The Good: Total War formula still strong. Colonial era setting engrossing. Naval battles are exciting. The Bad: If you play diligently six hours a day, every day, you might complete your first game in two weeks. Micromanagement is on the menu and it’s served piping hot. The Ugly: Nothing.
When you’ve got box office gold, or at least the gaming equivalent thereof, why mess with a good formula? That’s essentially the approach that Creative Assembly took when designing Empire: Total War (E:TW), the thematic sequel to Shogun: Total War and Medieval: Total War. Like the previous games, E:TW is an engaging blend of turn-based Civilization-style empire growth and micromanagement along with RTS combat resolution. If my review said nothing more than “it’s like the previous titles, only set in colonial times and with naval RTS combat now included” and if you had played the previous titles, you’d have an excellent idea what you’re in for, and I could go back to playing it instead of writing about playing it. Alas, my job it to write about it and your job is to hang on my every word.
The choice to set the game in colonial times is IMHO a good one. I think it’s one of the most interesting periods in world history – a time when literally dozens of nations had significant roles they played in the founding and colonization of the new world. Today many nations have been reduced to bit roles (I’m looking at you, France), spending their time desperately waiting by the phone hoping their agent will call with a part in a new teen comedy for ‘sweet but overweight and unattractive girlfriend of lead character,’ but in the 18th century everyone had real impact – the British, the French, the various Indian tribes – and all of them and dozens more are available for play in the open conquest games. I must confess that in working to review this title I haven’t played more than a handful, but they’re all in there with small differences and capabilities between them. Curious how the 18th century looked to the Martha Confederacy (whoever the heck they were) – load them up, and give them a go. The single player campaign, “The Road to Independence”, which also serves as something of a playable tutorial, begins with the colonization of Jamestown and follows historic events, narrated with the mission briefings, through the Revolutionary War. It’s a story as exciting as real life, involving a complex strategic interplay of many different nations and factions.
The turn-based game, in the same mold of most 4x games, involves the management of your settlements on an isometric map. You can build structures, perform research into technology improvements, hire soldiers, adjust tax rates, monitor the happiness of your people, move armies around, attack, blockade, spy, conduct diplomacy – all the usual stuff. Each turn represents six months of game time and, as your civilization grows, can consume many hours. There are, par for the course, a number of ministers who can oversee various functions of your government for you, cutting down on the micromanagement if you do not wish to do it all yourself. I’m torn on using ministers because I don’t think they do as good a job as I can do, but as I tend to play a game in chunks over a number of weeks they tend to be less forgetful than I am about stuff that needs to get done (the alternative seems to be having an “Oh, that’s right, the people of Roanoke were planning to riot” moment).
When two stacks of enemy army tiles meet on the map combat begins. You are transported to a battlefield (the type of which depends on the terrain in which the combat is engaged) and given an infinite amount of time to place your units, each tile representing a combat group, their formation, and their orientation. You would be wise to set up your troop carefully – most of your men are on foot, and reorienting and building new formations in combat is often as suicidal as it sounds. Up to (I think) 20 combat units may appear on the field for each side at any given time. Additional units can join the battle to replace units that have been killed or had their morale break and have fled. After the placement is complete, real-time combat begins, rendered wonderfully with little units clutching their tiny chests and dying heroically.
I love the new naval combat, I think, even more than I like the land combat. Make no mistake; the land combat is very good. The interplay of riflemen and archers and cavalry and cannons makes for some very exhilarating and highly strategic combats, but to be perfectly frank, I suck at it. The computer is far better at managing the ranges and sight angles and unit moral numbers, while my infantry are being accidentally shot in the back by my musketeers and shelled by my own cannons. I defy anyone to turn overwhelming odds of success into a complete and total rout faster than I can. The open water, unencumbered by terrain features and possessing units (ships) that can shoot more or less either straight out to the port or straight out to the starboard I find much easier to manage. Sail around, maximize your sails for speed, load your cannons with round shot (to destroy the hull), chain shot (to take down their sails), or grape shot (to kill their sailors), and try to sink or capture the enemy ships. For whatever reason, it just seems simpler than worrying about if my cavalry are trying to charge uphill or downhill and if I can rush his archers on the high ground before they cut me to pieces. I think that both the land and the sea combat interface becomes increasingly insufficient as you try and control larger and larger armies, but that has been true throughout the entire Total War series and will likely come as a surprise to no one. In any case, land or sea, you can let the computer run out the battle for you with the simple click of a button, and it does a good job (or at least certainly far better than I would do myself).
So those are the two main modifications to this go round of Total War: naval combat and the colonial era setting. There are many other smaller ones, but given that it’s been something like a year since I’ve played the last Total War, I have to take the manual’s word for it. It talks at great length about the change in the way settlements are run in that most of the settlement improvements take placeoutside the settlement itself. This allows invading armies to cause significant damage to a town’s economic and industrial base without actually attacking anything. It changes up your siege mentality a little bit to have things run that way. The manual also talks about (and this change I actually noticed) the fact that unit recruitment can now be performed by generals directly in the field without having to create those units in the settlements and then move them out into the field to join the army. It’s said that the means of assassination, spying, research, and diplomacy have been streamlined, but I don’t recall it being cumbersome either in previous titles or now.
Multiplayer as of this moment is limited to RTS battles, either land or sea. Some historic battles are pre-loaded in there to spice things up a bit. There’s also talk I think about making it possible to play an entire game, the 4x and the RTS, as multiplayer. How that would actually play out, and how you’d find two or more people with so much time on their hands I don’t know, and I guess we’ll see if it happens at all.
If this game had come out when I was in graduate school, when I would frequently find myself playing Civilization (the first) quite literally until sunrise on occasion, I’d probably be homeless today selling internal organs to support my Total War habit. The balance of the micromanagement and the RTS is a more addictive combination than ever, my only regret being that I don’t have more time, with pesky responsibilities of the job and the wife wanting to have sex, to play. By all means, if you’ve got a couple of thousand hours you’re looking to burn, Empire: Total War is fine way to do it.