Wot I Think: Empire: Total War

By Tim Stone on March 5th, 2009 at 3:57 pm.

Having dabbled with Empire: Total War for the best part of a week, I reckon I’ve slain enough redcoats, sunk enough sloops, and lost enough rakes to sit in judgement. After the jump, the thoughts of a man who’s now so enthusiastic about 18th Century warfare, he’s bought himself a tricorn hat, a bicorn hat, and a unicorn hat.

 

My first hour with Empire wasn’t a particularly happy one. First, the ironically labelled Graphics Options screen vetted my system, found it wanting, and barred me from selecting certain ‘ultra’ settings. I pleaded with it, suggested various compromises (If I lower the grass and tree quality, can my troops have shapely noses and crisp uniform textures?) even started tampering with preference files, but it was all to no avail. The bastard thing wouldn’t give an inch. Not a good start.

 

Then I launched straight into ‘The Road to Independence’ – a kind of Kingdoms-style campaign-cum-tutorial – and, first battle, found myself confronted with a sight that made my inner grognard (Percival Urquhart III) recoil in horror. There, marching down the hill towards my Jamestown militiamen were serried ranks of Iroquois braves.

 

Don’t worry, I’m not going to fill this piece with petty wargamerly complaints about musket reload times and the number of buttons on Prussian gaiters, but I do feel if you’re going to feature native cultures in your game you should make some effort to model their approach to warfare. Even American Conquest did a better job of representing the contrast between European and Native American tactics.

 

 

But it’s hard to stay mad at Empire. A short time after slaughtering those remarkably well-drilled tribesman I gazed upon the gorgeous Quebec map for the first time and my misgivings melted away like snowflakes on a hot cannon barrel. None of the previews I’d read or screenshots I’d gawped at had really prepared me for the scale and beauty of the new battlefields. Even the demo didn’t hint at it. For years now RTSs have been palming us off with horribly shrunken topography. When a title actually tries to represent landscape realistically, the effect is quite stunning. The venues tend to be more interesting too. Features like walls and fences, hovels and carts give engagements welcome personality and shape, even if they do make positioning formations a little tricky at times.

 

As my Bangalore AAR suggests, fighting pitched battles is usually a joy. Percival can grumble all he likes about the shortcomings of the TacAI, – the heavy weapons it leaves unprotected, the generals it leaves motionless under missile fire, its inappropriate use of squares and miraculous use of cannons – I’m frankly too busy soaking up the spectacle and struggling to secure victories to listen to him.

 

Where I concede he may have a point is in his dissatisfaction with the current state of fortress assaults. While CA have eliminated the siege towers and battering rams that caused occasional silliness in the past (all infantry now carry ropes and grappling irons) their absence hasn’t made those vital strongpoint-snatching scraps any more credible. Too many times over the past seven days I’ve watched my troops scamper up walls unchallenged, or witnessed defenders going up and down ropes like demented Indian fakirs (actually, to be fair, some of those defenders may actually have been demented Indian fakirs). Too often I’ve occupied buildings or victory zones inside a fort and not been plausibly punished for my audacity.

 

 

The fact that very few wargamers would place a naval wargame in a personal Top Five or Top Ten says a lot about this unfashionable sub-genre. Expanses of featureless brine don’t make for particularly interesting arenas, and craft that can be outstripped and out-turned by dawdling dolphins don’t make for particularly exciting combatants. Given these inherent limitations, I think what CA has done with their new marine battle element is admirable.

 

Tactically they aren’t offering us anything that we haven’t seen before in titles like Privateers Bounty. The wind gauge jockeying, the broadsides, the ammo choices, the boarding… nothing new there. What Empire provides that you can’t get elsewhere is a) a rich campaign context, and b) a sense of just how breathtaking these battles were to behold. First-rate warships of the time were the most impressive mobile objects on the planet – floating communities filled with activity and artillery. The models in this game with their industrious crews, intricate rigging, and tier upon tier of death-spitting cannons, communicate this rather well. Given the fantastic detail, I’d love to have had a slightly more elastic camera at my disposal, and access to a Man of War II-style first-person captain’s view. To watch from sea level or bridge, one of these majestic monsters sail past or sink forlornly below the waves, would have been priceless.

 

Percival is muttering something about absurd turn rates, absent tacking, and the lack of coastal forts and naval bombardments. Rather than get distracted by his glass-half-empty negativity, I’ll skip onto discussion of my early, largely positive, campaign experiences.

