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Empire: Total War

In a similar style to its predecessors, Empire: Total War is a game of two halves. But do not be alarmed beloved reader, for I am not talking about football. A massive turn-based campaign map houses empire building, resource management and army movements, while the actual battles are fought out in real-time strategy on both land and sea. Veterans to the Total War family will know that naval battles were one of the few low points in what is a highly successful series, but new cannon wielding warships are deemed the flagship in this new chapter of Total War history. However, other than pirates and scurvy, what else does Empire: Total War pioneer?

 

Naval Battles - The flagship of Empire Total War

Again developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Sega, Empire: Total War is essentially the latest evolution in the Total War series, with the general feeling of the game virtually identical to the Rome and Medieval II: Total War games. There are also plenty of gameplay tweaks and enhancements - including a period change to the 18th century - that all keeps the game fresh and long lasting. Before I mention anything further about the game, let me forewarn you that the game install is roughly 15Gb in size, and that you will need an internet connection to activate the game and Steam to actually play it. This will be frustrating for some, but the auto-update function and the ease of using Steam make it an acceptable platform.  

For those completely new to the concept of the Total War series, let me briefly explain what you have been missing out on. As mentioned in my opening paragraph, Empire: Total War is essentially divided into a turn-based campaign map and real-time strategy battles. The former incorporates your empire building in the world - primarily large scale wars, diplomatic negotiations, territory development, trading and just about everything in-between. The latter meanwhile is where you get to control your army in battle in real time, with the headcount often entering thousands. Each part of the game can be left to the AI to deal with, thus ignored if parts of the game do not appeal.

Fighting over a barn or two

If you are already familiar with basics of Total War, let me explain the key new features that veterans to the series will have to come to terms with in Empire. There are now three "theatres" in the campaign map to wage war on - the largest and most recognisable is Europe, with the addition of America and India as completely separate but inter-connectable areas. There are also four ocean-trading theatres to get involved in, where rather than building cities and waging land wars, you take merchant ships to trade spots and gain increased profits. More emphasis is now placed on trading for income, so you will need to protect these precious trade routes from rival nations and even pirates.

Also new to Empire is technological research, which is similar if not as broad as the Civilization range of games. This does add an extra layer of burden for the player to consider, however this increased choice over the direction of your chosen empire makes this an excellent addition. Another new feature is the government and revolutions system. However, the regular government elections and the resultant effects I encountered made this seem like an unnecessary addition and a relatively pointless new feature, since most players will want to develop their empire and battle foes, not play games of politics.

Wake up to the smell of gunpowder in the morning

Now that the year is 1700, gunpowder is in full use by all nations. This means tactics of old are of little use; pikemen and horses make easy targets for rifles and have to be used very carefully if they are to make a valuable impact. Cannons on the field are a more devastating form of artillery than ever before, and if used effectively they can rip an army to shreds. Cover can also be used to gain an advantage and buildings occupied, but using common sense and simply having more guns seemed to be the easiest route to victory in a battle.

No matter what previous experience players might have, everyone will be in the same boat when it comes to navy battles. These water fights play out in the same real time fashion as those on land; however, instead of many units of men you control each individual ship. Since ships fire their cannons from their flanks, you must position your fleet side on, and as such a completely different array of tactics is required. Wind also plays a part in battles, and you can even board an enemy vessel in an attempt to capture it to add to your own armada for future use. However, implementing naval tactics is exceedingly difficult and the inevitable ensuing disorder is quite intimidating. My overall feelings about the new maritime battles are that they are a good addition to the Total War series, but not an exceptional one.

Where is Wally?

The main feature to this and previous Total War games is the Grand Campaign, which offers victory conditions of either territorial conquest or reputation goals. The different factions - of whom twelve are major and playable with countless other minor factions - have individual characteristics and thus different playing styles. Aside from the main campaign, there is also the "Road to Independence", a story-driven campaign which serves as an introduction to the main game or just a fun history lesson. Alternatively, if you fancy some quick single-player battle action, just fire up a one-off land, sea, siege or scenario battle. If you are feeling brave, you can also battle it out online with multiplayer ranked and casual fights on both land and sea. An exciting prospect of a multiplayer campaign map is also said to be on the way in the coming months.

