Like diving into a murky lake from the rocky cliffs looming above, plunging into Empire: Total War is an intimidating prospect but an exhilarating experience. As with previous games in this strategy franchise, there's an overwhelming amount of content to unearth, though now the clock has been spun forward hundreds of years. Technological advances have made bows and arrows obsolete, the British colonies strive for independence, and major empires approach their inevitable collapse. These historical waters are deep, but also a bit turbulent. Empire is the biggest and broadest Total War yet, and like an aging historical parchment, it's brilliantly ambitious in scope but somewhat tattered at the edges. Nevertheless, the game's historical breadth, turn-based tugs-of-war, and enjoyable real-time battles (both on land and at sea) will transfix series fans and newcomers alike.
You'll put a lot into Empire: Total War, but it gives a lot in return. (Credit: GameSpot)
The grand campaign is the meat of Empire: Total War, and it's there where you're likely to spend the most amount of time. The game stretches across the 18th century and lets you choose from a number of world powers, from Great Britain and Russia to fallen domains such as the Maratha Confederacy and the Ottoman Empire. Once you choose an empire, you can select from a few different campaign types that determine victory conditions and campaign length. Whichever you decide, be prepared: even a short, 50-year campaign can take a good amount of time to complete, given that each turn requires strategic thinking on multiple fronts. Battles usually determine how regions are won and lost, but diplomatic relations, economic strangleholds, assassinations, and many other subtleties must be tweaked and considered at each turn, and they have noticeable impact as the years progress. If this sounds overwhelming, or if you're an American history buff, you'll want to check out the Road to Independence campaign before jumping into the grand one. This is essentially a long American tutorial that slowly introduces you to the basics and culminates in a grand campaign of its own.
The factors you must consider run the gamut, starting with an important new feature: the technology tree. Three areas of research and multiple sub-trees let you improve your military, industry and philosophy; in turn, your choices may benefit your economy or your success in battle. The benefits may seem minor at first, but as the campaign wears on, their effects are more noticeable, and your choices within these trees must be informed by the strengths and weaknesses of your particular empire. Do you concentrate on industry and use sheer numbers of troops to overwhelm your enemies, or do you focus on naval improvements and reap the ensuing benefits of successful trade-route blockades? As your campaign wears on, your needs may shift, whether because enemy blockades require a stronger navy, because you are spreading quickly across land, or because your economy is unable to sustain your growing army. Technology is also a limited diplomatic option, given that it's a commodity that you cannot only trade during negotiations but also steal from foes. Additionally, it's not easy to convince a friendly nation to offer technology. Even when offered multiple technologies or monetary compensation, your closest allies rarely accept a request to share even a single technology, which makes it a limited political tool. In Empire: Total War, knowledge is more easily stolen than shared.
In fact, your more successful political dealings are the underhanded ones. Your agents may differ between nations (for example, gentlemen and rakes for the British, scholars and hashishin for the Ottomans), but the tasks are similar: covertly disrupt the affairs of your enemies and potential enemies. Religious agents such as missionaries will slowly but surely convert the populace, staving off potential rebellion in newly captured regions. On the other hand, the impact of religion is not as deep or effective as in the Europa Universalis series, in which social and diplomatic events are more fully explored. Regardless, it's great fun to cripple whole economies, especially when your strategies work in tandem with each other. Sending in a naval fleet to seize enemy trade supplies, sending another directly into an enemy's port (and therefore obstructing incoming goods), and dispatching an agent to sabotage commercial ports can have profound effects. In cases like these, an angry, resource-deprived public and cash-strapped armies then ease the way for a quick triumph.
The puny Russians are no match for the might of the Ottomans. (Credit: GameSpot)
Nevertheless, this is Total War, and though assassinations and sabotage lighten your wartime load, there are no diplomatic, religious or technological victories. Might is right, and as such, your armies and navies drive the quick spread of your domain — and if you want to meet the campaign's success requirements, you'll want to be aggressive, right from the start. The artificial intelligence doesn't always take sensible steps; smaller countries may declare war, only to be quickly steamrolled, whereas major foes can seem almost oblivious to your spread across their regions. However, campaign AI is good enough to keep you occupied across multiple theatres, and minor nations and rebels can often keep your hands full, leaving room for major foes to invade. You will review every fleet and army at every turn, and now that army recruitment, resource production, and other aspects of play are spread across multiple locales within a region, mobility (and therefore, roads) is an important strategic asset.
Unlike with most turn-based historical games, battles can be played out in real time, and though the autoresolve option may look tempting, you should, at least on land, manage any battle in which you have a reasonable chance of winning. The most obvious reason is that they're enjoyable to command and enjoyable to watch. Thousands of units clash in a dizzying mass of artillery and bullets, camels and swordsmen, and as in prior Total War games, it's more about position, formation and geography than about unit micromanagement. Garrisoning musketeers, and taking heat off of cavalry by keeping enemy gunmen occupied with melee infantry, are just a few of many possibilities to consider. Once armies clash, these pre-battle decisions generally have far more impact than any mid-skirmish choice, and it's as enjoyable as ever to zoom in close to your troops and watch them engage. The landscapes are on the bland side, but soldier animations and the general amount of model detail make for a wonderful visual treat.
