Sega’s latest game in the Total War series scares us. Rome: Total War showed us a few years back just how easily we can get addicted to Creative Assembly’s epic mix of nation management and historical battles, so the idea of sitting down to play an expanded version of that recipe isn’t something to be taken lightly. We could come to our senses in six months to find ourselves out of jobs and vampirically pale from lack of sunlight, again.
Empire, though, is just too attractive an idea to stay away from, as Sega has finally brought the long running strategy series kicking and screaming into the time of gunpowder and American independence. It’s the Early Modern Era and the face of Total War has changed drastically since the last installment.
The most notable change is the scale. In the past, players have had their plans for conquest focused on small areas of the globe or single continents. Now that the series has jumped to a more technologically adept era of history, though, the fog of war has been pushed back. The theater of conflict is now so big that it can’t even all be displayed on one zoomed out campaign map, forcing players to jump around between separate maps for America, Europe and India.
That more countries are involved naturally brings more playable factions into the mix too, with players getting an option to play as anyone from the British or French to the Maratha Confederacy or the Ottoman Empire. New nations bring new technologies too, with demicannons and naval armadas now complementing the phalanxes and swordsmen of old. On top of that, the new weapons and technologies force players to find new tactics too – how strong is a line formation against a square of riflemen and is a broadside best unleashed on the fore or aft?
If all of this is sounding a little overwhelming then it’s because it is, a bit. Creative Assembly has tried to simplify the game down a little so newcomers to the series won’t feel hopelessly out of their depth, but they’ve only partly succeeded in their aim and some prior experience with the series is definitely preferred. The new Road to Independence mini-campaign is a nice and gentle introduction, but it’s a little slow moving and misses out a few tips that are essential for succeeding in the Grand Campaign which forms the bulk of the singleplayer.
Not that the level of knowledge required should put anyone off, though. Empire‘s old-school difficulty and length may stand at odds with the current trend for shorter, insultingly easy games (hello, Prince Of Persia) but it pays gamers back in satisfaction eventually. Winning feels like an actual achievement and the process of earning your victory is part of the joy. The campaign side of the game is turn-based, ponderous and sedentary too, so there’s never any need for you to feel rushed. Listening to your advisors and making good use of your special agents will take you quite far if you just look before you leap and don’t immediately try to wage war with the French, tempting as it may be.
In fact, it’s only when you get stuck into the actual battles and the game shifts to real-time that things really start to take a turn for the worse.
The good news is that the land-based battles and troop warfare that’s always been at the core of the Total War series is as strong as ever. The enemy AI has been greatly improved since Medieval: Total War, with besieged commanders no longer leading suicidal charges and your own troops able to follow orders more intelligently. The ability to move your men into custom formations is a fantastic addition too, opening up hundreds of new battlefield options for you.
The new naval combat aspect of the game, though, just isn’t as well put together, with balancing problems sandwiched between control issues and the requirement that you have some sort of prior nautical experience. Unless you’re able to pinpoint the difference between a third and fourth rate sloop, then you’ll be hopelessly adrift a lot of the time. The enemy AI, which seems to have all this knowledge fully loaded, is an almost unfair opponent and will confusingly be able to sink your ships with just a few rounds.
Ship controls aren’t as intuitive as they need to be either, with players basically given the choice of clicking on an enemy once and letting the troops charge in willy-nilly as one foolish lump or having to micromanage each ship. Directing, turning and firing for each individual boat is fine when your fleet is small, but larger battles are untenable. It’s easier to just auto-resolve the battle, which feels a bit of a letdown considering the faults are all in the interface.
The faults of Empire are pretty few and the game as a whole is a deep and masterful simulation of war in the Early Modern Era. It’s easily enough to keep bedroom generals playing for a long time to come as they get to grips with the different nations and slowly attempt to dominate this virtual world. Newcomers to the series will likewise find a lot to like in the game, though it may take some time to learn the fundamentals.
What faults there are with Empire are very focused, though, completely undermining any hopes we might have had for epic-scale naval battles. As the major new addition to the series in this installment, it’s a shame that naval combat couldn’t have been made more approachable and manageable – but the majority of the game is left intact and as enjoyable as ever.