Empire: Total War – The Verdict.

Empire: Total War – The Verdict.

Well I’ve been playing ETW for 3 weeks now. It’s a Headshot! That much is apparent early on, and becomes utterly obvious the more you play. Not only is this the best Total War yet, but it’s above and beyond the must-buy game this quarter, maybe even this year. I cannot think of a game more essential on the market – though not without some niggling provisos.

Where do I start? That’s the first thing to come to mind when you first load up the game. The initial reaction by many veterans will be to spring into a grand-campaign. Don’t. The rules have changed, on the battlefield, and in managing your empire, but above all in sheer scale. The first game I loaded up – playing as Spain – I simply could not comprehend. It’s in the title. “Empire”. You’re dealing with vast, uncompromising entities from the get go. Straight off the bat ETW asks you to step up your skill set, while at the same time trimming much of the fat from previous entries in the series.

Empire eases you into the new mechanics excellently, allowing you to take charge of a fledgling English colony in the New World, starting with a simple skirmish between your musket armed colonists against the American Natives. From this point onwards it introduces new functions and innovations to both the new strategic campaign map and the tactical battle map until you’re left in control of a newly independent United States of America. It’s slick, educational and a genuinely brilliant way of introducing the most important features of the game.wall-fire

Fundamentally an Empire is administered in a far more streamlined fashion; the province density has been reduced, to the extent “France” is but a single province compared to the multiple-territory expanse in previous episodes. There’s a central city, and then subsidiary settlements are connected to a single, upgradeable resource. Some perhaps won’t like the change – especially if the city they were born in is but a simple iron works, but frankly it’s a dramatic improvement. Other changes to the map are the way generals work. You no longer have family members born and bred to lead your armies, but you can recruit them from your ranks, while your leader is either chosen by family tree, or elected, leaving you able to choose your ministers – unless of course revolution strikes and you have to accept the whims of your people. Generals can now recruit units outside of cities, meaning you no longer have to individually recruit from cities, and fallen soldiers can be reinforced in the field. All this streamlining means you can spend lest time doing the menial tasks, and more time with War and Peace.

Crafting your empire takes on a totally new dimension of its own in Empire, mostly thanks to the technology tree and the superb new diplomacy system. Where in previous games strategy management really was little more than trying to balance your armies, taking regions one at a time whenever opposing nations had their back turned, you never really felt that you were capable of managing relations with other factions. Diplomacy however revolutionizes things. You can genuinely balance out your allies and enemies so as to secure borders while you actually go on proper campaigns instead of just attacking whoever happens to fall under your crosshair. Take for example, during my Russian campaign; I had to secure the territories of my allies, the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. We were both the overwhelming European juggernauts. Between the two of us we had maybe 2/3rds of Europe.  To facilitate my total annihilation of the dastardly Poles, I spent some 5 years (10 turns) carefully constructing a grand alliance; supporting weaker states, especially the decayed Austrian empire, while I funded a Persian invasion of the Ottoman Empire to keep them occupied. Good friends, those Iranians. Diplomacy above all is improved through A) superior AI and B) the superb new diplomacy map. You can view relations between empires from all kinds of perspectives, and more importantly, simply put your cursor over another faction to see what they think of you, and why. Particularly brilliant is the way some factions refuse to cooperate when you get too big, precipitating the kinds of grand alliances that fought against France during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. When the time was right I struck out, sending 4 full armies and numerous subsidiary raiders. The speed of my campaign wiped the Polish-Lithuanians out in 2 years. Battles were fought, lives were lost, but ultimately I emerged the total victor. Administrating such a vast territory was easily going to prove difficult, so my allies/lap-dogs the Austrians gained their former provinces, and to keep Prussia sweet I gave them back their lost western Prussia. It was an utterly absorbing experience. No other Total War game so far has come close to bringing this kind of story telling to the table. It’s stunning.

Other new features include the return of emergent factions, including resurrected ones if a region you control revolts. This adds so very much to non-linear game mechanics Total War is famed for, and makes for a far more strategically realistic experience. The technology tree means units gradually gain more abilities instead of remaining static throughout the game, meaning although the standard Line Infantry is your bread and butter unit throughout, it’s always gaining new strengths, and means that opposing line infantry may well be superior in number, but not in skill – and the reverse is certainly true.