There are tutorials for both land and naval battles to get you familiarised or refreshed on the battle systems, and there are advisors on hand to provide tips and useful snippets of information to help you get to grips with some of the finer details. With all the new features and additions this has become the most complicated Total War game to date, and as an experienced player I found many of the new features poorly explained, so new players may struggle even further. The game manual also failed to give enough details of some important points and I ended up missing key factors in the campaign that later resulted in regret and frustration.

Oh that is why boats are non-smoking... 

Unfortunately, Empire: Total War is not without further problems. Enemy AI is often poor, a legacy which has never been addressed in the Total War timeline. A classic example I encountered in Empire was when my rifleman were up against cutlass wielding pirates. The pirates showed no interest in making a move on my men, despite being picked off from a distance - a voluntary firing squad if you like. The AI on the campaign map often makes poor tactical decisions - despite the fact I was playing on hard difficulty - meaning I was given silly advantages and not made to pay for making mistakes.

Further to these gripes, there are a few irritating bugs present. My original game file - where I was leading the fashionable British - failed to load since the file somehow saved corrupt. Further to this - half way though the new game I was forced to begin - my game started crashing when I tried ending my turn. Upon researching these problems I discovered this isn't an isolated case. Other annoyances I encountered included simple things like ordering a group of ships to move forward in a battle, which would result in some going in completely the wrong direction - both bizarre and infuriating. None of the above mentioned woes were enough to deter me from enjoying this game immensely, but I can't help but feel disappointed in the lack of integrity of a long standing series and an otherwise polished and highly professional game.

That just has to be Great Britain

The graphical personality of Empire: Total War does define excellence. The campaign map is hugely detailed and aesthetic on the eye, while the graphics engine for the battles is improved from previous Total War outings, with a plethora of graphical effects on offer. Land battles feature literally thousands of units on screen at the same time, whilst naval battles enter the series with beautifully detailed ships and gorgeous water effects and physics. Alas, one downside of these good looks is that a meaty computer is required to get Empire looking at its best. I recommend a multi-cored CPU to keep things running smooth and at least 2Gb of RAM to avoid lengthy load times.

Ambient music is also very well done and fits the scene perfectly. Voice acting is well done and the attention to detail in the range sounds is admirable. Unfortunately, on my computer at least, some sounds, such as those of rifles, seemed a bit rough, as if they were from the 16-bit era. It could be that these are the genuine sounds of that age, or alternatively it could be Windows Vista failing to cope as it so often does when it comes to sound. Either way this wasn't game breaking, but the immersion was often jarred with these sound effects feeling below par.

Flying cows on fire are sadly not a new feature

The general feeling of the game is, initially at least, daunting and hard to get into, but there is great fun, enjoyment and satisfaction to be had with the many conquests on the campaign map and memorable victories in the individual battles. The campaign map is bigger, better and somewhat more complicated than ever before, with gameplay tweaks and new features creating a lot of burden for the player to learn. The introduction of gunpowder as the key type of weaponry has created a requirement to learn different tactics, but it does feel like a positive change. Game destroying bugs and crashes are the worst feature to this game, but saving often and in separate files can help avoid tales of woe.

That said, Empire: Total War is the sort of game you can play for hours on end without losing interest taking the dreaded "one more turn" persona that has many people addicted to the Civilization series. I have managed to lose chunks of the weekend and most weekday evenings in my conquest to crush Spain with the adorable Dutch, with the rare excuse of "I have to play this much for the review" on hand to bail me from certain disapproval. You may not have that defence, but you would be missing a very worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable experience if you do not play this early contender for game of 2009.

Pros: 
  • Fun and satisfying gameplay
  • Plenty of enjoyment on offer
  • Superb attention to detail
Cons: 
  • Complicated gameplay not explained well enough
  • Poor AI
  • Game destroying bugs

Playability:

9 out of 10

Replayability:

9 out of 10

Graphics:

9 out of 10

Sound:

9 out of 10

Overall:

9 out of 10
POBmaestro | 16th March, 2009
Your best review yet mate.
POBmaestro's picture
Thanks Snoozer, means a lot

I've just added some images to the review to make it easier on the eye
evilgiraffeman's picture
I really wanted to check this game out, but the small issues you mention in the review have made me reconsider.

Hopefully a patch will be released soon to fix these one or two problems and then I will definately see about getting it.