 

 

To describe the Road to Independence campaign as an extended tutorial does it  a disservice. There’s days of absorbing play in this semi-scripted four-part challenge covering the French and Indian Wars, the War of Independence, and beyond. It gave me my first taste of great new features like satellite towns (thriving territories now spawn secondary settlements that can be developed and captured in a similar way to capitals) class politics (citizens are now split into proles and gents) and research. A little part of me  – my left testicle – wishes CA had come up with some devilishly clever alternative to the gnarly old tech-tree. It’s only when I try to picture that alternative, and fail, that I have to admit that the use of this strategy staple was probably the wisest way to go.

 

I am slightly missing my MTW2 agents, missions, and family tree (superseded, appropriately enough, by a government system). Rakes, gentlemen, and priests have similar talents to their Medieval equivalents, they just seem to lack some of the charm. Maybe if the game had offered a few more outcome videos, I might feel differently. Currently, only the duels fought by gentlemen trigger movies. Then again perhaps I’m just a little weary of Total War’s study-odds-then-press-button-and-pray approach to covert capers. Would an optional mini-game be so very wrong?

 

That wet blanket Percival says ‘Yes, it would’. He’s also badgering me to mention that the Road to Independence campaign is going to feel decidedly dubious to anyone familiar with AGEOD’s treatment of the same subject. The fact that Empire doesn’t do logistics or weather-related attrition, means you can build a massive army and stomp around the map like a 200-foot grizzly bear. What Percy fails to acknowledge is just how depressing it is to watch a vast army dwindle to nothing enroute to an objective. Who needs realism like that?

 

What might have given the Road to Independence campaign a little more resonance and grit, is a more aggressive British AI and more elusive native forces. I waited in vain for amphibious invasions that never came (there seems little point in investing in naval strength) and intercepted and eliminated my enemy’s native forays with disturbing ease. Was that just down to the difficulty setting? I’ll have to play it again to find out.

 

 

That’s part of the problem of any early Empire assessment. There’s just so much to see. I’ve been so wrapped up on the Indian subcontinent lately, I’ve seen little of European battlefields and units. Normally on acquiring a new Total War, one of my first ports of call would be the Historical Battle section. For some strange reason CA seem to have left it virtually empty this time. Where’s Blenheim, Kolin, Plassey, Fontenoy and Panipat? Where’s the Glorious First of June?

 

Crikey, I’m starting to sound like Percy. All criticisms I level at Empire really need to be qualified with a glib-but-true “but I can’t remember the last time a strategy game entertained me quite this efficiently”. That wonderful cheese-and-pickle balance between the real-time violence and the turn-based housekeeping is as perfect as ever, and the new elements, period, and map areas make it all feel improbably fresh. Over the last few days I’ve fought engagements so bloody and tense, they’ve literally been decided by a single musket volley or cannonball. I’ve witnessed battle scenes so stirring they deserve to be painted in oils and hung in gloomy regimental museums. In short I’ve been totally captivated.

 

Whatever your inner Percival is telling you, I say ignore him. Strategy games this sumptuous, subtle and suffused with history come along extremely rarely.

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110 Comments »

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  1. Dude says:

    I have started playing it, but only a had a few battle, so the IA really is up to the challenge?
    What was your difficulty setting? (at the org (totalwar.org) one guy noticed that AI seems to lose all stupidness on very hard….)

  2. Premium User Badge

    DarkNoghri says:

    But how will it compare to StarCraft 2?

  3. Nimic says:

    I just bought this yesterday, and I have to admit it’s looking quite good. I also have to admit that as of yet I’m still rubbish at 18th century warfare, but I expect I’ll get there eventually. I was a little overwhelmed at first, but I just have to pick a country and try to play my own way, instead of fretting over what the game wants me to do.

  4. JoeDuck says:

    I have found yesterday’s first experience with TW overwhelming. The grand campaign seems to start in a situation way more complex than previous TW games. I remember Rome, with two territories and a safe frontier. By comparison, and after 3 hours of play i’m ready to declare Spain’s starting position as strategically untenable. I will prevail but this game is going to unforgivably force me to work for it.
    I love it.

  5. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    I’m playing through as Maratha, and slowly taking over India really is a lot of fun. Hindu Warriors are bloody fearsome.

  6. Wallace says:

    I had a similar experience with the British in Episode 3 of The Road to Independence (on medium difficulty, at least). After seizing a few of the bigger towns they just seemed to give up and wait for me to roll down the East coast.

  7. Catastrophe says:

    Is it a Sandbox RTS where your only mission is Conquer the world? If so; I’m liking the idea of that.

  8. Rob Zacny says:

    Tim, I’ve heard from numerous people that the Road to Independence tutorial is much easier than the game. For my part, I’ve been playing as the Prussians in a grand campaign on the highest difficulty, and so far I’m very impressed with the strategic AI. It seems rational, praise be, and has kept my back to the wall for about twenty-five turns. The tactical AI has also destroyed five of my armies in engagements where it has had a modest superiority in numbers.

