A game of stories, not of histories.
In 1775, with Britain's final preparations for war with the colonies, their troops landing on the shores of the Massachusetts harbor, a 23-year-old American jumped on his horse and rode four days and six hours, covering 345 miles from Watertown to Philadelphia, to warn the colonists of the British advance. At every town this courageous man visited, bells were rung and rifles shot to announce the start of the anticipated war with the imperialist British. Who was this young hero? His name was Israel Bissel. (Kinda sounds like a Jewish vacuum cleaner, doesn’t he?)
[image1]Of course, we have our usual cast of heroes. Paul Revere is a much more heroic sounding name than Israel Bissel. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could write his renowned poem with a name like Paul Revere, and Creative Assembly could have used a name like Paul Revere for one of their new specialist pieces in the latest addition to the Total War series. But they didn't. Empire is another in a long line of games and, frankly, novels that adhere to the old crede of retelling the legend as fact... supposedly.
I’m not actually here to agitate in favor of 100% historically accurate games, mind – I just find it interesting when games take a historical setting and don’t actually present the whole picture. Empire is just another in the crowd in this respect. I mean, the first thing I did when I booted up the game was start a campaign as the French... and conquered the world. Historical inaccuracy defined, right there.
In most other respects, Empire falls into the crowd the series has made for itself. The Total War games feel less and less like distinct entries with every new release, and more and more like a blend of upgrades and variant flavors. How can you really differentiate Rome from Medieval 2 from Empire? For the most part, they are all exactly the same.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Total War games involve real-time combat between hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers housed inside of a framework of turn-based empire-building gameplay. As the iterations in the series have gone by, the scale has increased significantly, and the graphics have improved by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, the fundamental gameplay hasn’t really changed much since Rome.
[image2]Empire does bring one distinct thing to the table: naval battles. These play out fairly similarly to the land battles, except without any real impact from terrain. Generally, I found that once you stopped trying to assume that your ships would operate exactly the same as a group of infantry, the naval battles went from maddening to very handlable
Most of the other changes brought into play in Empire don’t actually change the game at all. For example, the game brings a tech tree for the first time into the series. Since the tech tree is tied to buildings, and the buildings themselves define which techs you can actually put into play, it doesn’t fundamentally change the operation of the game from the previous incarnations; it just puts a mildly different coating over it.
In most other respects, however, Empire does an excellent job at creating an entertaining experience. Excellent graphics put on a glorious shine, and the sound design is top-notch. The visceral cannon shots bouncing through dirt and flesh pulls you into the real-time battles, and the distant sound of volleyed rifle fire from across the field pepper battles distinctively.
The most notable improvements, however, are in the user interface. Empire is the easiest of the series to play. Game flow is laid out clearly, the UI provides you with the right details without getting in the way, and it’s easy to manage surprisingly large swathes of the game.
[image3]Unfortunately, a clean U.I. doesn’t necessarily mean a resilient technical base. Half the reason I got to review the game is that Duke couldn’t get it to run on his machine. My aggressively maintained rig was able to take it and run it at top settings, but I still found the game rife with bugs and glitches. The game would frequently crash to desktop after a couple hours of play, and the Total War series is not known for brevity of play.
And while we’re on the subject of problems, Empire has the same basic problem with the A.I. that all the Total War games have had: The empire-building side of the game is moronic, while the real-time tactical battles are deadly efficient and precise. The whole package is generally not inspired, and it can be maddening getting used to the controls with its unforgiving exploitation of any momentary sloppiness you will naturally have with your formations.
The single-player campaign – the main one, not the more general ‘conquer the world’ sort – covers the foundation of the British colonies that would later become the United States of America, and their road to revolution. For most of the campaign, George Washington is the central hero, and it follows his involvement in the French and Indian War, and the American Revolutionary War.
[image4]This brings up the topic of historical accuracy once again. George Washington, over the course of his entire career, participated in nine battles. He actually won three, so his running record of 3-6 makes you wonder how we even survived the war, let alone won it. But Empire isn’t in the business of rendering the complex political nuances and logistical problems with running a war on a distant continent, so choosing George Washington makes as much sense as, say, Fleet Admiral Comte d’Estaing. As such, you have to suspend your disbelief as you take Washington into 50 battles, winning every single one, racking up well over 80,000 casualties on both sides.
Since the Total War series repeats itself as much as human history does, it’s not surprising to find that Empire: Total War doesn't substantively differ from prior iterations. It is a smooth and up-to-date presentation for the modern generation of gaming rigs, however, and if you’re going to buy into the series fresh, Empire is definitely the one to go with. It has a certain felicity of gameplay expression that demands a recommendation.