PC Empire Total War

Scott Tortorice

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It’s unfortunate that whenever gaming is mentioned by the media it is invariably in a negative context. Like any other industry, gaming has its vocal “bad boys” – those developers or titles that thrive on negative attention. Unfortunately, the good guys often get overlooked as a result. While there have been countless stories run about Grand Theft Auto, I am still awaiting the first story about Creative Assembly’s Total War series. Has anyone outside of the gaming press extolled this franchise’s incredible ability to not only entertain, but to teach some history as well? Has anyone written an expose about its ability to bring together the teen gamer and the college professor in sophisticated gaming bliss? Unfortunately, I guess this lack of attention is just another example of muckraking journalism at work, something that is a story for another time.

Whether or not the mainstream media takes note, gamers the world over are celebrating the arrival of the latest addition to this beloved franchise: Empire: Total War. Sporting the classic strategy-centered gameplay found in the entire series, along with a new naval battle engine, E: TW promises to please armchair generals like never before. Does it live up to the hype? Read on….

Inauspicious Beginnings

Empire: Total has largely gotten off to a muddled start. To begin with, there was more than a little confusion regarding its exact launch date. For some reason, E: TW staggered its launch date in a way that had more than a few people confused as to just when it would be available in their particular market. Adding more confusion was the fact that Creative Assembly had promised that those who pre-purchased the game via Steam would be able to pre-load it, something quite important when dealing with such a sizeable download as this title. For some reason, that never occurred, causing confusion and the resultant ire of more than a few customers.

But then things got even worse. Empire: Total War uses a DRM-scheme that requires all purchasers (i.e., boxed copies and digital downloads) to activate the game via Steam. Unfortunately, in a not unforeseeable development with a hotly anticipated title such as this, Steam’s servers virtually melted down due to thousands of people trying to activate their copy of the game simultaneously. What resulted was the surreal situation where people with boxed copies were unable to play the game for most of the first day! To call the whole situation a major screw-up would be a significant understatement and is yet another tarnished entry in the DRM Hall of Fame.

Behold Your Empire

Empire: Total War is the franchise’s first entry in the tumultuous 18th Century, a time of political turmoil and battlefield innovation. To better address these unique qualities, Creative Assembly has taken a hard look at the strategic map of years past and made a number of changes and enhancements.

First off, Total War veterans can forget about regional capitals claiming all of their attention in this go around. For example, building improvements are no longer strictly located in a central city; instead, E: TW has moved such structures out to the countryside with the introduction of villages. These settlements may start out as small fishing villages or mining communities, but as the player invests more and more resources into improving them, they will begin to grow in both size and wealth as did regional capitals of previous TW titles. Mind you, regional capitals still hold critical importance when it comes to maintaining control of an area, but now the player is no longer forced to keep all his eggs in one basket.

Of course, this decentralization of assets poses a new problem as an enemy will often form an army to raid a village, depriving the owner of its benefits. What this means is that fights are no longer centered on placing a critically important central city under siege, but about lightning raids into the enemy’s countryside. This subtle change to the franchise’s core gameplay has huge strategic implications as the player must now be prepared to not just defend one all important city, but the various settlements scattered about the realm.

Another change is the newly incorporated tech tree. Unlike previous TW games where most technology was associated with the building of new structures, Empire: Total War has a more traditional technology tree that can be researched. This tech three is divided into three parts: military, industrial and philosophy, with each sub-divided into three branches. As can be discerned from their names, each category influences a specific part of your empire. In some cases, a particular technology cannot be researched until a corresponding building is first constructed. Other times, the reverse is true. What is more, research is conducted in colleges that are spread about your empire. As in the real world, the more scholars you have at a college, the better the research progresses. And, again as in the real world, the more advanced your empire, the greater advantage you will enjoy in battle or industrial production.

This brings us to the use of agents. In this iteration of Total War, there are three principle types: the gentleman, the rake and the missionary. The aforementioned gentleman is useful in speeding research at a college, but can also steal knowledge at a rival’s learning center. He can also challenge another agent to a duel. The rake is largely the spy/assassin from previous games. Of course, the missionary is the agent charged with spreading religion around the realm, albeit, his value in Empire: Total War comes across as somewhat superfluous compared to Medieval: Total War.

