As any of you who have read my poorly defended justifications about strategy games will know, I’m really bad at strategy games. That’s been said. Which makes my increasingly frequent writeups of strategy game demos apparently very strange. But there’s two reasons why I’m not nearly so bad at Total War games, and another two about why Empire in particular is fitting me rather well. Total War games tend to lean more on the sweeping tactics side of strategy, which I can just about do, and they have much of the game during a turn based format, which I can also do. And Empire has boats, and it also has cannons.
As none of you will know, I really, really loved the Pirates of the Caribbean game Bethesda made about the time the first film came out. It was nothing to do with the films really, apart from it was set in the same world. It wasn’t that brilliant an RPG, but what it did do rather brilliantly well, was ship battles. Learning which way to go to keep the wind on your side, bringing around your broadside and just letting rip a devastating volley into some poor little sloop and watching it go down was intensely satisfying. You could even get a few other ships to make up a little fleet, and then sail the merry seas taking out pirates, the French, the Spanish, more pirates, and more French. And that’s why Empire’s ship combat fits me like a glove. It boils down to those same principles that made me enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean so much, and because I spent a silly amount of time on that game, I’m finding I’m actually rather good at this one.
At least, in so far as my battles take place on the sea. I’m merely adequate on the land stuff, where it seems line of sight is much more important, what with everyone packing a musket, and not many of them running around with great big claymores yelling insults about each other’s national produce. But, then again, there are more cannons on land, and cannons are very fun. I’ve not really talked about how the actual game handles yet, and it’s possible to see why. Empire seems to be a game of broad strokes rather than minute details, and, while the details may be there, I have little concern for them. Micromanagement can go to hell; I just want to see little people killing other people.
That’s always been why I liked the Total War series. The battles were on such a scale that micromanagement was neither necessary nor really that effective. It was your actual tactics that mattered, about who you sent where and when you sent them, and that’s still true. The fact gunpowder makes those tactics so drastically different from the other games is a big shock, but once you get used to it it gets far more enjoyable. Formations start to mean more, and the units all look the same, and behave reasonably similarly. There are infantry with guns, cavalry with guns, and cavalry with swords. Oh, and there’s cannons. Learn how to use them, and you should be away.
The battles are suitably visceral, and the departure from a heavy melee focus means they can spend far more time making the musket deaths look authentic. There’s very little people dying from being charged, and far more people dying from being cut down in a rain of little bits of metal. The cannon balls bounce their way merrily along the grassy plains, taking limbs along with them, and it’s all very pretty. Really, though, the main focus, at least for me, was on the high seas, and the sweeping arcs that allowed me to send people into the murky depths.
Fighting with ships is an entirely different beast to fighting with little men on land. There is a very different set of tactics, and the smaller amount of units under your control means that you can do a little more direct control. You can say when they fire, and if you do, you do a lot more damage, so long as your timing is on. The types of shot you use make drastic changes to the way you dispatch of your enemies, and the size of your crew is more than just a number to tick down as you get attacked. More crew mean more men to board, and more men means less men get overwhelmed. If you can get close enough to throw the grappling hooks, that is.
There’s a physicality to the ship battles that isn’t so present in the land. Each cannonball seems to have an impact, and getting an entire volley to hit will really cripple a ship’s chances of surviving. And when you take out a main mast, you know that ship is all but removed from the battle. It makes you take the decision of what to use in your cannons quite a difficult one, and difficult choices are what makes games fun.
While this demo is entirely focused on the battles, the fact that they are so robust definitely encourages me on how well the full game will hold up. We know Creative Assembly can do the campaign stuff. The weak points of Total War have mostly focused on how versatile the battles were, and the sheer amount of options available here certainly don’t do anything to harm the optimism I have for Empire: Total War.
You can get the demo exclusively on Steam for the time being.