Empire will be the first Total War game made by the series-founding Creative Assembly team since Rome four years ago, and will be twice as big. While the three years of effort poured into Empire may not be as immediately apparent as Rome's jump from 2D to 3D, there are some meaty and if not more impressive leaps made beneath the surface. And for a series that's earned 9/10 for every major instalment (including Medieval 2 - developed in Australia) that makes us ever so excited.
The Total War series can be a little off-putting at first glance. The grand idea is a marriage between a turn-based settlement-building campaign map (think Civilization) and real-time land battles (think Command & Conquer). To win, the player must dominate, by force, the largest amount of the map. The series is also steeped in history; each aspect, from units to buildings to characters, are extensively researched and recreated. And that is Total War in a nutshell. Well, that was Total War in a nutshell. This time things are slightly different.
Geographical domination still plays a key role, but win conditions have been expanded and encompass political and economical strategies, although a powerful army will still be of interest. To achieve these ends, different styles of government can be adopted, and this ruling body sets the unique goals of the faction based around its needs. Mess up, however, and rebellions and even revolutions may occur. This could be a result of over-taxing the rich while being lenient on the poor, for example, although when push comes to shove there will be a choice of joining either the loyalists or the revolutionaries. It's another step closer to producing a campaign map with the level of depth expected from a series like Civilization.
Trade is perhaps the most dramatically-altered non-battle aspect to Total War, and has been opened up on a global scale and split into three trade theatres: the Indies, the Americas, and Europe. Capturing valuable trade routes will be vital to a successful campaign, as will depriving other factions of theirs. And to achieve all this, of course, you need some of them boats. And herein lies the "third game", and possibly the most eye-catching feature of Empire: Total War: naval warfare.
The computer previously auto-resolved battles on the high seas, but this time players order the ships about as they would on dry land. Gigantic floating fortresses will slowly manoeuvre to unleash thundering broadsides, choosing either round shot ammunition to devastate the opposing boat, chain shot to snap the masts, or grapeshot to decimate the crew. Get close enough and vessels can be boarded - there's even pirate ships to capture and use as your own, or burning armada tactics to employ. But to truly master the seas is to master the weather, which will rage and sleep and keep Admirals on their toes. Flotillas must be varied and made of fast and small as well as big and large ships, just as an army needs varied troops on the ground. Clearly, there's been lots of effort invested, and we're promised as much complexity on the sea as there is on the ground. Which, of course, is not to say the rest of the game has been standing still; quite the opposite, and the changes are both broad and minute.
The broadest is the AI, which has become one entity rather than be split into a campaign-brain and a battle-brain. The effect is opposing battle generals acting according to an overarching campaign goal, which can be as subtle as not wasting effort on a strategically unimportant area, or as drastic as drawing players into dummy battles; distracting them from the real threat or forcing them to divide their attention. The battle AI itself has also been completely rewritten, and now reacts in a plan-based rather than state-based way, which prevents predicting that the computer will do A if attacked with B. Plus, these decisions adapt to suit the overall battle plan, which in turn is bossed by the overarching campaign plan. Even the generals have unique personalities that set them apart. The combined result is an AI that feels eerily human, and one that sparks battles with the element of surprise and unpredictability.
Meaty changes have been made to the campaign map side of things, where the tile-based layout has been scrapped, allowing players to move freely over terrain. Buildings have been ripped from settlement lists and visually scattered over the surrounding land, so one look should tell you what capabilities a settlement has. Then, if you need a ship, simply click on the port and order one to be built. Upgrades can be visually picked out, too. And these upgrades are tied to another new and key area: technologies. These can be researched and applied across the board; to alter government types, build economic infrastructures, expand trade, even enhance education to speed up the research itself. Also, of course, bigger guns. Military advancements can be as intricate as permanent bayonet attachments allowing riflemen to shoot and stab, or as obvious as town-wrecking artillery.
Another obvious change, and a rather important one, is the historical period, which takes place between 1700 and 1800. Crucially this welcomes in the age of gunpowder, and its ramifications on the battlefield are enormous. Tactics become more about protecting hulking ranged guns that can batter cities in an instant. That is, of course, presuming you don't want to settle in the city - flatten it and the population will hate you, unsurprisingly, and it will need to be rebuilt. Cavalry also no longer flattens infantry, and the effect is hefty blurring of the paper, scissors, stone unit hierarchy. Empire, it's fair to say, presents an ideal more akin to paper, scissors, stone, tree, bird, apple and bucket.
Riflemen and snipers can be garrisoned or hide behind cover for the first time in the series, and there are all sorts of period tactics employed by your opposing numbers and factions. Take storming a city, as you want to settle there and increase your empire. If the defenders decide to garrison in the many houses then your advancement will be slow and bloody. Add to this a heavy downpour and terrain mashed into mud and your advance becomes even more treacherous. And morale in Empire is more prevalent than ever; men will lose belief in many more stages before fleeing, but flee they will if you make foolhardy decisions to embark on a Russian campaign in mid-winter, or stomp into the tropics during monsoon season. Historic events such as the French Revolution will also play out around you. These are not set in stone, but rather will be triggered if the conditions are right, so history can be altered. In total there are 12 playable factions at launch, with 50 out there to encounter.
All of which sounds bafflingly complex and time-consuming. Only, it isn't. Because another star feature of Empire is accessibility. Tutorials and on-screen advice have been vastly improved to ease newcomers in and returning fans back. More exciting is the extensive streamlining done to cut-down micro-management and enormously time-consuming turns. So, tax and trade are handled by a tab and split into theatres (Europe, Indies, Americas), as is diplomacy. Incidentally, gone are wandering scholars and assassins to keep an eye on. Instead, the special units have been merged into just two: Gentlemen and Rakes. The former handles diplomatic pursuits, and the latter does the underhand jobs. Gentlemen, brilliantly, can engage in duels to politely dispose of key members of opposing factions, and can enrol at foreign universities and pinch research, all in the name of study. Anyway. Armies are built through generals who recruit from nearby settlements - no longer grown all over the map and then moved to meet a leader. Even commands are streamlined so that orders are issued and then moves made, thus speeding up turn time.
Clearly lots of effort has been poured into the new engine underneath all of this, which is the most visually spectacular of a visually spectacular series so far. Little soldiers can be zoomed into and exhibit extraordinary detail (even varying faces and uniforms to other members of the unit), especially considering there can be up to 10,000 on the screen firing the same number of projectiles - themselves individual physical objects. Buildings crumble, ships creak and crack and explode, and bodies litter the battlefield as a silent reminder of the carnage witnessed. Animation has significantly improved; motion-captured cinematic actions have been applied to the units likely to get into hand-to-hand range, and generally units exist and clash much more naturally and believably than before. And, surprisingly, the minimum system requirements will be fairly low; a decent machine from two years ago should do the trick. And the engine is scalable for those that can handle the extra effects.
Perhaps the only rock left unturned is multiplayer. We were told Empire would be the "most moddable" instalment in the series when we asked if there would be a toolset shipped with the game, and there would be "more modes of [online] play" than ever before - some inspired by fans, others to attract newcomers. Creative Assembly will reveal all in the lead up to February 2009, but the feeling in the room was that something special lurks in the wings. The series has only ever let us face off in land battles against each other online. Perhaps Empire will finally gift the Total War series with an online campaign map mode. We certainly hope so. If it does, then there is so much both at first glance and second that Empire may do what no other in the series has: earn 10/10.