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When it comes down to it, Total War is as much to do with the cut and thrust as it is the map and trade. Empire simply does not disappoint. Empire’s battles are simply more epic than anything they’ve done yet. Lines of musket armed soldiers erupt in clouds of smoke, flinging hot lead into ranks of opposing forces while cannonballs skip across the battlefield, lancing through ranks of men and horse alike. I particularly love the way you can press insert when a unit is selected to move to an eye level view, becoming one of your men, watching your men fall beside you, and leveling the musket before firing. Then when you do, the game slows down, and tracks the musket ball as it slams home. But 18th century warfare is as much about cold steel as it is hot lead. When the time comes to close ranks and charge the intensity of individual combat increases even further. The motion captured melee animation is amazing. Men will weave and clash, desperately trying to avoid being pierced by their opposing number, and there’s a genuine sense of relief when you watch one of your men finally stick their bayonet through their struggling opponent. You can almost feel the life draining out of a man when he goes down. It’s terrifyingly brutal and stylistic. It’s so easy to get lost watching all the incidental details on the battlefield that you can totally forget about the tactics.

And I love the tactical thrill of Empire. One of my problems with MTW2 was the stale, repetitive nature of tactics. You’d line up your melee infantry in a line or two, archers behind, cavalry on the flanks to defeat its opposing number and then flank the infantry. In Empire, it’s all about angles and careful application of fire-power. You have to learn the art of working formations – do you go deep in order to take less casualties from musket fire in order to close in for melee, but risk cannon fire decimating your ranks? Do you hold back your musket volleys until the last moment, risking being shot yourself, or open fire as soon as the enemy lines are in range? Which cannon shot to use? Canister shot is brutal up close, but careful use of round shot against deep enemy formations can lance through ranks and terrify men as they shatter bone as they bounce up and over the terrain. I’ve still not mastered cavalry, but a good charge can win battles. A bad one leaves you looking frankly embarrassed as lowly light infantry scythe them down in a hail of precision timed musket fire. The battle AI is certainly better than before, but by no means flawless, and I think I genuinely am getting the hang of beating superior numbers. I’m still undecided as to whether it’s me getting more comfortable with the new controls, or the AI is inferior, but I do win far more singleplayer battles than I lose. Hopefully patches improve matters. For the ultimate tactical experience, you have to try it online.

Much needs to be said about online battles – in that they are simply some of the most involving and absorbing I’ve ever played. The new tactical dynamics coupled with human ingenuity and superior command of formations means you’re no longer facing off a much more unpredictable and normally deadly enemy. This is combined excellently with Steam, providing a host of achievements and stats that make every battle count; it’s utterly compelling and terrifying at the same time. The first time you pull off that perfect charge along the line, crashing into an equally well handled one is thrilling, tense and utterly unparalleled in gaming. There are some issues – Phill and I struggle to connect to each other on a regular basis, but don’t let this put you off. I cannot recommend giving online a try more. On that note, make sure you join our Steam group if you want someone with a friendly face to play with.  Even if they will be making a point of sticking a bayonet in your chest.

Sea battles aren’t quite that brilliant. They look amazing. Individual details on the ships are genuinely brilliant, and watching each crew member go about his duty is every bit as visceral as with their land-lubber counterparts. Broadsides shatter wood and bone alike, while chainshots snap cables and masts, replete with hapless cabin boys and snipers falling to their doom from their perches.  But I genuinely can’t get the hang of them. Group formations help, but as soon as you close with the enemy those become pretty ineffectual as space in the water becomes restricted – it becomes more about individual ship control, which can be hard when you have numerous ships. This is, I would say, quite realistic. Fleets depended on the skill of their crews and captains in battle perhaps more than on land, so in a way it’s about remaining cool under chaos. But delivering a perfect broadside with one ship normally means you’re neglecting 5 others. I guess I just need more practice. Technically they’re brilliant.

Empire does have problems. There’s a lot of complaining on forums, and Mattias has had some major memory leak issues – meaning a lot of crashes. There’s bugs. The AI can’t seem to handle putting armies on fleets for example, and as a result the strategic AI isn’t quite the strategic genius it should be. Protectorates create some strange diplomatic situations; for example, upon defeating Poland, their former protectorates were still as such for years after Poland was long dead.  Anti-Aliasing doesn’t seem to work very well for me, and a few others. The battle and strategic AI needs work. But regardless of this, I still really, really love Empire: Total War. There is no other experience that combines its accessibility with the strategic depth and explosive tactical exposition.

In many respects Empire Total War is an evolution; though I wouldn’t hesitate to add all the better for it. Many of the features have been present throughout, or been resurrected from previous games, but all are combined to create the most versatile, epic, and mesmerizing Total War experience yet. Moreover, there’s so much game in here, it’s hard to find a reason not to buy it. With numerous factions to play, multiple victory conditions, the up-and-coming online campaign features and perhaps above all else, sheer modding potential (more on that below), investing in Empire: Total War is the game that really does keep giving. There is simply more game in here than anything else on the market.