Of course, the most important agent is you, the monarch of the realm. As in previous entries to the series, you can undertake the standard actions of engaging in diplomacy and recruiting armies and such. But in a new twist, you now have a centralized cabinet of officials to help run the nation instead of a specific governor in each city. Similar to princes from previous games, these ministers are given or earn a number of personality traits that affect how well your empire functions. For example, if your Minister of the Army is good with numbers, expect a reduction to the maintenance cost of your forces. In the event that you are unsatisfied with a particular minister, you can dismiss him from your government, and replace him with one of the several replacements waiting in the wings. In general, this works well, but I did find it somewhat silly that the qualities of the new minister are known immediately after he is placed in office, making the whole process rather over-simplified and little more than a “card swap” where the player can dig through a deck until he finds a guy he can live with.

As monarch, you can also set taxes, but unlike previous versions, this is no longer accomplished on a region by region basis, but nationally with the ability to exempt certain regions if you wish. This time, the tax rate is adjusted by the class of citizenry, marking the series first entry into class warfare taxation. It can be fun to play with the tax rates of the nobility and the lower classes, but don’t get carried away or you could have a revolution on your hands, something that would force a change of government style with all that that implies.

Lastly, there is the massive scope of the new Empire: Total War map. Unlike previous entries to the franchise, E: TW spans all of Europe, the colonial east coast of North America, and India! Add to this the addition of a number of trade maps, such as the Caribbean and the Far East, where the player can place trade ships to collect additional income from lucrative commodities such as sugar. In this regard, to call E: TW ambitious would be an understatement. Fortunately, Creative Assembly has successfully streamlined the user interface so that his sizable imperial purview never becomes overwhelming.

Musket Fire

Sooner or later, armies will cross swords on the strategic map, triggering the time-tested TW transition from turn-based strategizing to real-time tactics. After a loading pause, one I found to be longer than Medieval II at about 40-60 seconds, the player is placed in command of his troops. The gameplay of the real-time battles is largely the same, with the player free to order his troops as seems best, with his general providing an important morale boost to his troops by his mere presence. Units are ordered about with a point and click, also as in the past. However, as we are now in the 18th Century, gunpowder is all the rage and that drastically changes everything.

While your cavalry will still be charging into battle with swords held high, your infantry will now be sporting muskets instead of battle axes. What this means is that the real-time battles are no longer about charging the enemy in a chaotic storm of sword and shield, but instead finding the best terrain to fire by rank (if the player has researched that particular tactic). While Total War battles have always been captivating, the new gunplay makes it somehow even more enjoyable. To line up you men and watch them pick off the enemy with the crack of musketry is thoroughly engaging. Add cannonballs that skip along the ground and smash into lines of infantry, and it gets even more compelling. Finally, add the ability to order your men to “fix bayonets!” and close with the enemy for a final coup de grace and you are having a bloody good time!

The new battle maps are quite nice, seemingly larger than in the past, with an assortment of picturesque homes and barns scattered about. With the gunpowder-dominated battlefields of the 18th Century, this is a good thing as shelter can mean the difference between victory and defeat. In E: TW, the player can order his units to occupy those structures that allow entry (finally!). When I initially tried this tactic, I was pleasantry surprised to see my militia break the windows of a two-story home and start taking potshots at the advancing enemy. Of course, I was then disappointed as enemy cannonballs slammed into the home, setting it afire and forcing my men out into the open! Terrain is definitely a double-edged sword in E: TW.

Fans will also be glad to hear that the tactical AI is much improved from previous versions. Forget the passive AI of days past. In E: TW, the computer will actively try to flank you at every opportunity. It will also order its men into defensive formations where appropriate (and sometimes, where not appropriate). Like the player, it will even occupy buildings. While the AI still falls short of even the newbiest human player, it is definitely an improvement over what we have encountered in the past.

Naval Battles

If there is one portion of Empire: Total War that truly seems fresh and new, it is the long-awaited naval battles. This aspect of the game is truly mesmerizing, not just for the wonderful graphics and sound that seem to far outshine the land battles, but also for the action once fleets clash.

In reality, naval battles can be very complex affairs. However, in typical Total War fashion, Creative Assembly has boiled it down to the essentials of movement and fire. Ships are ordered about in the simplistic fashion of land units, but are affected by wind direction and the handling characteristics of the ships. This simplistic approach is something of a good thing as trying to manage a large number of ships can become a chore as the AI has more than a little trouble maintaining a fleet’s formation in battle, requiring the player to micro-manage the whole affair.

