sieges usually boil down to simply charging all troops into the middle and just win through sheer brute force. Compared to land and sea battles sieges are comparitively tame and sometimes boring.
The AI has some annoying glitches with wall climbing, sometimes forcing you to direct all attention to a single unit rather than your siege army. When a unit grapples and climbs the wall, they will climb up and then start climbing back down. This can happen with other units on the walls elsewhere who will simply walk over to the ropes and just climb back down, to then climb up again. It can be fixed by giving them a run order into the centre of the fort, but really this shouldn't be the case. Another problem is when ordering a unit to march to the ground level of the fort, the unit may sometimes get caught or simply halt on the slope leading down into the centre, again this is fixed with a run order but frankly it makes the whole affair frustrating and tedious and will hopefully be corrected in the next upcoming patch.
Quick battles or skirmish are still available, but again only the 11 nations in the campaign are available which is a shame since non playable nations such as the Mughal empire, Perisa, Denmark, Morocco and the Barbary states have unique units. The number of maps available is limited as are the number of players on each 2vs2. If you start a LAN game though you can play the larger maps used online and have more AI armies so this is another strange ommission for the game. Why can you play more maps with more AI on a Local area network game, but not have those same options on a skirmish battle?
Since STEAM handles the multiplayer side of things, it is a generally smooth affair. You can get into a game relatively quickly and play either ranked or unranked battles with upto 7 other players. Performance may dip in places with 8 armies, but smaller battles run alot better. Achievements are fairly easy to obtain with some requiring a little time to work through but nothing excessive, but it is the multiplayer ones that will take up most of your time. Creative assembly have teased us before the release of the game of an online 2 player grand campaign, supposedly set to appear in a patch, but patch 1.2 sadly did not give us that mode but 1.3 is on the way.
Empire is a bit of a mixed bag graphically. In some areas Empire stands out as one of the best games visually out there such as the beautifully rendered ships and water effects on sea, along with the splinters of wood and smoke and fire created as cannons fire off round after round. But when you zoom in on a soldiers face in a land battle, things look a little unpolished. Uniforms all look exactly the same for units like militia and line infantry, except for colour swapping to fit the nation they are part of. Other more unique units such as the Polish Lancers look very well done, and kudos go to the art department there, it is just a pity that every army doesn't have a more individual style. Although a recent announcement on the official forums sounds promising, with the news of 11 new units to be added to make the nations stand out a little more, there is hope yet that more will come. The weapon effects from cannon fire creating heat haze to muzzle flashes from musket fire are convincing and help with the immersion, and by pressing the insert key you can switch to first person and really see the effect close up. Metal shines and glints in the sunlight from the tips if bayonet blades to the armour on a cuirassier.Weather effects add to the battle atmosphere and can even impede unit performance, although only in the worst types such as thunderstorms. Overall the textures are nice with a few downsides but nothing that would put you off zooming in for a closer look at the mayhem.
Empire's music is as always with this series consistently good, with tracks fitting each theatre and nation. A surprising but very welcome sound addition is the languages in game. Whatever nation you play the troops will speak in their native tongue, gone are the days of outrageous stereotypical french accents and Danes speaking like Russians. On the battle front, everything sounds right from cannons booming with each shot to muskets popping away. Position the camera close enough and you can hear the whistles and hisses as the rounds zoom past the camera. Ships creak and groan as they bob about on the waves, and sails rip and tear with convincing sound, as ships are hit you almost feel the impact as a broadside pummels another vessel the sound is that good at times. It would be nice to hear the taunts from Medieval 2 when your troops entered melee combat, but the current melee ambience fits with moans and screams as men die.
In closing Empire total war is still a brilliant game with so much potential to be expanded upon by Creative Assembly. The new features are solid and don't feel tacked on and the change of warfare has been very well handled. If CA could make more nations playable from the start of the campaign and in multiplayer then I would be even happier with the title. Still the promise of new units with the next patch, and the possibility of future expansions (as noted by the expansions panel on the official site) has me hopeful that CA will provide for the fans. Long live total war.
9 / 10