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Wot I Think: Empire: Total War

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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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Tim Stone

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