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Posted on May 19, 2009 in Electronic Games

Empire: Total War – PC Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Empire: Total War.
SEGA / Creative Assembly. $49.99.

Passed Inspection: Exciting mix of strategic and tactical game-play. Gorgeous battles.

Failed Inspection: Campaign AI can’t cross water. Historical accuracy takes a holiday.

The result is history-flavored cotton candy: great to look at, wonderful to taste, but don’t expect a meal.

Creative Assembly’s Total War is one of the most venerable strategy game series in PC land. The games have always combined cutting-edge production values with a high-octane mix of tactical and strategic game-play. Now Empire: Total War, the latest release in the series, takes the gamer to the often bloody and turbulent 1700s; the Age of Enlightenment.

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At a high level, the interface and flow of game-play have not changed much since Rome: Total War. For those who haven’t played games in the series, there are really two games in each box; a campaign game and a tactical game.

At the campaign level, the player moves armies and navies on a 3D map of Europe, North America, and India. These units represent groups or ships, a commander, and/or ground units such as cavalry, infantry or artillery. The player also has agents, who are spies, religious leaders, or gentlemen. Once the player has moved, the AI will move all other major and minor nations in a standard sequence.

Turns on the campaign map represent half a year. Empire: Total War starts in 1700, with a short 25-year campaign and long 100-year campaign. There is also a Road to Independence campaign that is story-driven. During his turn, the player moves units, conducts diplomacy, and can upgrade his cities through the purchase of buildings.

The interface is very well polished, and highly intuitive. When you add in the context-based pop-up help screens, experienced players will rarely need to go to the manual. The game is also accessible for new players, despite the number of options.

New to the Total War series is research of new technologies. The player can build schools and universities and assign gentlemen to do research. Technical achievements like copper bottoms for ships and firing by rank have visible effect on the tactical battlefield. Other improvements, like crop rotation, increase income and population growth. While technical supremacy is not a major thrust of the game, the side with better-outfitted troops will definitely have an advantage on the battlefield.

Along with research, the player can also manage his government and economy. The population of each region is rated for the happiness of the upper and lower classes. If taxes are too high, the population can become rebellious, and the player may find himself marching against his own people.

One area of the campaign game that feels right is the importance of trade. Establishing trade routes and then defending them is what makes the difference between a strong empire and a wanna-be. The player can purchase East Indiamen and other types of armed merchant ships and send them out to Africa, Asia and South America to generate trade income. These trade lanes can be intercepted by enemies and pirates, so stationing strong fleets in far-flung waters is a necessary part of keeping your empire afloat—pun intended.

On the campaign map, when the player’s armies meet an enemy force, a battle results. These fights can also occur when the player is tired of besieging an enemy city and is ready to roll the dice and assault the city walls.

At the start of a tactical battle, the player has the option of automating the result or playing it out. If the odds are close, the player’s best bet is to guide the battle himself. Once he accepts the general’s baton, the game shifts to a 3D map of the battle area, where he can deploy his troops or ships. There is a great deal of diversity in the battle maps; they are all highly detailed and offer plenty of opportunity to structure a battle plan around the terrain.

Once the battle is set, the fight plays out in real time. The player chooses individual units like infantry battalions or ships. With simple clicks he can move units and set formations, while attacking the enemy. When one side’s units have been destroyed or routed off the map the battle is over.

One of the first things the player will notice is that the graphical world in E:TW is drop-dead gorgeous; providing you have the machine specs for it. At full detail, land and sea battles are the best visual depiction of combat in this period to ever hit the computer screen. Vegetation is lush, units wear colorful uniforms, drummers beat the marching cadence, and officers lead with swords drawn. Oceans look like the real thing, and ships leave a frothy wake as the wind fills their sails. There is even a unit-eye view that puts the camera down in the ranks.

When the excellent graphics are added to great sound effects and a movie-like soundtrack, even grizzled gamers who have seen it all can’t help but be amazed, particularly since the graphical world is not only gorgeous but alive. Troops fight to death in hand-to-hand combat. Cannon balls skip realistically across fields, killing troops as they go. In naval combat, masts fall, slowing movement. Burning ships can explode, throwing flaming rigging onto any ship unlucky enough to be near.

All this graphical wonder does mean that E:TW takes its due in terms of computer specs, however. High-level detail ran slightly choppy on the review machine, an Intel Dual Core with 2GB RAM, GeForce 8600, running 32-bit Vista. But for players who are behind the spec curve, E:TW is just the sort of game that drives that next computer purchase.

