It’s War… Totally
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.
The addition of real-time naval battles is in some ways one of the most visually impressive changes found in Empire: Total War. Ship-to-ship battles are amazingly gorgeous to watch and fun to play, even if they are among the game’s most awkward encounters to control. For quick encounters, the auto-resolve feature is sometimes useful to skip battles where you have a clear advantage in size and power, but skipping out on too many of these is like eating the icing off a piece of cake without touching the moist, delicious cake part.
While the campaign map where you’ll do most of your pre-battle strategizing and empire building is rather bland and uninteresting-looking in comparison, getting a close-up view of the action in the midst of a full-scale engagement on land or sea is breathtaking. In naval encounters, the water and lighting effects are excellent, and you can zoom in extremely close to even watch a ship’s crew mill around on deck, load cannons, and engage in battle. On-land engagements are similarly impressive, but you’ll need a high-powered PC to handle the uber-close, on-the-ground view of standing amidst hundreds of troops independently tearing into one another.
The main issue to be found in Empire: Total War comes with the challenge of controlling so many units at once and whether or not they’ll bother following your commands with the precision needed. Morale levels among your troops come into play frequently, but there are other times when the A.I. seems to whack out and do its own thing – which can be extremely counterproductive in the midst of a crucial battle. Entire battalions will sometimes stand there doing nothing, while the enemy hacks away at them. Other times they’ll take the very scenic route to reach a location you’ve sent them too. Naval battles are particularly cumbersome, since it can be very difficult to maneuver the ships into place to pull off powerful attacks, and they don’t always respond to direction efficiently.
Even with some issues, Empire: Total War’s battles are still very satisfying on the whole, and the game has a huge level of overall depth to explore. Armchair generals will get a ton of mileage out of this very ambitious and expansive game that once again pushes numerous boundaries with the Total War series.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Aside from some bland map visuals, the real-time battles are outstanding. 3.8 Control
Even with the minor improvements here and there, controlling your armies efficiently can still be difficult, particularly on the high seas. Even so, the setup works well most of the time. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
From the rousing, thematic music to the sounds of battle, the audio is quite impressive. 4.9 Play Value
Beware: This game will consume your free time voraciously. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.