Once battle is joined, the player is treated to a scene right out of Master and Commander as ships of the line have at it with cannon fire. The player can set-up broadsides for especially deadly attacks, and even select the type of ammo depending on whether he wants to target the hull, sails, or crew of an enemy vessel. If the opportunity presents itself, the player can also order a boarding action where one ship will pull alongside another and rush marines over to capture it. The entire spectacle is quite captivating as cannons boom, sails shred, and ships catch fire or slowly sink while the crew jumps overboard. I believe it to be no exaggeration to say that the naval battle portion of this game is sufficient to be a standalone title in its own right and makes the entire Empire: Total War far more impressive than it would have otherwise been.

The Road to Independence Campaign

While Total War often had mini-campaigns present, especially in expansions such as Medieval II’s Kingdoms, the Road to Independence is the first true stand-alone campaign in a Total War game. From America’s earliest days as a collection of British colonies, to the Revolutionary War itself, the Road to Independence is a compelling narrative told via a number of mini-campaigns, each with specific objectives, with nicely rendered cut-scenes told from the point of view of the great man himself, George Washington. Overall, the Road to Independence campaign not only challenges the experienced player, but also serves to act as a sort of tutorial for new members of the Total War community. While I have always preferred the free-form ways of a traditional grand campaign, the Road to Independence is nonetheless a nice gameplay edition that is also great way to relive the pivotal moments of America’s birth.

So What’s Not to Like?

Bugs! And more bugs! Now, bugs in a Total War entry are nothing new, but there seems to be a lot in E: TW. Some are minor, such as Sweden being unable to establish a trade route (something corrected by a recent patch), but unfortunately some are rather major, including frequent crash-to-desktop events. I can honestly say that I have not experienced so many CTDs since the days of Windows 98. It seems that these crashes are related to memory issues, and CA has assured the community that they are working to squash ‘em, but in the meantime, do not expect a bug-free performance from E: TW.

Related to the above is the fact that E: TW is a resource hog. When it comes to gaming, I would rather have a modest game that runs fine on a wide range of PCs. Unfortunately, Creative Assembly has thrown its weight at the other end of spectrum, producing a game that looks great on a high-end PC, but runs worse than any other Total War game I can think of on a mid-range PC. Even the strategic map refuses to scroll smoothly; instead it does the herky-jerky as you move it from side to side. What is more, while I can run Medieval II at ‘high’ or better in the graphics department, the best I can achieve with E: TW is ‘medium’ – and the land battle portion looks it (shouldn’t E: TW’s ‘medium’ be as least as good as M2’s ‘high’?). Adding insult to injury, there is more than a little confusion as to which GPU is best for the game as some gamers with older video cards are running the game at higher settings than those with newer cards. Weird.

The strategic AI also needs some help as it seems that some old problems have resurfaced. For example, units on the strategic map will often retrace their steps as they wander about aimlessly. For example, I’ve seen a stack of French infantry make the same round trip for every single turn of a campaign. Likewise, I’ve seen an AI-controlled gentleman condemned to wander in circles in the middle of a Russian forest…that is, until I sent a rake to put him out of our shared misery. Also, the AI has returned to its annoying habit of sending out one to two units out to take an entire city. I once laughed out loud as a lone unit of cannon was sent to raid a village…yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

I am also disappointed by some omissions. For example, mini-movies, such as those that would play after an assassination, are no longer present. Why? Likewise, the rousing speech given by your general before a battle has also been excised. Again, why?

Closing Comments:

A Total War game is a lot like a bottle of fine wine: you just don’t drink it until it has aged some, for by aging it, you improve the overall quality. Such is the case with Empire: Total War. As it stands right now, it is a decent entry to the franchise. However, as bugs are gradually squashed, and the world-class modding community kicks in, E: TW will prove to be a great game. Alas, in its current form, E: TW comes across as a polished beta. So, unless you really, really need to get your hands on this title, I advise waiting a few months for all the kinks to be slowly worked out and the promised mod tools and multiplayer campaign to arrive. Once these issues are resolved, Empire: Total War will prove to be another classic entry to one of the most beloved PC gaming franchises of all time.

8.0 out of 10
 
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