Hrm. An Empire: Total War review. Where to start, where to start... It's tough! Tough like trying to sum up War & Peace in Haiku.
But let's give it a shot!
Sega and The Creative Assembly's Empire: Total War is dense. It takes the existing Total War game model of turn-based strategy and real-time tactics, adds a bunch of new options and triples the size of the game world. In terms of the amount of time you'll get out of it, it's dense. In terms of the depth of options available to you as a commander, it's dense. In terms of the number of different ways you can play the game, yes, it is dense. Which is fine on paper.
But is it fine in practice?
Scale – They weren't kidding around when they said this was the biggest Total War game yet. Not only do you have the European map so frequently seen in previous games, but there's a massive map of America as well. And India. And four smaller trade theatres. Really, the amount of space available to conquer/manage is at times mind-boggling (but in a good way). The more land available, the more options you've got for your wars of conquest.
The Thin Red Line – Total War games have always looked pretty, but never like this. Seeing individual crew members of a ship clambering across the ropes at sunset, or a cloud of smoke gently envelop your infantry as they let loose a volley of musket fire is hypnotising. And if they weren't encouragement to zoom in and view your battles at ground level, you'll love the fact individual combatants now really appear to be fighting 1v1, instead of just flailing around.
The Shoe Fits – While there was nothing wrong with previous time periods, per se, the 18th century just feels more fun. The combination of melee and musket fire changes both the pace of the real-time battles and your tactical options on the battlefield. Same goes for naval battles: there's a romance surrounding tall ships, pirates and the Royal Navy that other time periods just can't match.
Overlord – Empire: Total War isn't about real-time battles. Those are just a pleasant diversion. Instead, you'll spend the bulk of your time on a much-improved campaign map, which has added new governmental control options as well as, crucially, the fact that important resources are now located outside town centres. This smaller towns/buildings can be occupied and fought over, meaning battles now take place across an entire map, and don't just focus on the big cities. Indeed, this mode is so strong that it could have been released as a stand-alone game and it would be amazing all on its own.
Play It Again – Because the game world is so massive, and because it introduces so many new features (like overseas trade routes and piracy), you can play two grand campaigns (the game's bread and butter mode) and they'll feel like two completely different games. Play as Britain and you'll be tinkering in continental politics while safeguarding vast international trade routes. Play as Prussia and you'll barely notice the sea as your armies march across the green fields of Europe.
England Expects (Ships To Be More Enjoyable) – Naval battles were hyped as this game's main new attraction. They're not. They look great, but large fleets are far too difficult to control (with most battles taking place between large fleets), so only the most resolute player will avoid the temptation of hitting the "auto resolve" button after only a few battles.
Stupid, Stupid, Stupid – The Total War games have always had an Achilles heel when it comes to real-time battles: AI on stronghold missions. Out on the open fields, the computer does a great job, but if you're defending or attacking a city, it's a mess. Armies can't move around a fort with getting stuck, they can't enter or exit a fort without getting stuck, and you'll notice countless other errors, like defenders refusing to fire at attackers and attackers deciding it's more fun to just stand in front of a wall than climb up it. This means you'll sadly have to auto-resolve most city/town-based battles, which is a shame as they're often the most important.
It really is difficult to sum up such a vast game in such a short amount of space. So rather than trying to sum up any more features, I'll just say this: imagine all the power and options available to you as an 18th century King, General, Admiral or Prime Minister. Now imagine all those options could be rolled into a single job, and given to you. That's what playing this game feels like.
Only, because they've been rolled together so intuitively, it's fun.
Empire: Total War is, simply, a masterclass in PC strategy. It's boundless, it's polished, and its quality (and sales) show that despite other publisher's claims to the contrary, there is still a viable PC strategy market out there, so long as you deliver the goods. And Empire: Total War delivers the goods.
Empire: Total War was developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. Released on PC on March 3, retails for $49.99. Played American campaign to completion, played three grand campaigns to completion. Played multiplayer skirmishes, did not play multiplayer campaign.
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