A Pretty Bloody Good Game
A Pretty Bloody Good Game

TL:DR Haiku:

Musketball flies,

Clashing armies, map, sword, sea,

Greedy bastard meal.

Techy Bit

I’m running on an AMD6000x2, ATI 4870 512mb, 3.5 GB DDR2 Memory on Windows XP SP3. My performance is generally pretty good on mostly high settings on 1600×1050. I’ve had issues with AA (on 2x ) which doesn’t seem to work half the time – and you can tell if you try the screens I’ve put up – though I think that’s probably something I’m doing wrong on my end. There are a lot of technical problems, none of which I personally have had any issues with, but as I said in the review, Mattias has had some rather serious problems – to quote “Mythrilfan: i think “mentioning” and “not being able to play the bloody thing” are a bit different”, and there’s a lot of other people in the same situation.

It uses Steam. Some people don’t like Steam. I’ve had no issues with it technically besides the game not booting up straight after I installed it – had to reset then all was fine. Expect the use of Steam to mean far more rapid and effective patch delivery than previous titles.

Mods

As you might be able to tell from my screens, I’m running a few mods, including a Smoke, Blood and Particle effects mod, which is lovely. I’m also running a No Tracer mod to get rid of the irritating streaks that follow musketballs and cannonballs in flight.

On the modding front, as ever the Total War scene has picked it up running. Expect mods upon oodles of mods to start coming out soon. There’s already some lovely looking realism re-textures I might be trying. Keep track of them on the Total War Centre Forums.

13 thoughts on “Empire: Total War – The Verdict.

  1. Please, you’ve hardly mentioned the lengthy list of problems this game has which can be found easily on any total war forums…

  2. That I mention them at all is a step up from some of the reviews out there. Fact is, they didn’t affect my personal opinion of the game. And yes. You can find out about those issues on any Total War forum. So go find them there, as per any game these days huh?

    I believe Mattias has a different interpretation on the way. Perhaps you’ll find that more to your taste.

  3. Levantos – is the job of a review to simply list the faults of a game? I see so many people complain about reviews because of that reason. Such a thing would not be a review of a game, simply just someone telling the public what is wrong with the game.

    As Greg said this review is more balanced than some others I have read so why the problems?

  4. I totally agree with Jesse. The point of a review is to tell people what the WRITER thinks about it. If you don’t like it don’t play it. There isn’t much you can do. I agree i’m having a bloody hard time with installations, and Steam *sighs* but jeez, get over it.

  5. I happen to agree with the review… in fact, I appreciate the ‘diplomacy’ feature more after reading this. I wasn’t using it NEARLY as much as I should be apparently… what a nice tool to have! I didn’t think of paying of the Persians to do my dirty work! LOL
    Thanks Greg.

  6. Well written review. I’m looking around to learn more about the game AI. I’ve played the total war games from Shogun through Rome, and I love the immersive and dramatic feel of the games, but I’ve always felt that the lack of AI development was a big obstacle to my enjoyment.

    I really feel no draw to play newer versions of these games when the developers just step-up the graphics while ignoring this critical flaw.

    In Rome for instance, the tactical AI is weak. Even against much superior forces on the highest difficulty a player kill ratio of 8:1 is average and 50:1 is achievable. This is in part due to the fact that the strategic AI seems to have no comprehension of unit balance. But poor tactical AI is acceptable to me. I assume a good one would be much harder to write than a good strategic AI.

    But the strategic AI for Rome is abysmal. A decade worth of decent turn based strategy AIs shows that this isn’t inevitable. The most unbearable aspect was the virtually non-existent diplomacy AI. Something which, if corrected, would probably double my satisfaction with the game, and which would require about as much efforts as developing a single character model to fix.

    Anyway, enough rant. Your description of the diplomacy in the game is encouraging. It would make all the difference to have functional alliances and bargaining.

    Thanks.

  7. Excellent review. I agree with all points, especially about the emergence of diplomacy and naval combat. I feel much more rewarded by stealing away a first rate ship of the line from an enemy than in any standard land based Heroic victory. It just takes some time to get a feel of how to manipulate fleets.

    @ Hank, the diplomacy is much improved over previous TW games. It is transparent, as you can see the factors governing your relationships, it adds a level of richness to everything happening around you.

    Now you have to think of the consequences of a major expansion, or whether or not you support an ally in a time of need. The entangling alliances can get a bit messy and strategic moves often require some careful negotiation.

    Seriously, this game does have some issues, but it is the kind of experience that can easily steal away a month or two of your time.

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