The other reason you'll want to play out most battles in real time is that the real-time AI is weak and can be exploited to your advantage. Enemy troops often fail to engage you, even when under direct fire. It isn't uncommon for your AI opponent to use only a few units at any given time and let you get an early upper hand, particularly when you have taken care with your formations during the deployment phase. This is especially true on settlement maps, in which narrow paths must be taken into account and buildings can be used for garrisoning. The AI is often confused by garrisoned troops, letting cavalry get pummelled by gunfire without taking any steps to reposition, even at higher difficulty settings. And at times the artificial intelligence is outright broken. On multiple occasions, we watched units refuse to engage or respond to attack commands, our own troops and the enemy troops milling among each other as if they were at a cocktail party rather than in the midst of battle. Other battle quirks — such as rare moments when movement across the map occurs in slow motion, as if troops are moving through mud instead of a grassy field — may also crop up.
Naval battles may not feature the most impressive AI, but they're sure awesome to watch.
Real-time naval battles are another new feature, and they are the most impressive visual offering here. The water is absolutely stunning and the ships are incredibly detailed, down to the movement of sails and oars, as well as the movement of troops on the decks. As ships take damage, debris falls from the hull and litters the water, all while fireships may be volleying flames into the air. It's the best-looking naval combat in any game, and it is compelling when in top form. Like land battles, naval warfare benefits from smart positioning, and you can further micromanage by choosing different ammo types, firing your cannons manually, and even by grappling and boarding another ship. But as with land warfare, the AI seems incapable of managing the battle with much success on normal and hard difficulties. In dozens upon dozens of naval battles, the enemy deployed ships in the same exact manner and always focused on doing hull damage, but never on alternate strategies such as using grape shot to whittle down a crew and then initiating boarding. In a stand-alone naval skirmish using default deployments on normal AI settings, we won a battle after issuing a whopping two commands during the entire match; if you want a challenge in one-off naval battles, crank up the difficulty level to expert.
As problematic as the AI can be, both types of battles are fun to play, and the addition of oceanic combat fleshes out the package well, making for multifaceted gameplay that encompasses a lot more than it could be expected to. This includes a number of multiplayer options, both over a local area network and online. You can battle both on land and at sea in a one-off skirmish for up to eight players; take part in a one-on-one siege in which one player defends a fortress while the other attacks; or engage in a historical scenario, such as the battle of Brandywine Creek. Sadly, a full multiplayer campaign like the impressive 32-player extravaganza featured in Europa Universalis III is not yet part of this package, though developer Creative Assembly has announced that a multiplayer campaign mode will be added later.
The strengths of the core gameplay are far more apparent when you're playing against real people. As with prior Total War games, you get finite resources to spend on units of your choice, you can customise weather, and you can narrow unit selections to early or late 18th century. Without the bizarre AI behaviour, you can concentrate on real battlefield tactics and not on exploitation, and matches can be an absolute blast. The measured approach and attempts to flank, the intimidating presence of a rocket troop, the final stand-off of two fatigued units: these moments make Empire: Total War's multiplayer options worth returning to again and again. Naval battles are also much more fun when facing a human opponent, who will be likelier to slow your frigates by using chain shot, and to take advantage of tactical positioning and effective deployment.
Camels are never not cool in strategy games.
However, you may very well need to turn down your graphics options when entering an online match, lest the frame rate drop to a crawl under the weight of the game's ambitions. Indeed, Empire: Total War requires a lot of horsepower to run, and it's prone to peculiar behaviour, even on systems that exceed recommended requirements. We experienced a few crashes on several machines, and the game tends to slow the longer that it has been running. On two test systems, the soft haze applied to distant objects also blurred out some ship geometry and the on-screen compass, and various other graphical bugs cropped up from time to time. At least within battle, though, it seems that this power is being put to mostly good use; hundreds if not thousands of individually animated troops can be on-screen at any given time. Pleasant weather effects, the din of clashing swords, the pop of gunfire — all of these elements make for an enjoyable audiovisual experience during battles.
It's impossible to condense an experience as broad and as rich as Empire: Total War to a few thousand words. Its complex amalgam of turn-based empire building and real-time skirmishing is exciting and involving, and it's both fuller and more streamlined than its predecessors. But like those predecessors, it inspires that compulsion to accomplish just one last turn, even when your eyes are bleary and your body longs for sleep. Although some rough edges are in serious need of sanding, this is a complex and rewarding game that will keep strategy fanatics tied to their keyboards for months at a time.