It seems appropriate, writing about a Total War game, to start off with a quote from Sun Tzu. Having pored through Wikiquote for a few more minutes than I'd intended - his Art of War really is bite-sized entertainment, even to flaky real-life pacifists like myself - I settled on "You cannot stop innovation". It's not the most colourful quote, but as Empire marks the biggest leap in innovation since the first Total War game, it seems more relevant than the strange stuff about building your enemies a golden bridge to retreat across. Golden bridges? That'd be really slow and expensive. Idiot.
So, a recap: Empire is set over the entire 18th Century, on a map from India to America. It's a time when new weaponry was beginning to shift the emphasis of battles away from melee and mounted combat. Not completely, of course - bayonets were still being used in the trenches of the 20th Century, and horses still have their role. They're just not used to run through the middle of troops. War in Empire is different.
Trade will be vital, as ever - and diplomacy will take a stronger role in the new game, as it did in the period itself. This means that Creative Assembly will have to reign in some of the AI's brasher decisions. Previously, diplomacy has occasionally felt something of an irrelevance, beyond trade deals. Occasionally, the AI rejected fair offers in the face of certain defeat. Brilliance on dozens of levels taken as a given - and they are staggeringly brilliant games - this was a recurring annoyance.
But diplomatic nuance isn't what's on display in Creative Assembly's Horsham offices, as six people file into a room with five computers, to play a 2v2 match. As fans will know, Empire: Total War's most striking innovation is the introduction of naval combat. And that's what we're playing today.
First, we're shown a demo, which introduces us to the basics of maritime warfare. Each ship has sail strength, and a hull strength bar for each side of the ship. A flag indicates the allegiance, and flashes white when your morale has been sapped to the point of retreat, and around the selected ship's base is a compass, displaying the direction of the wind. All of this is useful in deciding what to do - don't present a weak side to the enemy, take advantage of superior control if you see your opponent's sails are damaged, and if the wind's in your favour, use it.
I took France's seat. A generous sixty-second deployment phase was a bit long for my three ships, but full battles will feature more like twenty. Having positioned my boats in a straight line, I was told that this was a tactical mistake; I was directed to fan out. My ships spreading out like an Atari logo, I fired chain-shot to take out my opponents' masts. Chain shot is automatically fired higher, and is designed to reduce your opponents' mobility by destroying their sails. Round shot - Cannonballs Classique - are fired more directly at the hull, and go towards sinking the ship, and taking out the crew manning that hull's cannon. Grape shot, meanwhile, is designed for use at close range, as a prelude to - or a reaction against - boarding. Boarding may not be easy, but will be worth it in a longer game. You win the opponent's ship, and any technology they may have that you're missing.
So, while I focused on their sails, Spain had been training their broadsides on my hull - causing more immediately debilitating damage, and causing my sailors to become flummoxed. Flummoxed, to the point where they refused to carry on fighting. My advisor seemed baffled that the French had been the first to rout all morning, giving me the chance for an easy and racist joke that I'm still proud not to have kept inside my awful head.
The ships we're using are limited. The full game will have many more. Rocket ships (invented around 1780) will have the ability to spread fire across the deck of opposing ships, and in the final game, you'll control many more ships, such as frigates, sloops, brigs. First-rates like Nelson's 104-gun ship the HMS Victory (still preserved at Portsmouth) will feature, as will oversized versions of these mighty ships. These buggers can house 136 guns, giving them the power to properly muck up a bunch of junks - the downside being a turning circle with the diameter of Britain.
There are some niggles, as you'd expect of a game that isn't finished; you don't choose the angle at which you fire the cannons, and too often, my cannon fired harmlessly around my target. Demanding to know why this was, with a cross whine in my voice, I discovered other factors were at play - the relationship between my boat's firing range and the distance of the enemy ship, wind, weather (in the full game - our seas were calm and sunny) - but still, the reload time is long enough to make it frustrating when you score a complete miss. "It's good to see other people playing it," comments our guide. "You do a lot of things that we'd never do." With the suspicion that my warfaring skills have just been subtly served, I retire from active duty after an hour.
Even historical games are forced into a compromise between reality and gameplay, and Total War has always had a bit of fun with reality. Creative Assembly has included a number of exotic and invented units in its time, not to mention its fondness of elephants. Similar has happened in the sea battles. In naval combat, fights could be drawn out over a period of days, as ships manoeuvred to re-engage the enemy to their own advantage. CA has also discarded the need for tacking - the counter-intuitive process by which a Northerly wind carries you most quickly North-East or North-West. You can still gain some advantage by plotting your course at 45 degrees to the wind, but you won't need a thorough grounding in sailing in order to play.
On the other hand, some weapons are very real, even if they're unheard of. The Puckle Gun - named after its inventor, James Puckle, and designed for use against Christians and Turks - is a victim of history. The world's first machine-gun, a lack of investment caused it to fail in 1718. Needless to say, you'll be able to use it here.
What's hugely impressive, as ever, is the visuals. There's always been a sense of awe as you sweep down to the battlefield, but never more so than when you sweep in like a nosey god to survey the damage to your ship - or if you've capsized your enemy, to click purposelessly on his overboard crew.
Other innovations include the AI - formerly a chess-based AI, thinking dozens of moves ahead, it now has a prioritised to-do list, with items constantly evaluated as to whether it's best equipped - or required - to achieve them. It sounds interesting, but AI is a nebulous old bird, and how this translates into sensible-seeming decisions won't be clear until the review stage. But the plan to develop the computers' personality, and unify the thinking between the turn-based and real-time elements of the game is promising.
In the RTS battles on land, you can move large blocks of troops and have them retain their formation in relation to each other, and the use of muskets makes new formations more suitable to ranged units. For example, archers can walk around in blocks - they don't have to be in the front line to fire on the enemy, but muskets are a much more horizontal affair, and shooting the bloke in front is frankly bad for morale. So you can form a long, thin line to increase your firepower - the drawback being that this presentation is easily broken through. It all has an impact, though - present your forces as more impressive than they are, and it'll be intimidating to the AI. It's a matter of presenting your troops in the strongest possible light, even if it's just you and a bunch of scarecrows. Bear in mind who you're fighting, though - as usual, every general will have his own style.
Meanwhile, back in the turn-based part of the game, a tech-tree will allow you to research down the faster-moving technologies of the 18th Century. Obviously, it's no Civ in terms of scope, but there's enough to ensure that you won't max out your tree in one game; you'll be forced to neglect some branches if you want to reach the end of any others. A new way of winning is the Prestige victory condition, allowing you to succeed by becoming the most well thought of and thoroughly awesome leader. It's not like a culture win in Civ, though - part of the process of becoming so prestigious is to win a lot of battles, and defeat a lot of enemies.
This is pure PC strategy, in a century that's more interesting than it may first appear. With digital delivery handled by Steam, updates can be issued easily. With one eye to the future - CA develops for the technology that will be around - and the other on scalability, everyone will be able to get a very long war out of Empire. You'll just need a slightly more powerful PC if you want the reflections of 9,999 soldiers to be in every other soldier's tin hat.
They're famously involved games, and daunting in their detail and scope. But with CA's continued insistence on making the game as simple, complicated, automated or micromanaged as the player wants it to be, Empire should continue the Total War trend of outselling itself with every release.