Creative Assembly has released a new juggernaut in it's very popular Total War series. In recent years, PC gamers have experienced Total War during Medieval and Roman times, but this time all of the action and strategy takes place during the 18th century, a time of tremendous turmoil for European nations and the Americas.
I have several friends that love the Total War series of games, but I've personally never played them before getting Empire Total War in for review. Perhaps the biggest reason I had not yet gotten into the Total War games was because they just seemed a little too daunting to me. In other words, I wasn't so sure I wanted to take on the management challenge of organizing thousands of troops, dealing with civil issues, diplomacy, trade, religion – I'm more of a Command & Conquer RTS gamer, relishing colorful futuristic sci-fi warfare, as opposed to turn based strategy.
Well, I may have a lot of catching up to do after spending the last few days with Empire Total War. Empire might not have been the best place to start my Total War experience, given that it is more complicated and involved then other Total War games. For micromanagement fans and those of the series, this is great news, but for everyone else, fear not: Creative Assembly did an excellent job with Empire in allowing players like me to let the CPU handle a lot of the workload and letting me focus on the action. Players can choose to control every little detail about their empire or choose to let the CPU handle a variety of different choices behind the scenes. Additionally, changes and streamlining to the user interface have also helped Total War become a more accessible, play-focused title.
While the most complex Total War game to date, Empire Total War offers far more than just more options and control over your empire. For the first time in the Total War series naval battles are introduced and they are presented in gorgeous 3D. This is more than just a tacked on feature; expect a fleshed out element here that is rife with strategy and action. Deciding which type of cannon ammo to use will play a part in combating your enemy as will controlling your sails to make the best use of the wind to adjust speed and direction. There are many different, historically accurate ships included for players to enjoy as well. You can even board enemy ships when their damage level is high enough and steal their ship, known as 'taking the prize.' Setting sail is also how you will be able to encounter the dozens of different factions spread throughout Europe, the Americas, and India. As you sail the oceans, you will encounter small boxes on screen that allow you to enter a particular theater.
Before embarking on your campaign, of which there are several that I will list shortly, players are well advised to take the interactive tutorial known as the Road To Independence. It is here that you can learn the ropes of Empire before beginning the Short, Long, or Prestige campaign tiers. The Short campaign keeps things fairly simple by capping the regions to twenty-five, whereas the Long campaign is set at thirty-five. The Prestige campaign takes place between the full century, 1700-1799. There is also a World Domination mode in which you must control fifty regions by 1799. Multiplayer options are also included that further extend the lifetime of this very deep experience.
While the introduction of naval combat and strategy is probably the biggest overall new addition to the Total War series, Empire also brings some additional changes to combat on land. The battle on land is still done in a real time manner of course, but players will be faced with new tools and challenges to work with and defend against. During this era in history, gunpowder and muskets were becoming increasingly popular so you will get to use firearms for the first time in a Total War game. Your standard close quarter units and calvary are all here, but the large scale infantry are what impressed me the most. The battles are intense to not only play, but even to watch as your soldiers fix bayonets, fire their muskets, and charge head on into the enemy.
Other changes come in the form of the economic aspects, such as how each region has smaller villages that can be upgraded. Ports, mines, and the region's capital can all be upgraded too. Regions can now also be destroyed piece-by-piece for the ultimate satisfaction.
Research via the Technology Tree has altered play as well. The Technology Tree is broken into three categories, Military, Economy, and Philosophy. You can choose to research into these categories, with most of the early tech only taking five to seven turns while completely researching any particular category takes dozens of turns.
As far as presentation goes, Empire Total War, as you would expect, is the best looking Total War game to date. Beautifully animated units and weather compliment the richly detailed landscapes nicely. There are a ton of graphical tweak options that you can adjust to meet the specs of your gaming rig which is great for those that like to squeeze every last frame rate from their machine.
Major Concern & Closing Thoughts
The new features and core game of Empire Total War are certainly nice, but my overall experience with Empire Total War hasn't been the smoothest or most enjoyable, due solely to rampant bugs in the game itself. Not being sure it was just my PC or not, I poked around online and it doesn't take more than a moment to discover that a large portion of the fan base and consumers in general aren't too pleased with the slew of patches that have already been released for the game, and the fact that, for many gamers, plenty of show-stopping bugs remain. Different people seem to be having different degrees of 'luck' with their experience though, which to me would indicate some hardware issues in the coding of the game but who knows. Overall, after installing the newest patch, the number of hard crashes I have had has dropped significantly but it's troubling to see that so many people are still having those and other issues.
That said, I would suspect Creative Assembly is continuing to work on these problems as this is their bread and butter franchise. At the same time, their other simultaneously released effort, Stormrise, which I recently reviewed for PS3, is a buggy mess that will likely never be patched up to a satisfactory level, but here's hoping the same won't happen to Empire or some fans may not come back to the series again.
So to conclude, Empire Total War really is a great game, with a lot of nice new features that compliment the proven formula of the core game very well. On the other hand, Empire Total War is still fighting through some bugs even after several patches, so keep that in mind as you make your decision.
With that, let's get to the summary...