Many elements of the tactical game ring true to history. Massed firepower in lines tends to win battles on sea and land. The game has the best depiction of ships sailing in line formation that this reviewer has seen on the PC. The lines of ships are easy to give orders to, and when warships are slowed or sunk the computer automatically closes gaps. A stalwart wall of ships of the line, sailing in formation and crossing the enemy’s "T" will win battles.

In E:TW’s land battles, longer lines increase firepower but make the unit more vulnerable to cavalry charges. Units are also sensitive to attack from the flanks or rear, so battles tend to evolve into two long lines. To help with the problem of being outflanked, the player can order infantry into square formation that makes cavalry attack more difficult.

While tactical combat has much period flavor, there are also many compromises. Games in the Total War series have always walked a delicate line between history and fun. In E:TW’s case however, Creative Assembly leans too far towards the game, while history takes a holiday. The result is history-flavored cotton candy: great to look at, wonderful to taste, but don’t expect a meal. Grognards will have to check their dental plan before playing—all the teeth-grinding during play won’t be good for their smile.

To start with, tactical battles happen too quickly, giving the game an RTS click-fest feel. On land, units march around the battlefield with amazing speed. This certainly makes battles happen faster, but also means the player can go from victory to defeat in half a minute. There is a slow button that plays battles at half speed, but the game does not play sounds in slow mode, so players going with this option lose some of the experience.

Curiously, the battle maps have beautiful weather effects like fog, rain and snow, but there is no effect on combat. In the 1700s, keeping your powder dry was more than just a phrase, it kept you alive. The infantryman’s nightmare was facing a cavalry charge—his hell was facing the charge with wet powder.

Other problems the history-conscious player will note are that ships and land units turn on a dime and respond immediately to orders. While the wind gauge does have some effect on ships, the player can pretty much ignore it. Entire battle lines of ships can magically sail against the wind.

Many unit types also show up too early or out of place. For example, the British have no trouble recruiting foreign troops representing Hessians in the New World but sometimes can’t find them anywhere in Europe. Also, those players who are students of uniformology will note that many uniforms have been generalized—not a problem for most of us, but a horror if you pay attention to such things.

Then there is the mix of forces in the campaign game. In real-life, battles in North America were mostly small affairs, with low casualty counts. The American Revolutionary War Battle of Trenton, for example, was a mere skirmish by European standards. In E:TW’s North America, however, the player will find the Native Americans fielding massive armies, complete with well-formed units of lancers, musket troops and even artillery. Pirates, who in real life sailed mostly smaller craft, can have huge navies of massive ships. Large, well-formed units of Native American archers, can stand toe-to-toe with European line battalions. Defeating the Cherokee Nation can take as many troops and resources as it takes to defeat Austria.

But many players will not be too worried about Creative Assembly taking so much artistic license with history. What they want is a great game. In this department, E:TW often delivers a compelling mix of excitement and immersion. This reviewer found himself drawn to this enjoyable romp through history. The game is very good, but not great.

E:TW’s near-greatness is partially due to the fact that the games AI is a mixed bag. In the campaign game, the computer player is only a challenge when most of the fighting is done on land. Playing Austria, Prussia, Russia or Poland can be quite a challenge at high levels of difficulty. But the AI just does not know how to invade over a body of water. After many, many hours of playing, this reviewer never saw the computer load its armies onto ships and invade. This will apparently be addressed in future patches but as of this writing, playing England, safe from AI attack, can be rather dull.

On the tactical level, the computer opponent is mostly competent. At times, the computer even feels human. Sometimes it adroitly shifts forces to protect a flank, or changes the line of attack away from heavily defended areas. Computer cavalry always goes for the player’s artillery, and they are pretty good at charging units from the rear. At other times, however, the computer AI falls asleep or bumbles about in confusion while the human player rolls up the flank.

On the reviewer’s machine, the game was mostly stable, but CTDs were a little too frequent to be okay with. The campaign map occasionally flickered strangely, too, but not enough to be anything more than a minor irritant. Overall, none of these problems affected game-play much, but frequent saves are recommended.

In the final tally, Empire: Total War is a very good game and highly recommended. It is one of the most anticipated titles of this year and the hype, combined with the gaming audience’s thirst for a great war game, have set the bar very high for Creative Assembly. Empire: Total War is somewhat short of those lofty goals and is not a great game yet; hopefully patching and the modding community will shortly polish this somewhat rough gem. But in the meantime, fix bayonets, look to your front, and pay no mind to the man who is struck. Advance, for today you fight for the Empire!

