|System: PC||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Creative Assembly||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: SEGA||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: March 3, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1-8||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
Epic is a word that's often casually thrown around to loosely describe anything from a grand RPG adventure with a decent story to a strategy game with lots of moving parts. Some games are worthy of the description; others are not. But, if there's any series that truly deserves such a label, it's Total War. After diving headlong into the cacophonous chaos of numerous battles over land and sea in Empire: Total War, it's safe to say that even a term like epic fails to truly capture the staggering amount of depth found in the series' latest historical conquest simulation.
Set in the 18th century - a particularly turbulent period of history marked by plenty of war and expansionism as civilizations continued to flourish, make great technological advances, and stretch their militant wings - Empire: Total War takes its trademark mixture of real-time battles, turn-based strategy, and colony management into the gunpowder era, making for some spectacular engagements on the battlefield. While streamlining some gameplay elements and expanding upon others, the development team at The Creative Assembly have managed to find the sweet spot.
Hardcore strategy fans who've followed the series' evolution may be inclined to jump right into the robust, full-blown Grand Campaign (which includes simultaneous, conquest-focused warfare in multiple theaters) to dig into the meat of this expansive title, but the inclusion of Road to Independence, a story-driven campaign set across three lengthy chapters, provides a perfect warming-up period for newcomers to begin acclimating to the game's numerous complexities. Whether you're new to the series or not, the cinematic storytelling and historical accuracy in Road to Independence (not to mention the fact it unlocks the Americans for play in the Grand Campaign) makes it worth playing through at least once. These three chapters introduce important gameplay elements, while spanning the British colonization of America, their conflict with the French and native inhabitants, and the eventual American colonial struggle for independence. From there, the Grand Campaign offers the full-flavored gameplay series fans are accustomed on a massive scale, letting you pick a nation and crank up the war machine in protracted matches set on regional domination through military might.
Managing your empire is a complex, multifaceted affair that requires you to construct buildings in key cities, track and recruit troop resources, negotiate trade routes and treatise with other nations, research new technologies, keep citizens from revolting, and maintain a balanced economy strong enough to support your war efforts, among other important duties. Of course, this is all in addition to strategically sending out stacks of soldiers to invade your neighbors and hit the battlefield where you'll conduct over a thousand troops at a time in a violent orchestra of cannon blasts, mounted charges, bayonet advances, and volleys of gunfire. If this all sounds overwhelming, it's because it is - at least at first. Fortunately, the development team's efforts to streamline the way you'll be managing your nation and its numerous armies in Empire: Total War pay off substantially.
Among the more helpful adjustments, the ability for a general to order new units from any location on the map is a handy improvement. Recruited units will work their way towards your main army each turn, after they're produced at the nearest settlement. It's still not quite as speedy a process as marching over to a town directly and recruiting units on the spot, but it's crucial for resupplying your main forces when pressing outward into enemy turf. A new technology tree lets you shift your nation's research goals toward branching paths to achieve numerous advantages. Also, economic resources are spread out around your territory, instead of being buried within cities. This gives you a better sense of how your empire is spreading and also provides opportunities for you to strike out at enemies without a direct assault on their major cities. Additionally, diplomacy, taxes, and the role of peripheral, non-combat units (like gentlemen and rakes) have been condensed and simplified for greater ease of use. These and other tweaks to the system don't completely do away with the requisite micromanagement that comes with overseeing a vast and powerful empire, yet they help keep it down to a minimum, freeing up your attention to focus on the most blood-pumping element of the game: its massive real-time battles.
Watching your forces - frequently consisting of a mixture of infantry linemen, cavalry, large cannons, skirmishers, and irregulars - line-up on the battlefield is quite a sight, and sending them off en-masse to meet the oncoming enemy is a powerful experience. The scope and size of the armies (both your own and those of your adversaries) is truly staggering. With concussive cannon fire ripping into advancing lines, smoke from musket blasts wafting across the terrain, and bodies of fallen soldiers scattered about, the game's trademark large-scale combat is incredibly intense and exciting.