    I’m able to overlook most of the historical inaccuracies with this series, as that’s crucial to enjoying it. The fact that the games are named “Total War” is a pretty strong indicator that you’re playing a fantasy version of history. So long as they bring an appropriately credible flavor and a campaign AI that can put up a fight, these can be brilliant games. I thought Rome and Medieval 2 both failed to hold up their end of the bargain, but it looks like Creative Assembly has returned to form with this one.

  9. The Hammer says:

    Man, lovely Wot I Think, here! I can’t wait to get my hands on this game, and if the series has developed THIS much, then bring on Rome 2!

  10. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    Percival has convinced me to wait for the first non-gameday patch.

  11. Ginger Yellow says:

    When a title actually tries to represent landscape realistically, the effect is quite stunning

    I have to agree. I was grinning ear to ear when the Quebecois tried to break their siege and I first saw the clifftop city. I was then somewhat perplexed when my soldiers would only walk at a crawl, taking five minutes to move 100 yards. I’ve since learned that the ground they were on was a swamp, which was hard to make out from a zoomed out view. Still, it didn’t matter too much as the French were funnelled into my killzone and massacred.

    What might have given the Road to Independence’ campaign a little more resonance and grit, is a more aggressive British AI and more elusive native forces. I waited in vain for amphibious invasions that never came (there seems little point in investing in naval strength) and intercepted and eliminated my enemy’s native forays with disturbing ease. Was that just down to the difficulty setting? I’ll have to play it again to find out.

    To be fair, it is an extended tutorial. It’s also a lengthy campaign, but it’s a tutorial campaign. Hopefully there’ll be a proper Independence campaign in future, whether it’s a mod or an expansion.

    I’m absolutely loving the game so far, although I’ve only just finished episode 2 of RtI. For some reason I find the pace and structure of the land battles much easier to handle, although that may partly be the enhanced UI. I’ve yet to delve into the intricacies of the campaign map, obviously, and I can’t wait.

  12. Ginger Yellow says:

    Oh yeah, I also meant to mention that the TotalWar.org forumites are saying that the AI is much, much better/more aggressive on Very Hard – a big leap even from Hard.

  13. Alex says:

    I’ve been enjoying Empire greatly, despite the fact that I’m really, really bad at it. But then, if it being possible to actually enjoy losing isn’t the mark of a good game, I don’t know what is.

  14. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    Ginger – you an Orgah?

  15. Turin Turambar says:

    I wouldn’t consider the AI’s behavior in VH as “normal”. Who knows what huge economy/leadership/moral boost is recieving the AI in that difficulty, skewing the impression of the AI quality.

    Even the behavior in the strategic map can be affected, for example perhaps it’s coded that AI should be aggresive if they have an army 75% more bigger than yours. If they have always armies twice as big as yours thanks to economy boost, that could explain the AI aggressiveness, it doesn’t mean the AI is enough smart as to know how be efficiently offensive in a war. AI should be judged in normal conditions.

  16. Jimmay says:

    Is anyone else foregoing the purchase of this game purely because of the scope of it?

    I’ve been a TW fan since Rome literally changed my videogaming life, but between work, school, and what little personal life I have, I know buying this will just torment me because I won’t be able to fully explore it. Ah, well, to fight the cravings, I started a new M2TW campaign because I can comfortable putter away at it for an hour here or there and then leave it alone.

    Sad isn’t it? Am I in this boat alone?

  17. Turin Turambar says:

    Yes

  18. Dude says:

    Nope Jimmay, feeling the same here, family (well baby) work leave me with little time to play. Still when I do I enjoy a deep game from time to time, Empire seems perfect for that!

  19. Ginger Yellow says:

    Ginger – you an Orgah?

    Only since today. Or, rather, not for the last 2 years or so until today.

  20. Spanish Technophobe says:

    I’ll own this game when I have a computer that can run it. The demo was a slideshow for me, and I’d really love to have it look like the screenshots in the post.

    As it stands, I’m already trying to conquer Gaul in R:TW while keeping the Senate from declaring war on me (“Take Corsica? Why?”). Never played the game before, so this is just the most badass thing in the world right now.

  21. Spanish Technophobe says:

    Oops. My bad. “Corsica” should be “Sardinia” in that parenthetical comment.

  22. Piispa says:

    “Would an optional mini-game be so very wrong?”

    Yes it would.

