Empire: Total War Review

By Tim Stevens - Posted Mar 18, 2009

Morgan takes a look at the new real-time strategy game for the PC 'Empire: Total War' where you control various world powers, fighting and trading your way to total domination in this X-Play Review.

The Pros
  • Game is epic in scope and feel
  • Massive and fun battles on land and sea
  • Nearly endless replayability
The Cons
  • Slow pacing in Grand Campaign turns
  • Multiplayer limited to single battles

With the Total War series we’ve visited ancient Rome, unified feudal Japan, and demolished more than a few castles in medieval Europe. Developer Creative Assembly’s latest takes us to something a little more modern and rather more broad: the colonial period. It was an era full of (generally forceful) empire-building and conquesting, and with wars breaking out every five minutes it was overall a rather unpleasant time to live. Thankfully in Empire: Total War you get to rise above all that blood and conflict, at least in terms of perspective, creating an impressively deep yet playable strategy title.

So Many Enemies

Empire: Total War ReviewThe bulk of the game takes place in (or around) 1701. It’s the year that the War of Spanish Succession began, but there was already plenty of fighting going on throughout the rest of Europe and in the Americas as well – not to mention plenty of Jolly Rogering across the length and breadth of the Atlantic. All this Empire attempts to deliver, and it does so quite comprehensively, allowing you to take control of about a dozen separate nations and battle against dozens more in a quest for global domination in the so-called Grand Campaign, a history-based but ultimately open-ended exercise in empire building and tactical domination.

Open-ended, yes, and a little overwhelming too. Thankfully there’s also the Road to Independence, starting you out at the fledgling Jamestown colony in Virginia in the early 17th century, then guiding you along through the French and Indian war, independence, and beyond. This mode serves as a somewhat gentle introduction to the game, slowly adding layer upon layer of complexity that the two main tutorials ignore (they’re entirely focused on battle mechanics). You’ll gradually learn what the various structures do, figure out whether it makes sense to upgrade ports for trading or warfare, make tough decisions about spending on schools and civic projects vs. troops and military fortifications, and generally get your political strategy on.

There will be plenty of battling, no doubt about it, in either the Road to Independence or the Grand Campaign, but the game is most certainly won and lost in the lengthy series of turns that take place between battles, an aspect that has seen a lot of attention compared to the prior Total War games. There’s now a comprehensive tech tree to climb, settlements scattered from India to Indianapolis to manage, taxes to raise, elections to rig, missionaries and spies to deploy, and of course armies and armadas to construct. It has a similar to Civilization IV – obviously minus the ultimate space exploration bit – but things here move quite a bit more slowly. During each turn you’re shown the movement of every other nation’s units on the map, all those you can see at least, which can take multiple minutes even when sped up. If your empire is the type that the sun never sets upon, you’d best bring a book.

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

Lead Exchange

Empire: Total War ReviewLand and sea combat begins when two enemy forces meet on the global map, but can also be directly started by jumping into a few online and offline battle scenarios. The land-based combat will be most familiar to Total War aficionados, where multiple armies comprised of up to 20 units (each unit possibly containing hundreds of footmen) face off in the sort of senseless, rank and file combat that made do for centuries. Here you’ll position artillery vs. archers, infantry vs. grenadiers, and do what you can to make the best use of the expansive terrain on offer while your opponent does the same.

Combat starts slow, but once enough units meet and the scrum begins suddenly it can be very difficult to keep an eye on everything, especially given the massive battlefields. Thankfully you can selectively speed up or slow the game down as needed, even pausing while you take a moment to figure out where your hussars galloped off to. This is helpful as your units will need a lot of baby-sitting; they’re capable of firing automatically on any unit that comes into range, but typically won’t turn right or left to defend against an opponent approaching from their flanks. That’s either good or bad depending on how much control you like to wield on the battlefield.

Sea battles are rather more automated; you can basically click on a ship, click on an opposing craft, and then sit back and watch the gorgeous graphics as the battle commences. Things obviously get a bit more complicated when you have fleets on either side, but the pace can be adjusted here as well – if only to appreciate the damage effects as your brig takes another broadside hit from an opposing frigate. You can zoom in to watch men scurry on-board to take care of their jobs, see them reloading cannon beneath the decks, and even watch them get launched into the sea after an impact. Or, you can zoom out to appreciate the lovely water and visual effects. The land battles are a little less exciting to watch, but even having seen it in all the previous games it’s still impressive to watch hundreds of troops on the battlefield doing their thing, either from afar or right up close.

Fun, Challenging, and Even Educational

Empire: Total War is a completely encompassing experience that offers oodles of offline gameplay, entertaining online battles (and supposedly co-op, soon), and no shortage of challenge whether you’re playing against human or AI opponents. And, with its frequent quotes and tie-ins to historical events, it’s thoroughly educational, too, adding another element of appeal for fans of the era. The slow pace and broad complexity make it a game for only those who like to swim on the deeper side of the strategy game pool, but if you aren’t afraid to dive in this game is not to be missed.

Article Written By: Tim Stevens
Producer: Tim Jennings