Not just a little bit of war.
Empire: Total War is the most recent game in Creative Assembly’s prolific Total War series. As with the rest of the series, the game presents the player with a large campaign map to handle macro-management and, in the event of a battle, creates smaller maps for the resolution of combat. Empire takes place in the 18th century, focusing on the Industrial Revolution and the exploration of the New World. Though the introduction of gunpowder in the original Shogun: Total War altered game play dramatically, the setting along with the presence of mass-produced firearms serves to change the flow of the game significantly from the earlier period games.
The first thing noticed whilst setting up the campaign is that there’s a limited number of factions to play, coming in the bland three varieties of European power, rising Indian nation and ageing old empire. Each one feels as though it should have its own play style and unique unit structure, but aside from the (admittedly rather good) music choices and flags, each faction feels largely like the others. The ability to change government type through forcing a revolution later in the game does allow a slightly broader set of factions to choose from as the government type does affect flag choice and inter-faction politics but the inability to play as smaller distributed nations until purchasing DLC is fairly unforgivable.
Where other Total War games succeed with broad unit choices, interesting flavours of civilisation (Rome’s Barbarian hordes being a personal favourite) and wide variety of tactics to employ, Empire sadly falls short. The simplest explanation for this is where Medieval and Rome brought vast numbers of different units to the game, Empire focuses on line infantry, artillery and generic cavalry. I understand that these units were indicative of the time and that units fell into those categories or were rendered useless but this then begs the question whether the game needed to be made in the first place. Rome, Medieval and Shogun were excellent era choices signifying great changes in the way combat was performed, Empire simply starts after a great change (the introduction of gunpowder) and rides out the rest of the era happily destroying developing nation after developing nation. Whilst this attitude channels the spirit of the British empire at its greatest, the discomfort that comes from mowing down countless Native American warriors with cannons will eventually envelop even the hardest of players.
If the feeling of reenacting genocide doesn’t drive you away, the requirement to wait excessive periods of time whilst your opponents move their various units will definitely do the job. This aspect of the game is reminiscent of Civ IV, watching the Spaniards move their innumerable units from one tile to the next during an invasion.
The most prolific issue with the game though is the size and scope. Though Creative Assembly have been ambitious in their creation, and rightly so, they have over-reached. The need to jump between theatres is clunky and time-consuming as it takes a few moments to readjust to each area. India, America and Europe are the main areas with four smaller “trade” areas to control with naval forces. For the majority of factions, they hold presences in one or two of these areas, requiring the player to flick back and forth between them each turn. For the “United Provinces” nation, the player is required to jump between all three. It’s difficult not to treat a single area as a money-maker and the other as a conquest zone and often it feels as the game is encouraging you to do so through the placement of trade goods and ports.
However the game doesn’t fall at every hurdle, the significant overhaul of the naval warfare system is one of the finer aspects of the game. From various forums, I understand that this is a controversial subject and I imagine it depends on the player but the feeling of bringing 56 cannons round to face an enemy ship is incomparable within the game. It is difficult to carry out any real form of naval tactics, though I fail to understand what more is required than “have more cannons than the other guy and fire faster”. Most battles descend into a circling mess of frigates and galleons leaving a confusing yet entertaining battle for the seas.
Not just a little bit of war
Artillery also makes a strong appearance in Empire: Total War. Again, the developers have got the feel of cannons and mortars almost perfect. Though largely useless in a standard battle until the introduction of the absurdly powerful Canister Shot, cannons are an indispensable mood-changer for the battles. From the rather dull sounds of muskets, the addition of cannons booming with recoil and retorts, the battles become epic set pieces.
Where troop variety is fairly limited, agents have been altered to refit the Medieval Total War into a modern setting. Missionaries, Gentlemen, Hashashins, Thugees, and Rakes are just some of the many agent types with different abilities. These units allow for slightly more complex strategies than earlier games, placing a missionary in an opposing territory to convert the populace before invading is a personal favourite to reduce resistance.
All things considered, Empire: Total War is enjoyable if only to satisfy megalomaniac tendencies. The difficulties in managing the empire come from Creative Assembly pushing the limits of their gameplay structure. It would be unfair to ask Creative Assembly to alter their game dramatically to fit the era, however, as mentioned earlier it does beg the question why the game was made in the first place. There are other eras of history that would fit their game style closely, and they go on to fix numerous issues with the later Napoleon: Total War. Ultimately there’s only so many clunky UIs that can be covered up the sounds of cannon fired in unison.