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The 18th century was a time of unprecedented glory for the great powers of Europe as they looked to expand their power and wealth through the construction of huge overseas empires. We may look back now with shame and embarrassment at the widespread pillaging and destruction of native cultures in the East and West but at the time it was done with a patronising spirit of imposed improvement. Oh and it also made us rich.
Empire: Total War takes us back to a period of history which saw the development of gunpowder and great fleets upon the high seas catapult Spain, France and most of all Britain into a position of incredible strength. The United States emerged as a country with little hint of the power they would come to wield and many civilizations disappeared forever consigned to the dusty tomes of historians. The game challenges you to shepherd the newly independent America or take the crown of one of the old powers and reign supreme. If you are feeling particularly brave you could attempt to guide one of the less successful factions down an alternate path to glory rather than ruin.
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Empire: Total War is a real time strategy game and it combines excellent strategic battles on land and at sea with an involved campaign map. The Creative Assembly have crafted yet another superb entry in their Total War series. The land combat system has been significantly overhauled, naval battles have been added and the campaign map features a raft of new building options. They have also added new depth to the religion and governmental systems, the ability to exploit resources and you can now choose your path for technological research.
I’ve had many conversations over the years with strategy fans and we have agreed that if you could combine the complexity of Civilization with the real time combat game-play of Total War you would have the perfect strategy game. The downside would be the inevitable loss of large portions of your life. Empire: Total War doesn’t quite achieve that level of depth but it is easily the closest yet.
The series began with Shogun: Total War which featured a simple board game aesthetic and the real draw was the huge real time battles on varied terrain. The Creative Assembly perfected the game-play and added some depth to the campaign map with the excellent Rome: Total War which was a near perfect real-time strategy game. Now with Empire they have pushed the turn-based campaign map into new territory to provide deeper levels of immersion and complexity.
The main changes in the campaign map are the cities and their satellite towns and resources. Things grow over time and you can exert some influence on how the settlements under your care develop. There are three campaign theatres and a number of smaller areas which allow you to set up trade routes and pirate your enemies. The aims are different depending on who you choose to control and there are short and long campaigns available. There is also a more story driven mode entitled the Road to Independence which leads you through British colonization to the birth of the United States. You can select areas of research in terms of weaponry, industry and government. Diplomacy is relatively unchanged but your government can be tweaked and you may find new pressures exerted by the population.
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The land combat is controlled in the same way as earlier iterations. You position your men, give them orders about formation or ammunition type and fight the enemy until one side is dead or routs from the battlefield. You can now enter some buildings with troops and you can use fences and walls for cover. Position, terrain and troop type are all vital in getting a win and while the era has led to some new units which require new tactics, in terms of how it plays, there are few changes.
The naval combat is an entirely new addition and previously battles were fought automatically. You can now fight huge sea battles with large fleets and you have pirates to contend with. There are various naval units and types of ammunition and a whole new set of tactics to learn if you want to have any success. The naval combat is tough at first but if you persist you’ll find the controls and ammunition types allow for a reasonable depth of battle and it will take skilful manoeuvring to avoid ending up on the ocean floor.
The 18th century is rich with characters and as with previous installments there are historical tales woven into the game. One of the nicest aspects is the ability to change the course of history; famous events which occurred in real life can be circumvented if you take the correct action. To give an example it is relatively easy as Great Britain to prevent the break away of the United States, or to wipe Britain from North America if you play as the US.
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This release really pushes the visuals to new heights and the detailed campaign map is attractive and thoroughly immersive. The development of villages which grow into towns around your major cities, the rise of ports, and the increase in urban sprawl are all represented. The real-time strategy battles feature a terrific array of unit types and during naval battles you can zoom in and watch men perched on the crow’s nest and cannonballs smashing wooden hulls to smithereens. On the battlefields your men have greater individuality than ever before and battles feature all sorts of miniature one on one encounters. When your men storm into a building they smash the windows out and take aim at any enemies nearby. The various menus, which now hold more information, are easy to use and fit the theme perfectly. The cinematic cut scenes which accompany the Independence campaign are beautifully done. In short the game looks terrific.
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Empire offers the option to fight online multiplayer battles against human opponents. You can choose between land and naval encounters and fight historical battles with up to eight players. There are also one on one sieges and the mode supports lan or online play. The multiplayer mode in the Total War series has always been great fun and this is no exception. Human opponents make none of the mistakes that AI are prone to and the battles tend to be far more challenging and the victories more satisfying. There was to be a campaign multiplayer option in which you could compete against another human player in a grand campaign and the prospect is truly mouth watering but we’ll have to wait for the patch to try it out.
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The game is complex and the visuals are stunning but it all naturally comes at a cost. You need a beast of a system if you want to run this game as it should be run. The minimum specs are a 2.4 GHz processor, 1GB of RAM (2GB for Vista), a 256MB DirectX 9.0c compatible graphics card and a DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card. You will also need a whopping 15 GB of hard drive space. I’ve been running the game on a dual core 2.6GHz with 4GB of RAM and it still isn’t all plain sailing so I’d guess the minimum spec will require turning down the bells and whistles. (It hums along just fine on a 3.5 Ghz dual with 4GB and 8800 graphics - Ed.)
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Empire: Total War is not without flaws. The stability of this game is by far the worst I’ve seen from The Creative Assembly and it crashed the first few times I played it. A quick scan of forums revealed I was far from alone in this regard and unexplained crashes during the AI turn are quite common, even after the patch. The AI is also nothing short of appalling at times and they often seem to sit and wait to be mown down. In the maps that include small groups of buildings they get stuck easily and their path finding in general leaves a lot to be desired. The naval combat is also tough going and I often find my ships attempting strange manoeuvres which seem to contradict my orders.
The thing is, even with flaws and the irritation of crashes halting your progress, this is so far in the lead when it comes to strategy gaming that you keep loading it up again. The scope and styling are simply brilliant, the depth is astounding and once again I find myself utterly addicted, foregoing sleep to capture that last settlement and planning my victory over the arrogant French with glee. (We'll see how gleeful you are while my Maison du Roi units are picking bits of you off of their bayonets. I'll see you in multiplayer! - Ed). It is a superb historical masterpiece and there is nothing better for armchair generals.