Good review, I enjoyed the read and think the new additions will make an interesting impact on a classic formula.
POBmaestro's picture
Thanks for the feedback Giraffeman. An update was released on Steam today with the following changes/fixes:
  • Multiplayer - can now find friends across regions
  • Load time detection on trade routes to fix pathfinding crash in campaign
  • Some General Sound balancing improvements
  • Fixed UI Chat hang when spectator leaves unranked match with 3+ players
  • Varies Campaign Crash Fixes
  • Some Save/Load fixes
  • Boarding fix where cannon crew board order was not being deleted properly causing crash
  • Fix to kill characters instantly to stop crashes in campaign on agent/general deaths
  • Save games limited to 1000
  • Fix to animation glitch causing repetitive sounds when battle is launched

Note "some save/load fixes" - the word "some" being an interesting addition to that sentence; I am hoping the stability problems and crashes I mentioned in my review are now reduced to more acceptable levels.
I'm still going to wait for a couple more patches before I go and get this.
Mozz-eyes's picture
Good review

However I found this game excessively boring. I was so excited about being able to conquer the entire world. Started the game on Hard as Britain. I had a very slow start because I was still learning the ropes. Despite the insane amount of Alliances in the European theatre, I invaded France via Belgium. I took Paris but then had to withdraw because of how many losses I had taken. After regrouping and re-training, I re-took Paris and killed the entire French army in the process. I then ploughed down the Iberian Peninsular and conquered Spain, Portugal being a strong ally.

While this was happening my armies in America had succeeded in conquering the required provinces to persuaded the 13 colonies to join me. Now the game went downhill. I had such a large, stable income that I built up 10 full stack armies and still turned a decent profit. I then conquered every province in America without a problem and sent 5 stacked armies to mop up the small 1 region provinces in Europe and the weaker factions. My borders now met with the Ottomans and the Prussians with around 7 stacked armies waiting in forts to invade them both at a moment's notice. Portugal now submitted to my will as my soldiers marched through her streets.

It was around this time that the game got very boring. There was no challenge. I sent 5 full stacks to India, set up a beachhead and conquered 3 cities in 1 turn with minimal losses. There was no way I could lose. I haven't played the game since.

I never really liked the setting to be completely honest, and the extensive use of firearms took away the "art of war" aspect of older games. It's back to the RTW mod Europa Barbarorum for me, now THAT is a game.
POBmaestro's picture
I had exactly process happen to me Mozza, though with the United Provinces. However, I personally like being able to rip through countries with ease, though the lack of challange was missing which meant the game lost it's edge towards the end of my 50 year campaign. Though an exception to this was when I got pushed out of America by the natives who scared off my troops

I too found that the firearms took away the art of war aspect you mention from previous games, but I did grow to prefer the firearms as they tended to provide a fresh take on tactics, plus they look and sound great

If you found the difficulty of the game off-putting, why not try playing through on the hardest difficulty instead? Normally with Total War games the Very Hard setting is, well, very hard, but in Empire it might be able to provide you with more of a long term challange. I would like to recommend the United Provinces as a good faction to try out, as they have handsome naval and trade resources

Oh and how did you fare with game crashes and the like Mozza?
Mozz-eyes's picture
POB, crash-wise I had these:

"Dead fleets" by which I mean I had nearly a full stack of heavy first rates raiding a trade route. When the time came for them to go and clear the Mediterranean of Ottoman fleets the game would crash every time I clicked on it. Solved by sending a Sloop to the fleet, apparently the crash is to do with the massive movement radius which is lessened when a sloop is added. I had a few of these and the sloop trick worked every time.

"Out of memory". This happened once when I tried to fight a battle with 20,000 men. Autofight solved this and I won, so not much of a problem.


As for playing on hardest, I don't think I'll bother. I'm completey bored of the game, all the units are practically the same which means that things are just so samey. Whether you're fighting Spanish or Americans, everyone will field similar armies. True, the Indians or Ottomans are a bit different but that's only like 2 factions. The pathfinding is awful too. Ever tried a fort battle? My god, the most frustrating experience I've ever had with my own men climbing outside the walls to come back into the fort but then getting jammed in the door...

