Empire: Total War - PC - Review
Anyone who plays real-time strategy games knows of the Total War franchise. This latest and most successful outing, Empire: Total War, takes players into 17th- and 18th-century warfare, complete with battles on the ground and high seas. In addition to managing the military, players will be responsible for the economic and cultural expansion of their respective empire, everything from negotiating trades to quelling rebellions. Players unfamiliar with Total War’s basic mechanics can get their bearings in the game’s tutorial modes, the first one being focused on ground combat, while the naval combat tutorial serves as an excellent introductory showcase for Empire’s landmark new feature. The camera can be controlled in every way imaginable using either the keyboard or mouse, and the command interface is clean and easy to use without sacrificing depth or control. Within two seconds, I can double click on a unit’s icon to quickly jump to their position on the battlefield, switch them into “fire at will” mode, then descend the camera to immerse myself in the explosive pops and pounding cannons of colonial combat.
One nice starting point for players, regardless of experience, is the “Road to Independence” campaign. This campaign follows the story of the early colonization of America, beginning with the settlement of Jamestown. More importantly, this campaign allows newcomers to hone their abilities as a colonial leader. You’ll learn the basics of taxation, which can bring in great sums of wealth at higher rates, but are also prone to incite fires of rebellion among the masses. You’ll learn how to construct and upgrade various buildings, which can function more efficiently and generate higher profits as they develop. Of course, there’s also the fighting. Fending off native tribes and crushing French fleets are all in a day’s work for your typical gameplay session in Empire. Both naval and ground battles function nicely in a tactical context. Players who arrange pincer movements and defend high grounds from offending armies will find their strategies greatly rewarded. Enemies who are not outright killed can be “demoralized” by seemingly hopeless odds, at which point they will abandon the battlefield (though you’re free to chase them down if you feel so inclined). It’s a two-way street, however; to shield your own troops from demoralization, try keeping heroic leaders nearby. A cowardly retreat from a local militia can be turned into an aggressive charge once the men catch a glimpse of General Washington riding in on horseback.
The cream of the crop, as expected, lays with the main game mode in which players plan their conquest of the world in the 18th century. Players begin by selecting a major world power, and follow through by working to develop their place on the global front. Colonization and conquering of distant lands are all well and good, but players also have the option of making stealthier moves against foes. Universities are full of groundbreaking technological secrets, so sending a “gentleman” agent to the enemy’s cultural center will allow you to appropriate certain valuable information. If you happen upon an enemy’s trade route, you can set up your ships to pluck the unsuspecting trade vessels of their goods. Forging an alliance with the enemy of my enemy might grant access to some excellent maneuvering positions for invading armed forces. The possibilities go on, and this is where the heart of Empire lies. Having fun means getting to make interesting choices that will have a significant impact on the gameplay. Naturally, some choices will be more difficult than others. Do I send out a fresh batch of troops to reinforce the front lines, or do I keep them closer to home as a garrison in the event of a counter attack? Things like this grant an excellent and realistic element of strategy that prevents player from getting too far with an overly aggressive or overly passive approach to the game.
Due to the turn-based nature of the gameplay, some moments will arise that are certainly less amusing than others. Certain restraints, typically financial, might cause the player to feel “forced” into waiting out turns with basic development of valuable mines or maintaining a siege at the enemy’s fortifications. Generally, you’ll want to do as much as possible within each turn, as some objectives can only be accomplished within a specific period of time. The save and load system helps to act as a buffer against the typical mistakes in which players wave their fists in the air, shouting “Wait, why did I just do that!?” Each national campaign has different objectives and levels of difficulty, so there is excellent replayability to the single-player modes. Online multiplayer battles also give players the chance to go head-to-head and see who really puts their brains in the fight.
Empire: Total War sports an outstanding musical score. Overlooking map views with haunting themes lend a sense of omnipotence to the thoughtful strategy without getting monotonous, and battle marches sound like something out of a major motion picture. Sound effects are also excellent, solid without being obnoxious. Battles are particularly pleasant to the ear, with thunderous cannons, clanging blades, and the roar of men in battle all contributing to a sublime symphony of epic battlefield bliss. If your speaker system isn’t so great, don’t worry. Total War offers a great feast for the eyes, as well. Poetic skylines and detailed animations on soldiers, right down to the loading of artillery and braying of cavalry horses, ensures you’ll always have something interesting to look at. Naval battles require players to focus on the ships and ignore the water, which is difficult because the water looks absolutely amazing. Plenty of special effects can be adjusted in the settings menu to optimize performance, from high dynamic range lighting to volumetric effects. I ran Total War on a very high end setup, and it still couldn’t quite pull off every visual trick set to maximum, which should give you some idea of what the game is capable of producing on a graphical scale. From stem to stern, Empire: Total War is the complete package. It will keep RTS fans happy, without alienating newcomers who want to try their hand at something new.
Review Scoring Details for Empire: Total War
Detailed management and battles that are way too much fun. Prepare to lose sleep.
Great details, especially in the water. Frame rate can get a bit sketchy under certain settings, though.
Visceral sounds of warfare over a luscious musical score. Outstanding.
Intense strategy and a sharp learning curve, but the challenges make it all worthwhile
Naval battles are tremendous in every sense, executed just as carefully as the rest of the game.
Strategies and tactics get tossed around like a glorified chess game.
Empire: Total War isn’t perfect, and it can be tedious at times. On the whole, it manages to pull off everything you’ve ever wanted in an RTS, and delivers even more. Top honors.