Sure it’s huge and fairly deep, and it offers some of the best visuals this side of the genre divide, but this means little if a game plays badly. It’s like a supermodel with a bad attitude; for all its potential, its crabby petulance is likely to keep you at arm’s reach, never really enjoying what could have been a lot of fun.
I first came across the Total War franchise with Shogun: Total War in 2000. The first of the series, Shogun: Total War was a strategy gaming marvel. It delivered a combination of turn-based campaign management and 3D rendered real-time tactical combat. It had its flaws, but they were forgivable because the game was ultimately a lot of fun.
Then came Medieval: Total War which moved the setting to a more familiar western context. Creative Assembly then released Rome: Total War, and later Medieval II: Total War. By this stage, the developer had built a reputation for creating deep and historically accurate strategic combat games.
Enter Empire: Total War. A game that delivers unmatched scope and depth, yet fails to package it convincingly.
What it does right
Empire: Total War’s potential lies in its depth and maturity. With detailed and historically accurate campaigns, Empire provides an alternative to the plethora of generic real-time strategy games that have been released over the years.
The sheer scope of the grand campaign can be utterly bewildering, and it is therefore highly recommended that players ease themselves in slowly. “The Road to Independence” is essentially an extended tutorial campaign, and does a good job of preparing players for the broader Total War experience that is dished out in the Grand Campaign.
The Grand Campaign is a complex affair, characterized by intense political wrangling and a challenging balancing act which the player must manage between maintaining a proficient war machine as well as an economy that can support it.
The visuals are absolutely spectacular, as the various screenshots indicate. On maximum settings, the game is characterized by crisp and detailed textures, unique and realistic animations and beautifully executed lighting and water effects. One can zoom in and enjoy the action up close, where it is possible to discern individual buttons on the unit’s collars.
Soldiers are rendered uniquely, meaning that individual units will carry different satchels and the like. Plumes of smoke will decorate the air as your riflemen fire at their enemies, and cannon balls will bounce violently across the battlefield, decimating soldiers in their path.
Ship combat is a highlight, and is easily the best implementation of tactical naval combat in a real-time strategy title yet created. Ships react realistically to weather effects, and players must take wind speed and direction into account when maneuvering. Individual soldiers can be seen firing their rifles at enemy ships, occasionally clipping enemy sailors. The sight of watching your men scuttling across the deck, hoisting ropes attached to sales and firing and reloading cannons is quite special.
Players are able to control the ammunition types used in their cannons, with some being more adept at shredding sales and others more capable of targeting sailors for example. There is also the option to board enemy ships and fight it out up close. Creative Assembly made a big deal about the introduction of naval combat, and rightly so as it is definitely one of the standout features of the game.
The technology tree is rewarding and exciting, offering benefits to your units that are noticeable and unique, such as the discovery of the bayonets which adds significantly to unit’s melee combat score.
The attention to detail, depth, scope and innovation present in Empire: Total War make it a conceptually flawless game.
Where it goes wrong
Unfortunately, good ideas and flashy innovations are not enough, and Empire falls flat when it comes to the manner in which they are implemented.
Firstly, the game is painfully buggy. At the time of writing, Empire was already on its third patch, with no noticeable improvements, and indeed a number of newly introduced bugs having found their way into the mix. The game regularly crashes, causes system hangs and is generally laggy.
Secondly, Empire is a groaning resource hungry monster of a game, managing to blatantly expose our test machine’s age.
Our Intel Dual Core E6400 with 2GB of DDR2 800 memory and Nvidia 8800 GTS 320 was made to look rather silly playing Empire: Total War. Eventually having to reduce the game to *gasp* low settings at 1680×1050 we found the game playable but laggy enough to frustrate.
Our Quad core monster with 2GB of DDR2 and a Nvidia 8800GT fared better as expected, but was still below par when compared to its performance in other games, including the likes of Crysis Warhead. This machine did however provide a decent gaming experience on medium graphics settings.
In short, Empire: Total War is hungry. To enjoy the game on high settings at 1680×1050 with smooth frame rates, we would recommend a quad core CPU with 4GB ram, and something along the lines of an ATi HD 4870.
Apart from its technical deficiencies, Empire is also not short of basic gameplay shortcomings.
The land battles are tryingly slow at times, which would not be too bad if it were not for the clumsy unit control and incredibly daft artificial intelligence. It often takes a good ten minutes of maneuvering just to get you soldiers within firing range of the enemy.
Player-controlled units exhibit remarkably stupid path finding skills for the most part, and the custom path selector is all but broken, making maneuvering in the battle field a hair pulling experience. Sieges are an absolute nightmare, with units opting to scale walls using grappling hooks when your cannons have already blown open the front gates.
Battalions are slow to react to commands, and will refuse to fire at an enemy 20 paces away until lined up in the correct formation. This means that if you are flanked from behind, you can forget about simply commanding your troops to fire at the offending enemy troops, as they refuse to do so until the entire formation has done a pointless 180 degree turnaround.
It is not only player-controlled AI that exhibits pathetic idiosyncrasies and your enemies are no less handicapped by idiotic unit behavior. Numerous times I was able to march around the back of an enemy unit and start firing, only to have the enemy in question stand and allow themselves to be submissively slaughtered without lifting a rifle in protest.
I eventually took to skipping the land battles all together, as they ultimately proved to be long and frustrating affairs, that’s when they did not crash the game to Windows or cause my PC to freeze.
The problem however, is that if you skip the battles, you are essentially left with a very big board game, which ultimate leaves one feeling like they paid full price for a bicycle without tires.
Empire: Total War could have been a great game, and many will probably find that it is, despite its technical shortcomings. It will however most probably leave those with less patience feeling disappointed.
We can’t shake the feeling that another year of studio tweaking would have delivered a masterpiece. Unfortunately, as it stands right now, Empire: total War is a poorly executed and incomplete mush of good ideas.
If it were not for Empire: Total War’s general instability, it would have easily scored 85+, however, it loses points in the “Fun Factor” and “Longevity” departments due to the frustrations accrued by numerous crashes, interface and frame rate lag, and buggy unit A.I.
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