In my opinion it just doesn't compare to Europa Barbarorum. In that game there are like 1000 different unit types, a map which is as big as Empire's (in empire there is 1 main town in places like france, I don't like this mechanic and prefer the 1 town per province style like in Rome or Medieval 2) and a classical setting which is the best for a strategy game. You can set up different government types, train local units etc etc. It truly is the definitive Total War experience.

It also gives you a good feel of progressing into the unknown. I am playing as the Greek Cities and am pushing into what is modern day Poland. My hoplites shiver at the icy wind and sentries squint into the distance scanning for enemies. From no-where comes a hail of javelins as they scramble to get into formation and cower behind their shields. A faint roaring can be heard in front. It steadily gets louder. My men start to jostle, nervously glancing at each other. Over the hill comes charging five thousand naked barbarian warriors, intoxicated with a mystical drug which numbs any pain they feel. My archers open fire and a rain of arrows slice through the air, engulfing several of the enemy in flame. But they keep charging, brandishing their swords above their heads and letting blood-curdling screams pierce the chinks in my hoplites' armour.

I give the order to advance. My heavily armed infantry trudge warily forward to be able to see the very maddened expressions of the enemy bearing down upon them. They are only 2 stades away. 1 stade. Half a stade.

SLAM

There is a deafening crash as the enemy hits my battle line, slicing through the first rank with ease. The rest of the hoplites lock together in face of their ferocious enemy. There is no stopping them. They cut through rank after rank, barely losing a man. However, the Corinthian hoplites I fielded were never know for their bravery, forced from their farms and armed with the cheapest equipment they can hardly be expected to fight well. They break. Routing, they flee the field.

"chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk"

The barbarians look up. A horde of jagged stones begin to batter their ranks. My siege machines, dragged all the way from Syracuse, are the likes of which the great unwashed have never seen before. Covered by this incredible, continuous volley, a cloud of dust is kicked up. In the distance a mass of red can be seen, brazen shields glittering in the snow. My reserves arrive and the barbarians re-assemble to prepare for another charge.

However, they did not know who they were facing, what the gates of Hades had called forth, as the fury of the indomitable Spartans unleashed itself upon the field. Many men fell that day but the crown of glorious victory was mine once more.

...

Got a bit carried away there, sorry, but basically I can't stand Empire now, it's awful compared to Europa.
After reading this, (and sharing the same sentiment concerning setting, naval and gunpowder) I'm not going to bother until the game's price has come right down.

If I need a fix, I'll replay the Stainless Steel for MTWII mod. Now that is epic.
POBmaestro's picture
I can understand the frustration people have with Empire, and yes I have been tolerant of it's problems, but I still managed to get a great amount of unique enjoyment out of it. There are a lot of negatives mentioned here, most of which are unforgivable on the developers part, but there are factors in this game which nothing else on the market can offer, though I am yet to try the mods you mention.

I will check out Europa Barbarorum and I have already looked at downloading Stainless Steel, but I have the special problem of download speeds

Thank you for the insight Mozza and Snoozer
POBmaestro's picture
Following on from this thread, here is a list of fixes released in an automatic update for Empire: Total War on Steam: (it's a very long list )

Quote:
Updates to Empire: Total War have been released. The updates will be applied automatically when your Steam client is restarted. The specific changes include:

Crash Fixes
  • Fixed crash when disbanding generals unit
  • Fix for crash on trying to merge ships from port into ships next to port
  • Fixed rare crash relating to boarding
  • Fixed crash to do with reinforcing armies
  • Fixed crash on revolution video attempting to play
  • Fixed crash for double clicking on sinking ship on campaign map
  • Fix for crash on merging units but moving into fort before army arrives
  • Fixed several crashes related to rakes
  • Fixed crashes relating to battles when running Czech or German versions of the game
  • Fixed crash on moving army into region of faction player has military access and then cancelling military access
  • Fixed crash on trying to exchange ships between 2 fleets
  • Fixed crash on spamming move orders to puckle guns locked in melee combat
  • Fixed hard lock on inviting host to their own MP game
  • Fix to prevent loading of mod causing crash post patch
  • Various end turn crash bugs fixed
  • Fixes to crash bugs relating to completion of revolutions
  • Some fixes relating to merging and disbanding
  • Fix for several crashes in land battles
  • Several crashes relating to attacking cities fixed
  • Several load save game crashes fixed