  23. JonFitt says:

    I am also valiantly defending the walls of resistance against the onslaught of a new Total War purchase. This Wot-I-think does not help my cause. At some point I will crumble and be totally absorbed for weeks.
    I’ve played them all since Shogun (Shogun 2 next please), and any of them would definitely be on my Desert Island (with electricity) Games list.

  24. JonFitt says:

    “Would an optional mini-game be so very wrong?”

    It would be a good idea. I can’t stand random failure, and I am one of those people who would rather reload and retry than have my 98% success rate action end in failure.

    I guess some element of chance is needed, but perhaps a mini-game using skill (mental preferred) along with risk/reward weighted by the level of your spy would be good.

  25. modulus says:

    Well. I’ve got my own inner Takeda. Got my own inner Leif. Even got myself some inner Caesar. But nope, no inner Percival ’round here?

    Am I the only one that can’t make a purchase for a Total War game (quite fond of the series) due to my contempt for the time period at hand? To be honest, it’s the reason I stayed very far away from Age of Empires III as well.

  26. Shamanic Miner says:

    “Barry Lyndon” DVD on the laptop and E:TW on the big PC, If I had any sort of corned hat it would be on too right now.

  27. DonMcC says:

    Okay, so I have not jumped in to say this before, but I really feel like it needs saying now.

    _This is exactly why I read Rock Paper Shotgun._

    You could have written a piece of rampant fanboyism about this title. It is expected. Every other article about this game is flush with it, falling all over themselves attempting to praise. And I would have accepted it gratefully if you had, because I am just getting into this game and I am blown away by the audacious scope of it.

    But you didn’t write what everyone else is writing. You wrote everything that occurred to you, everything real, all these things that could have been better, a clear indication of just how much gaming you have actually done over the years.. You gave that voice a name, Percival and gave him a place and role in your article about how great this game was.

    Of course, maybe this was just a clever ploy to say “yeah, all those little niggly things you can come up with that are wrong with this game.. they are such small things compared to all the things right about this game” and so this might be the biggest piece of fanboyism of all.

    But it doesn’t matter, because it was, as always (or at least most often) brilliant! Thank you for finally lending some intelligence and thought to the world of games journalism.

  28. Lukasz says:

    @Modulus.
    I am opposite. I have great dislike for medieval period, for what it brought, for what it stands.
    but 18th century, end of age of sail, beginning of industrial revolution… that’s some good stuff.

  29. Spanish Technophobe says:

    All this talk about the time periods reminded me:

    Have we discussed the problems with portraying warfare after this period? That is, imperialism in Africa, Asia, etc., fascism/authoritarianism in the 30s. If so, where?

    Also, are both American continents represented, or just North America?

  30. zor says:

    The AI oscillates between vastly improved and worse than ever. In general (pathfinding apart) it is a lot better, but I still find that many battles are decided by AI idiocy, and when it gets it wrong it does it in style. The difference is once every now and then the AI actually does something smart and can cause you all sorts of trouble. It is possible to lose a battle even if you are not totally outnumbered/outclassed in terms of troops… not often enough for sure, but that hadn’t happened to me even once post-Shogun.

  31. Jockie says:

    @GingerYellow. thanks for clarifying the swamp thing (hoho), I honestly thought my game was hideously bugged when i fought there, the problem is the animation doesnt reflect that its a swamp, the units just move in slow motion.

    The AI still does some odd things, like the regiment of grenadiers who decided to use a wall for cover and sit there, whilst the whole of my army was behind them anyway. Fences are a grievances too, try walking a unit down with a fence through the middle of them and they slow to a crawl as the units adjacent to the fence hop over from side to side constantly.

    Im still playing the Road to independance but my patriotism is getting the better of me, not sure if i can tolerate playing as the Yanks, slaughtering british much longer.

    Also, why does the tutorial women hint that allying with the french would be a great thing to do, only to see the french sit in their tiny little island colony, swapping stacks around occassionally, but doing absolutely bugger all to actually aid in the war against the English.

    Gripes aside, i’m enjoying it, think im getting the hand of the land warfare and i’ll probably hop into a Grand Campaign as the Brits pretty soon.

  32. Ginger Yellow says:

    Also, are both American continents represented, or just North America?

    South America is a trade theatre, but not a theatre of war. You can send ships there to establish trade, harass the enemy and protect your trade routes from pirates, but you can’t conquer land territory. Or at least that’s my understanding – I’ve yet to get that far.

  33. BooleanBob says:

    Tim writes well enough not only to hold forth with “What I think”s, but “What I know“s. <3

  34. D says:

    I wonder if the AI improvements that have been mentioned is due to the focus on ranged combat? Maybe for some reason, it is easier to balance?