Armchair General Score: 86%

ACG Intel

Empire: Total War

Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box and virtual machines, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former US Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.

10 Comments

  1. Who gives a —- if it’s “historically accurate” or not if it’s fun? It’s a GAME made to be FUN not a textbook. Would you want to play a WWI game and just see who could sit in a trench longer?

    Stop reviewing games.

  2. save your cash and wait for histwar to come out

  3. I think when it comes to games, its purely subjective. A review is meant to be ensightful, dealing two sides of a compass. Sir your article delievers the goods.

  4. While I enjoyed the game in some respects such as the story driven campaigns, this title left a lot to be desired for me. CTDs happened often on my machine and while I don’t have a top of the line machine, I do have decent specs and yet the game would freeze at times, especially when clicking on a navy.

    This title needs numerous patches, in my opinion. And in many others, as well. I have de-installed the game and chalked it up to a lesson learned. I keep buying numerous titles as soon as they come out only to be overwhelmed by bugs.

    I would have given it a 68%.

  5. some games shuld have description “made only for money” that one was one of them. I love total war series but that was last one i bought

  6. Often after beating the ^%$! out of another major country, they refuse to accept a proposal for peace. They do this even when I offer to return conquered territory; even the district including their capital!

    The diplomacy aspect of this game needs work for this and other reasons.

  7. It’s a game that plays good. Ok, it lacks some historical accurateness, but the trick is to make the game playable, and they succeeded, although rather dull after a while.

    At daran, histwar maybe a good game, but coming from battlefront i start to worry a bit. I got Combatmission ShockForce+marines, it is lacking on al fronts, hack they don’t even portray modern battle operations, but they covered their asses and say, well it’s just a invasion game, portraying large scale army based game mechanics in an invasion type of simulation. Rather disappointing, and lacking community support also, the game-engine is dog slow…

    Hope histwar won’t be a screw-up game like CM:ShockForce, reading from http://www.histwar.com/ it looks promising.

  8. I don’t know how they can say “highly recommended” about a game with so many flaws and bugs still in it after 1.5 patch? This is the sloppiest release of any total war game to date and seriously reigns supreme as the worst of the bunch. I don’t even have to go into great detail how sloppy it is just take a jump over to the official forum page and you’ll read thousands and thousands of complaints and rants about this one. Armchair general reviewers need to get their noses out of CA azzes and start reviewing honestly and telling those that depend on these reviews for purchase the truth and quit sugar coating it because they got their palms wiped. This is just another one of those romper room kiddie clickfest games like the rest but this time it’s not even complete and remains very unfinished and buggy.

  9. I agree that this was the most buggy release yet – I found it extrodinarily frustrating. With the patches it has all been fixed – good thing about this game is how much time you get playing it for $ value. 100’s of hours of gameplay. As for it being a “romper room kiddie click fest” – well, correct me if I’m wrong isn’t it a game. Yes – the diplomacy is a mystery, and the series has always struggled with this, in fact all games have. I could criticise lots of little bits of the game, but overall it was a good effort by the developers. It was released a bit too early, with a few too many starting bugs, in particular the confusion over using Steam and account problems. However they still support this game, and that is to be commended that there is still a developer working to make the experience more enjoyable. Perfect? Far from it. Recommended (in its current form)? Absolutely for an absorbing “game.”

  10. You’ll be happy to know that CA has released many patches since release, including a lot of DLC (downloadable content, extra bits added to the overall game). These include special faction-specific units (IE Death’s Head Hussar’s for Prussia) and so forth.
    The game is much improved over the last few months, including rampant fixing of crashing issues and improving the AI. Be warned; island nations are no longer safe.
    For those who complain of historical accuracy; it’s a game! If you want to just railroad then go watch the History Channel. If you want to actuall shape history, play ETW. Nothing is as awesome as Prussia pushing out the Maratha Confederacy from the Bahamas.
    The vanilla game itself is extremely fun and addictive, but aside from offical DLC, the player can add further to the experience. Check out the massive community that develops and posts mods for the game, changing everything from the loading screens, to music, battle noise, uniforms, even much of the gameplay. There’s something for everyone.

    If you like strategy and tacical battles, this game (indeed, the entire series) is great.
    Highly recommended.

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