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The naval warfare in Empire: Total War is probably the biggest addition to the series. For the first time in a Total War game you can fight battles upon the high seas, directly controlling a range of ship types. There are lots of things to take into consideration when conducting naval battles and it can prove very tough to win a victory until you understand the tactics.
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Ship Ratings and Icons
To begin with there are several different types of ship and as you develop more technology you’ll be able to build increasingly impressive and destructive units. All ships have a number of cannons, a crew, a firepower rating, a hull strength rating, a manoeuvrability rating and a top speed. For the most part it is a trade off with a choice between speed and manoeuvrability or firepower and hull strength.
The icons above each ship indicate various important pieces of information. The strength of the hull is separated into left and right curved segments which start green. When one side or the other gets damaged it will turn orange and then red which means you are going to sink. The white bar above indicates your sail health which will determine your speed and ability to turn. Your crew size will affect your chances of winning in a boarding (the more crew the better your chances) and your reload rate on cannons. The wind direction is also something you must pay close attention to and you should aim whenever possible to keep the wind behind you. If you must sail into the wind try to zig zag. Turning with the wind will spin the ship round fast, turning against it will slow you down dramatically.
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Controls and Ammunition Types
The basic interface on the naval warfare screen is relatively simple and the control options allow you to rotate ships, put up full sails to increase speed, drop anchor to stop and charge up left or right side broadsides (which is basically firing all of the cannons on one side of your ship). You can also select from various ammunition types and tell the ships to fire at will. In order to manage your fleet effectively you have to use group formations. Select all of your ships and press the group button to reveal the formation panel. You can make up your own formations or use the preset ones provided such as Line Astern which is basically just a straight line and easily the most popular formation to go with.
Ammunition comes in three varieties and the first is plain old cannonballs which are ideal for smashing the hull to bits and sinking enemy ships. Then there is chain shot which is designed to damage sails and break masts thereby preventing your enemy from escaping. Finally there is grape shot which is best at killing crew members, you will only want to use this if you need to whittle down the enemy crew before attempting a boarding or if you are about to be boarded yourself.
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Naval combat is very different from Empire: Total War land battles and if you try to fight by right clicking to target an enemy you will meet with disaster. You can use ALT and right click to target a ship but hold your direction and formation which makes it a very useful command. The positioning of your ships is absolutely vital and you want to keep them moving with the wind behind you as much as possible. If you have the advantage in terms of numbers or firepower then you can afford to sail at the enemy in a line and trade broadsides, circling until they are defeated. There are tactics which put you at less risk but they are often tricky to realise in the heat of battle.
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Crossing the T
One of the most effective tactics to use is the “crossing the T" manoeuvre. Line up your ships, as the enemy ships approach also in a line, when they get into range you turn 90 degrees and fire into the enemy line front to back. This means a much higher proportion of your shots will do damage and it makes it almost impossible for the enemy to return fire. Then try to loop your ships, ideally in a figure of eight, and continue to fire up the enemy line. This way you stay out of the enemy’s broadside line of fire. The thing is your enemy will likely try to do this as well and probably the fleet with the wind on their side will win out. The ideal situation is to break the enemy line with a “crossing the T" manoeuvre in between each individual ship that way you can hit them all in the rear and front with broadsides on both sides and they have no real way to counter. Hitting a ship in the rear will cause the most damage to their morale.
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Splitting the Fleet
It can be useful to split your fleet into two groups and use the smaller, faster ships to break up your opponent’s fleet and block movement. If you can guide them where you want them you can open up with the larger ships and blast them out of the water. You can also order the smaller ships to use chain shot and try to break the enemy masts and wreck their sails making them slow and cumbersome. That way your larger ships can pick them off at leisure. Alternately by having two lines you can see which the enemy engages and then use the other to perform a crossing manoeuvre and try to broadside them in the rear.
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Enemy ships can be captured and they are often worth a great deal of money. If you want to board an enemy ship then try to make sure you have the numbers advantage in terms of crew. If you don’t then use your fleet to pepper the target with grape shot and take out more men. You will need to get in close for the grape shot to be effective. Sometimes it is best to just bombard them into surrender and you never need to bother actually boarding.
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Admiral and Ship Positions
One area where naval battles are the same as land battles is the importance of the leader, your Admiral. He will impact heavily on morale so you must keep him alive and close to your other ships. When you line up you’ll generally want your toughest ships at the front of the line. You may also consider using rocket ships, they are like floating artillery and although they are grossly inaccurate they can do some serious damage when they land a blow. Unfortunately they are also slow and very vulnerable so keep them at a safe distance if you can. Once your other ships are in close and engaging the enemy it is best not use rocket ships because they are so inaccurate they could easily hit a friendly unit.
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Rule the Waves
To recap the wind is your friend. Pay attention to the wind direction at all times and try to make it difficult for your enemy to turn and broadside your rear while simultaneously turning to broadside his. Once you have mastered the basics you can start to try out some of your own formations and you’ll be dominating the waves in no time.