    The AI of Total War has, like others here, been disapointing me since the brilliant Shogun. I’m probably also one of the few that thinks the campaign map has been on a downward glideslope since the first paper version. Personally I’ll wait with this till someone mods in the tiny metal men with swords. Which is probably gonna be around the time Space: Total War is released.

  35. PaulMorel says:

    How does this compare to the relatively recent (and free on GameTap) 18th Century warfare game “Imperial Glory”?

    I’ve asked this question beforem but maybe I missed the answer.

    Imperial Glory has naval combat and giant campaigns, however, the map only includes Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

    I loved that game, but I have a hard time paying $50 for a game that only seems like a moderate improvement over it.

  36. Ginger Yellow says:

    Well, if you believe CA, it’s because they’ve moved to a goal oriented AI system, as opposed to the more rigid “state by state” system used in previous games.

  37. Pijama says:

    It is just me or CA *deliberately* decided to leave South America, Africa and Far East (as in Indonesia and the Malay peninsula, IDK about other places there that had interactions and overtures in the Age of Sail) aside (read: expansion packs)?

    Also, brill “Wot I Think” :)

  38. Noc says:

    Totally, Pijama. After building three theatres, resulting in a campaign map that is consistently remarked upon for its tremendous size and scale, CA sneakily and deliberately omitted several sections of the known world for later release.

    Crafty folks, aren’t they?

  39. Dolphan says:

    Anyone else find themselves instinctively playing the naval combat like an action game? Taking a ship or two and running around in circles lining up and firing broadsides? It reminded me of Pirates!, which is a good thing, though I doubt it would work very well on larger battles (I had three ships, one of which sank because I forgot about it).

  40. Funky Badger says:

    Wondering what the Medieval era “stands for” now…

  41. theleif says:

    Wonderful game.
    But i miss peace treaties and surrenders like the ones you have in the Europa Universalis games. I would much prefer that the territories you occupy where just occupied until you manage to make a peace treaty with the nation in question. And in that peace treaty you could request concessions, like territories, research, vassalisation and so on. This steam rolling is way to simple. Otherwise the game is a beauty.

  42. Pantsman says:

    I’ve just finished reading War and Peace and I have an urge to reenact some Napoleonic battles. I’ve never played any of the Total War games before, but maybe it’s time.

  43. Medo says:

    I do agree with what you say, but you should mention that the game is terribly buggy. The campaign I started crashed when I started a revolution and now I can’t get past that point. If you look on the forum, many people seem to have problem with crashes.

  44. Pags says:

    @Medo: This isn’t meant as a traditional review, it’s Tim’s subjective experiences with the game. Hence it’s name, Wot I Think.

    Meaning if Tim didn’t experience any bugs or crashes that you may have had, then there’s no real need for him to mention them.

  45. clive dunn says:

    Here’s my bit of fanboyism. WE LOVE YOU TIM!!!

  46. Jimmay says:

    @ Spanish Technophobe

    If you notice, it’s already a problem. There’s no mention of slavery in this game whatsoever, even though the slave trade was at its highest. Sure, in Medieval you could slaughter 3/4 of the population of any town you captured, and it was just a “what if”. As they move closer to the modern age it hits closer and closer to home. CA have hinted they want to move to the 20th century soon, but it’ll be a shame to see a history-based game that whitewashes all the terrible things that came with the move to the modern era.

  47. CakeAddict says:

    The moment it gets released here (which is tomorrow) I’m going to lock myself up in my basement and not come out for a entire week.
    I’ve really enjoyed myself with the previous instalment and I think I’ll enjoy this one even more.

  48. dadioflex says:

    Jimmay says:
    “Is anyone else foregoing the purchase of this game purely because of the scope of it?”

    Not exactly. I’m a completist and when I saw that there was a Special Forces edition, in addition to three special bonus units available from different online retailers, my brain melted. Plus,I’d like the price to drop a bit. May even wait for the Gold edition. By the looks of the economy I won’t be upgrading my PC for a while so I have 2006-2008’s finest games to catch up on.

    I have a hankerin’ to go back and play one of the Rome mods though, having finally finished all the M:TW Kingdoms campaigns.

  49. Lack_26 says:

    Scr*w Europe, I’m happy with playing as the Indian faction. Muskets and lots of close-combat… with Elephants. Yes please.

  50. Rich_P says:

    Sad isn’t it? Am I in this boat alone?

    Nope. I haven’t purchased GalCiv 2 or EU3 for those reasons. I’d love to start an epic game in either of ‘em, but I haven’t the time these days. Hell, I’m just now diving into Civ IV.

    But dammit, Tim’s ETW reports push me ever closer to buying the flippin’ game anyway.