One of the biggest missing features of the Total War series has always been naval combat. Empire changed all that, but did it really make a big difference once it finally arrived or was it a distraction at best?
The first thing I must explain is that I’ve been waiting with a lot of anticipation for Empire: Total War. I even had it pre-ordered, which is something I usually never do. On top of that, I bought a new computer right before it was released so I was sure I could run it on maximum settings and really enjoy myself. Well, I was in for quite the disappointment.
Really – I should have learned from the experience I had with Medieval 2: Total War. A brilliant game, but not until over a year after its release. Empire: Total War is no different – I can confidently say I didn’t really enjoy it when it first came out: I endured it. The game was riddled with bugs, ran on my new computer like a train wreck and was one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had in gaming history. If I would have reviewed the game back then, I would have told you to not buy it and never buy any products from Creative Assembly ever again. But a little down the line, and with another new computer available I’ve decided to give it another chance.
Empire: Total War is set in the 17th century – where Britain, France and Spain were global superpowers and when my country of origin (The Netherlands) was still taken somewhat seriously. Needless to say I love playing with the United Provinces – even though their starting positions really don’t make for a very enjoyable campaign start and the voice acting for the Dutch is really terrible. (Jawel Kapitein! Tot uw dienst!)
The game comes with a campaign this time around, called ‘Road to Independence’ and, as the name suggests, takes you through 4 distinct scenarios involving the Americas. Now I’ve tried playing these but they really didn’t hold all that much appeal. The scenarios are really well done and take a player through some of the campaign basics gradually, but the real joy for me is with the grand campaign. I am sure many players will enjoy the Road to Indepence though, as the final scenario allows you to play a shorter version of the Grand Campaign as the United States. This is a really clever move by Creative Assembly as it increases the interest of especially the American audience in what’s otherwise a pretty European affair in this time period.
The goal of the Grand Campaign depends on your choices prior to starting, but ranges from capturing certain territories to conquering most of the world. In traditional Total War fashion the campaign map is played in turn-based fashion and the actual battles are fully realtime. As far as those battles are concerned, there really isn’t much difference to previous Total War games. A few handy tweaks to moving units and formations and the usual graphics upgrade, but beyond that it plays and feels like Total War.
First, naval battles are boring. There I said it. The naval battles was the pinnacle of this installment in Total War and should have made the game a lot more interesting. After all this time period was dominated by Naval Warfare. But naval battles are really pretty dull. It looks lovely, but you’re not as much in control as you are during land battles – and a lot of players really struggle with this aspect of the game. Ultimately, you will end up just auto-resolving most naval battles, and focus on the land ones – which really is a giant shame.
Second, trade routes are a brilliant idea but their implementation makes them rather frustrating. It’s close to impossible to defend a trade route from the East Indies all the way to Europe. Moving your fleets around can take 6-8 turns, and by that time you’ve lost a HUGE amount of money to raids from other factions or pirates. Sure that keeps things challenging, but the way it is implemented makes it a little frustrating.
Then there are the different trade and operational theatres. Rather than one map, Empire links several maps together: Europe, America and India – plus several ‘trade theatres’ where specific spots allow trade ships to generate revenue. Personally, I both liked and hated this ‘split map’ system. It was definitely different and allowed me to try some strategies I wouldn’t have used without it, but after a while it became tiresome managing what was effectively 3 separate empires.
The last but certainly not the least criticism is how cannons operate. I’ve seen cannons fire into a mounting or slight slope in the terrain for hours, without ever hitting a single opponent. Later on as you gain access to mortars that is less of an issue – but it’s somewhat of a let-down that the weapon of choice of the period is really rubbish in Empire: Total War. Cannons also lack stopping power, so they disappoint slightly as a whole.
Research & Management
One very positive thing Empire has added to the Total War franchise is research. I really love customising my nation through technological developments, as this is what makes games such as Civilization so appealing. There are quite a few tech trees so you can develop an empire in a number of different directions. Research is done from universities, with each university in your empire researching something different on its own. This means that when you gain more territory and universities, you can gain a significant advantage over your enemies.
Another aspect that changes in Empire is how buildings behave. Rather than all sitting inside the capital of a region, buildings now sit directly on the campaign map. You can upgrade them from there, but they can also be attacked/raided there, adding new tactical elements. Troops have a certain intercept range, so your garrison inside your fortress or capital city is all but useless – you can intercept any attacker that comes in range without leaving your position.
As a fan of Total War games, it’s really hard not to like Empire. I am however a little disappointed about the execution of parts of this game – and fairly insulted when it comes to the DLC structure. Sorry but making us pay for units which should have been part of the game in the first place? Get a grip CA – the game was freaking expensive to start with. Why should we spend our hard earned cash on a piece of DLC which gives us one or two units at the very most for the factions we actually play with?
So is Empire: Total War worth buying? If you are a big fan of the Total War series, and like the 17th century setting – then yes – absolutely. Each empire plays just a little differently, with different units, look and feel at their disposal. There’s plenty of replayability if you look at it that way, and it has the Road to Independence campaign to offer on top of that.
The biggest challenge for Empire: Total War is that there are just a lot of good alternatives out there – including some of its own predecessors. Still, if you’re in the mood for some 17th century conquest, Empire is as good as it’s going to get at the moment. It was pretty bad on release, but in its current state the game is highly enjoyable and much, much more polished. And there’s a fair few mods available to keep you entertained as well.