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Empire: Total War, An Interview

Not all empires are built in intergalactic space, you know. Some are built in history, and that's the subject of this latest interview: matters pertaining to the latest strategic behemoth from the British studio, Creative Assembly. We chart some of the major differences between this and previous games, with particular attention paid to the turn-based campaign map and the radical changes brought about by the new game's battle engine. Crucially, Empire: Total War drags the Total War series a couple of centuries closer to the modern age. The 18th century setting is one of ranked, musket-heavy land armies, rip-roaring sea battles, complex revolutionary politics, and colonial ambition. It's these two elements, as well as a desire to reflect some of the social changes (hiring generals rather than relying on hereditary feudal heirs, for example) of the 18th century, that motivate the designs implemented by Creative Assembly's lead on the project, James Russell. We were lucky enough to be able to put some questions to Russell. You can read his rather detailed responses below.

RPS: How are the political changes of the era (I actually said 17th century, but I meant 18th century. Sigh!) reflected in your gameplay?

Russell: It's the 18th century: the 1700s. It was a time of tumultuous social change and upheaval, including the American Revolution and the French Revolution. We've put a lot of effort into enhancing how public order works, and the game includes unrest due to industrialisation, religious differences and intellectual advances, and different government types which have differing effects on each social class. Each government type has to be played differently if you are to avoid rebellion or revolution and the overthrow of the old order.

RPS: What kind of changes have you made to the campaign map when compared to the previous games?

Russell: The most obvious difference is the sheer scale of the game world. This was the time when Europe was extending its power across the world, and when the first truly global wars were fought. As well as the European theatre, the campaign map stretches west to include the Caribbean and much of North America and east to include the whole of India, as well as special trade areas such as the East Indies and the Ivory Coast.

Another big change is the fact that regions have towns and other resource buildings spread around the landscape, unlike previous Total War titles where all a region's buildings were contained inside a single settlement. This means you can interact with each region building directly on the map - it also means you can attack enemy towns, farms and other buildings without having to besiege the region capital. Because you can raid and damage a region like this, it becomes more important for defenders to use their armies in defensive manoeuvres rather than just camping inside the city. This also helps improve the variety of battles by reducing the frequency of siege battles.

We've also centralised some features at the national rather than regional level, which streamlines management for the player by reducing repetition. This allows us to deepen the gameplay at the same time as reducing the management burden. For example, we've added a lot of depth to the trade system, and tax levels can be set separately for the ruling classes or the people, with different consequences - but policy is conducted at a theatre level: the player no longer has to make a decision for every single region.

RPS: What's so exciting about all this ship-to-ship combat then, eh?

Russell: Naval combat is one of the biggest additions for Empire: Total War. The game is set in the 18th century - the great age of fighting sail, the ideal period in which to introduce naval battles to the series. Battles on the high seas with fleets of ships offers a whole new gameplay experience. Ships play very differently from land units: they have to be manoeuvred with the wind in mind, they fire massive broadsides at right angles to their direction of movement. Ships have hulls, crew, guns, masts and sails, all of which can be damaged separately with different effects, crippling the ship's ability to move or fire or repel boarders - even sinking the ship, setting it on fire or causing its magazine to explode. We have lots of different types of ships that work in different ways and are suited to different uses. There is a whole set of new tactics to get to grips with to master the naval battles, with lines of battle attempting to 'cross the T' and devastate the enemy with raking fire. It all feels very distinct from the land battle gameplay.

RPS: And how has combat on the terrestrial battlefield changed for Empire: Total War?

Russell: The land battles in Empire have moved on a great deal, and they play and feel very different from previous Total War titles. The most obvious development with 18th century warfare is the growing emphasis on ranged gunpowder weapons: cannons and muskets. The player needs to carefully consider fields of fire and cover. Buildings became very tactically significant on the battlefields of the period because of the cover they provide and in Empire, land units can be positioned inside buildings during battle - though you need to take care as these can be destroyed by artillery. Of course, melee remains an important (and visceral!) part of the combat all the same. We have tried to reflect the development of military technology throughout the century, and you will see soldiers improve their firing drills, and artillery able to fire more devastating high-tech ordnance in battle as a result of your research efforts on the campaign map. Units that are dug in on the campaign map will also (if defending against attack) be able to deploy a variety of defensive features that each offer unique tactical advantages.

RPS: When I saw the game in June you mention that the role of generals changed somewhat?

Russell: The most distinct change those familiar with previous Total War titles will notice is the new ability generals have to order recruits to reinforce their armies. Instead of having to build armies at different cities and then manually assemble them, you can now order troops directly at the general and they will automatically be recruited at the optimum nearby city and then sent out to join your army as ordered. Of course, you can still do things manually as well. You can also choose to promote a new general from the ranks.

RPS: It seems like AI was a big issue for players of Medieval II, can you explain how AI changes will improve play Empire: Total War?

Russell: We've put a lot of effort into improving how the player's behaviour impacts diplomatic relations with different AI nations, and into making the AI behave in an intuitive manner. It's very important for the player's sense of immersion in a believable world of rival countries that other nations respond in a way that makes sense in terms of how the player has been behaving. For example if you back-stab your allies, the whole world will see you as dishonourable and you will lose friends quickly. Religious and political differences will all impact how the AI views you, as will your alliances and wars with other nations. In addition, different nations will have different personalities with preferences for different kinds of activity - for example a preference for naval power or for research and building up economically.

The battle AI has also been much improved and is aware of the significance of the battle in terms of the campaign map context - is the battle a vital fight to the death? Or might a tactical withdrawal be the best tactic if the battle starts to go the wrong way? Different nations will also use different tactics and strategies, which gives battles more variety and makes the AI less predictable.

RPS: What aspect of Empire: Total War do you think mainstream coverage will miss out on or ignore?

Russell: A lot of coverage is inevitably focused on the graphical advances made by the new engine, and how beautiful the game looks - especially the spectacular naval battles. But in many ways, it's the multitude of small details that make the game more immersive. Generals developing certain traits as a result of the way you use them. Flag bearers and officers shouting orders on the battlefield. The way your population gets unhappy if you attack a friendly nation but patriotic if you attack a hostile nation. The way a country can become hostile if you're caught spying, or if you go to war with someone they like; or the way their hostility might soften if you go to war with a country they dislike. These little touches that can really add to the player's response to playing the game. Even the most cunning player will have lots of interesting new strategies and tactics to explore.

Empire: Total War is set for release in February 2009.

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Jim Rossignol