Campaign
  • Armies now placed correctly on battlefields in relation to campaign
  • Fix for nearby ships sometimes not being included as reinforcements for battles
  • Fix for incorrect numbers sometimes showing on trade routes
  • Units with limits on how many can be recruited now show how many are available
  • Various fixes relating to rakes and infiltrating
  • Fixes relating to problems moving armies/merging into army's right next to settlements
  • Various trade bug fixes
  • Fix for moving agent from settlement moving army instead of agent
  • Fix for several bugs relating to military access and armies being in regions
  • Fix for tattered flags appearing on fleet/armies even when at full strength/fully repaired
  • Fix for sallying out armies breaking siege at times even when losing the battle
  • Fix for bugs relating to capturing ships on returning to campaign map from naval battle


Land Battle
  • Improvements to path finding have been made
  • Some fixes to units not garrisoning buildings
  • Fort gate ownership made clearer with faction flags appearing at the gatehouse
  • Fix for problem relating to artillery unlimbering after being ordered to limber
  • Fix for puckle guns moving on their own in some circumstances
  • Fix for big slowdown in unit movement on some battle maps in the Road to Independence episodes
  • Fix for missile cavalry not reloading when out of combat
  • Jaegers now have muskets instead of incorrect rifles, Prussian Jaegers keep rifles
  • Quebec episodic land battle fixed ground type in deployment area
  • Fix for unrealistic numbers when ending a land battle by quitting on the battle results screen

Naval Battle
  • Several fixes for ships clipping into each other
  • Improvements to boarding have been made. Crew is more fluid in attack and more resolute in defence. Men survive long fall and officers join in the boarding attack
  • Crew uniforms improved to make identification of the crew type and faction easier
  • Defending ship is not allowed to fire cannons anymore during boarding procedure
  • Improved naval grouping UI and group movement made
  • Improvements made to ship collisions to reduce chance of ships getting stuck
  • Fix for sail damage not being shown when volumetric effects turned on


Multiplayer
  • Various fixes for joining games/game lobby issues
  • Fixes for problems relating to spectators being kicked/locking up on other players joining games in certain instances
  • Long riflemen and winged hussars removed from early era battles
  • Fix for insufficient funds always showing on unit cards even when enough money is available
  • Player name is now displayed on unit tooltips
  • Team chat is now displayed in a different colour


AI
  • Basic fix for AI being unable to move army by fleet
  • Aggression of factions in campaign improved, as well as tweaks to diplomacy
  • Improvements to campaign AI relating to its waging of wars, recruitment and movement of armies
  • Improvements made to battle AI to make it more reactive, use buildings better as well as squares and rakes
  • Siege battle AI improvements made
  • Improvements to naval AI to make it bunch up less, its use of galleys and long range units such as bomb ketches


Miscellaneous
  • Delete save game button added to save game list
  • View replays button added to single player Play Battle menu
  • Various sound fixes and improvements
  • Various incorrect text messages fixed
  • Fixes to various graphical glitches with display of walls
  • Fixes made for stuttering videos
  • Fix for several game option settings not being saved correctly, including settings such as floating flags
  • Fix for unit voices/attack confirmation being heard for all units in an alliance instead of just for the player’s army
  • Armour and shield values are now added into melee defence value shown on unit cards
  • Lots of other small and minor bug fixes


Balancing
  • Land unit recruitment cost in campaign has been increased, with higher cost on higher difficulty level
  • Ship recruitment and upkeep costs have been increased in campaign
  • Various balancing and cost adjustments to improve multiplayer land battle balance
  • Ship costing improvements made for both campaign and multiplayer
  • Economic tweaks have been made to campaign to reduce amount of money made in later part of campaign


Extra Note

We are aware of an issue with community created maps that results in a crash when someone without the map tries to join the game. This crash will be fixed in the next patch

Further work is being done on improving AI Naval invasion behaviour and this will be included in the next upgrade patch
I am yet to test Empire: Total War properly since this update, however these fixes seem to incorporate the problems I was encountering.
POBmaestro's picture
A free large new patch has recently been released on Steam (which will automatically update), which adds 14 new units, tweaks the gameplay and fixes bugs. Info on the patch 1.3 (way to long to post here): http://store.steampowered.com/news/2598/

What do those people who got Empire in the cheap deal last week make of the game so far?

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