Empire: Total War is the fifth game in the Total War series, which began with Creative Assembly’s original Shogun: Total War just over nine years ago. The game itself is an in-depth strategy game combining turn-based game play with real-time battles in a game that is polished, epic and painfully addictive.
Set in the 18th century, the game takes place during the American War for Independence, the Industrial Revolution, and the Rise of Democracy. Empire: Total War allows the player to take control of 12 initial factions across the world, such as Great Britain, India, Russia or the fledging United States. The world stretches from the Americas, to Europe through to the Indies so that the games goals of inevitable war and conquest are satisfyingly global on scale. To appreciate the game, we really need to examine the game as two key components: the campaign mode and the battle mode.
The campaign mode is where you’ll make your major strategic decisions. The player looks at a broad campaign map and leads their small nation against their neighbours in diplomacy, espionage, research, trade, and inevitably as the game title suggests – total war. The player begins with a limited amount of territory, which holds resources such as ports, cities, mines and trade routes. They can expand and develop these based on available funds (gained from taxes, trade and conquest) as well as the most precious of commodities: time (with each turn representing six months of game time). Each turn, the player invests in research, negotiates alliances, develops industry, builds fleets and armies and invariably wages war against their neighbour. It’s here where we get to enjoy the other half of the game with the superb real-time battles.
When the player is engaged in a battle, Empire: Total War switches to a different game engine that lets the player literally control thousands of soldiers in a beautifully detailed environment. Each army sets out their units on a battlefield, and then, employing historic weapons and tactics of the time (dutifully researched in the campaign mode), the player directs their army to certain victory or catastrophic defeat. Detailed scenes of Indian war elephants charging into British colonial muskets make the battles satisfyingly authentic. Soldiers cry and cheer based on the events on the battlefield, with each unit’s victory hinging on their experience, equipment and morale.
For the first time in this series, battles are also fought at sea in a similar real-time fashion. Unfortunately, while the detail and atmosphere of the land battles remain intact, the sea battles suffer from a lack of intuitive controls and a difficult interface. This interface seemingly struggles to control a fleet of ships in close combat, which can result in frustratingly difficult battles. Regardless, these battles can be auto-resolved (and thus reasonably avoided), but it detracts from the game's focus on navy research and supremacy.
Regardless of this fault, the game itself is definitely a significant improvement on its predecessor. Although Empire: Total War is ambitious in scale, scope and design, it pays attention to little details that make the game more accessible, cohesive and dangerously addictive. Examples include a cleaner and more intuitive interface, streamlined micromanagement options, improved research and diplomacy options, significantly reducing much of the tediousness of managing your empire.
The most notable achievement of Empire: Total War, however, is the sense of satisfaction in building your empire. Destroying the British Navy blockade outside of Boston, while simultaneously bribing Spain not to attack you while you stealing mining technology from her cities, makes you feel deviously corrupt. Add to this the fantastic graphics, slick production values and the hour upon hour of satisfying game play and replay value, and Empire: Total War proves itself to be one of the finest strategy games available.