Empire: Total War Review: Throwing Down Like George Washington
The “Total War” series has always labeled itself as one of the more serious strategy games. Unlike most strategy games, where you were limited to small number of troops that rarely go past the three digit mark, “Total War” allows you to command an army of thousands. It was also one of the few strategy games that places emphasis on terrain, fatigue, morale, and formations rather than simply how fast you can you pump units from your base. “Empire: Total War” is the latest in this behemoth franchise, and it has taken it in a direction not many strategy players experienced before: The 18th Century.
There are many elements that make up the core gameplay of “Empire: Total War,” the first of which is the Grand Campaign. In this mode, you’ll take control of a country/empire, and will need to expand your borders within a certain number of turns. You’ll need to monitor your economy, create an infrastructure, make use of diplomacy, research technology, and have a viable military force. An interesting feature that the developers at Creative Assembly added to the Grand Campaign was that some of your buildings are no longer restricted to your capital; instead, you will invest to develop key areas on the map, such as farming or a school. Essentially what this means is you can try to cut your opponent’s research centers or income by capturing these key areas, instead of charging head-first into the region’s capital. Combine all that with the World map allowing you to go to North America, Europe, and India, and you have one of the largest games in the strategy genre.
Jumping into the Grand Campaign right off the bat can be a little daunting, so “Empire: Total War” has a short tutorial campaign called the “Road of Independence.” From here, you’ll learn about the basics of combat, understanding the overhead map, and learn how to control a small colony (and eventually, country). While this sounds like a great idea on paper, it unfortunately doesn’t show you all the game’s details. Even after playing the Road of Independence, and getting into the Grand Campaign, I still found myself asking many questions about how to do certain things; such as the use of Agents, or what is considered the “proper way” to use these 18th century troops via formations. However, this is hardly a strike against “Empire: Total War” since it does put a lot of effort into making you understand the workable basics of the game, something many games in the genre do not attempt to do.
Now that we’ve talked about the modes, how are the battles? Just like in the previous “Total Wars,” they are still incredible. Like before, they are great to watch but even more fun to play as you order your army of thousands to charge in with their muskets and plug bayonets. “Total War” veterans will need to rethink their tactics though, as they’ll need to remember that muskets weren’t the most accurate or reliable weapons on the planet, and must find ways to overcome that. A bit of micromanagement is needed as the units will only fire in their range, and will only focus the direction you told them too. In other words, if you are getting shot from behind, you need to tell your troops to turn around and attack.
One major flaw with the land battle is the lack of unique units; essentially, most of the sides are the same. If you were expecting a game similar to “Starcraft” or “Red Alert” where each faction has their own unique ways to play, this isn’t it. Of course, one of the main reasons for this uniformity was inherent in the game’s design - most 18th century battles didn’t leave much room for variety. However, at the same time though, the game does include unique units for the England faction. Depending on who you are, you might like this for its simplicity, or hate it for the exact same reason. I personally didn’t find this to be a huge problem, but it’s worth providing a little warning for those that were expecting something else.
The new twist to “Empire: Total War” is the naval battles. In previous “Total War” games, ship battles were simply automated, but now, you are able to control a fleet a ships like you would normally in a land battle. Like many other naval games based on this time period, you use different cannon shots and you need to position your fleet to so that all of your fleet’s cannons are being fired. This mode works very well, if you can get used to the mouse controls, and can micromanage your fleet. You cannot simply select your ship and select another to attack; you need to look at your ship’s position and where they are facing, otherwise you will see your country’s flags plummet downwards towards the sea below very quickly.
With all these features, it’s quite clear that “Empire: Total War” is heavily focused on single player. This is where “Total War” starts to go downhill; the A.I. is horrible. On the field, your opponents can be challenging - you’ll see the A.I. try to flank you while protecting their flanks, divert you, and use their artillery at your weak points. So, if you’re looking for a decent opponent in battle, “Empire: Total War” does serve its purpose. But when it comes to diplomacy …well, it’s not that good. For example, in diplomacy, you cannot trade technology with other countries, including your own allies. You can even try to offer a higher tier technology for a lower tier and they will still refuse to accept. Unlike “Civilization 4,” there is no option to ask the A.I. about what would they need to be satisfied. On the other hand, the A.I. loves to ask for either one-sided deals, or something a little too big for you swallow, like a big piece of your better regions while they give the technology that will enable you to build better roads. You can try to counter offer, but it is often rejected.
The other big problem is the pathfinding. As I mentioned before, on the open field the game works well, but if we are talking about sieges, that’s another story. This has been quite a frequent problem with the “Total War” series and despite all the changes, the sieges are still terrible. You will often see your troops having trouble navigating the walls of a fort, meaning you will be getting unexpected losses and the battle will take longer than usual. Fortunately, you can automate the siege battles, but you weren’t interested in the game to simply press “automate”.
Even though the “Total War” series has always been focused on single player, they always managed to add multiplayer, and with the use of Steam, “Empire: Total War”’s multiplayer is quite easy to get into. There is no Grand Campaign in multiplayer; it is simply one skirmish battle. The host picks the time period of the battle and how much money each person gets. After that, each player is free to pick their units whatever they wish. This is the same method done in the previous “Total War” games, and it works well enough, since there is no luck whatsoever. The netcode is great as there was hardly any lag experienced, and you could practically mistake this as a single player quick skirmish, if it weren’t for the chat. For the hardcore types, there is a ranking system as well.
Depending on your computer, you will either hate or love this game. It is quite a resource hog, as both the ground and naval units are ridiculously detailed. The boats are the most impressive, as you can see every inch of the ship; from the crew loading the cannons with the captain looking out to sea, to when the crew members leaping off of a doomed ship. Because of all of the detail involved, the loading screen takes a bit longer than you’d expect. While it isn’t anything game breaking, you are just going to have to be a little patient to enjoy the full experience.
“Empire: Total War” does many things right, it’s a long game with extremely huge scope. This is not the type of game you can simply jump in and play. You will need to study a bit about the military formations and think about each turn, as you slowly build your country with a great economy and army. But while it does contain great content, it still suffers from the ghosts of the franchise’s past - the A.I. is still as dumb as a brick with down syndrome when it comes to sieges, and diplomacy is just a fancy word for “silly demands” in A.I. speak. Overall, it is the best game in the “Total War” series, but due to its major A.I. faults, it is not the “perfect” game for the series.