Empire: Total War (PC)
After 10 years of ranging far and wide through the ancient world, the Total War developers creep closer to the modern age of actual total war. The term "total war" refers to the type of conflict in which all of a nation's resources are mobilized against all of its enemy's resources, no holds barred. Ironically enough, this is certainly not how the Total War series works. In Shogun, Medieval and Rome, armies meet on discrete battlefields, bang on each other, and then go home to the strategic map after a winner has been declared. It's how the games play, it's how wars were historically fought, and it's clearly not what people talk about when they say "total war".
But Empire: Total War is different. It runs the length of the 18th century and the breadth of the Western Hemisphere, from American Indians to subcontinental ones, skimming Africa to the south and going deep into Scandinavia to the north. War goes to sea with new naval combat that affects trade routes. Now artillery plays a central role on the battlefield, smashing houses that armies might requisition. Now towns are razed, farms are looted, and universities are burned. This ambitious, gorgeous, amphibious game is as epic as you'd expect. And then some. War is on the cusp of new atrocities and it's as "total" as Total War has ever been.
It is also a terrible mess from start to finish that makes me wonder if developer Creative Assembly has contempt for its fan base and utter disregard for everyone else. But I'll get to that in a moment.
Tactics, meet strategy. Strategy, meet tactics.
As with the previous games in the Total War series, there are two distinct types of gameplay here. The tactical battles look better than ever, and the new emphasis on artillery changes the way they're fought, letting the player with the biggest guns reach across some expansive maps. These juicy targets give cavalry a renewed sense of purpose (the artificial intelligence certainly appreciates the significance of artillery, based on how it makes a mad dash at anything resembling a cannon). The new naval combat is another example of developer Creative Assembly bringing battlefields to life. We've seen some nice-looking historical naval combat these days, most recently in Pirates of the Burning Sea. But nothing rivals these thrilling naval engagements between ships populated with little men who fling themselves into the water as their vessels sink. There are shredded sails, toppled masts, explosions, splashes, waves and debris. Time was when people who loved these historical details had to imagine them while staring at hexes. But there's no historically-themed eye candy like the latest Total War eye candy, and Empire doesn't disappoint.
All of this is situated on an entirely new strategic map, which abandons the old model of provinces in favor of something more fragmented. The map is still divided into provinces for the purposes of who controls land. But there is a new resource model built around towns springing up in their historical locations, each its own unique resource "node." As towns emerge, you dedicate them to various specialties. Do you want to make money, placate the population, or advance your technology? Choose wineries, plantations, churches or schools. The new strategic layer does a great job of bringing the map to life and giving it as much historical flavor as the far more complicated maps in Paradox's Europa Universalis series.
In fact, the strategic part of Empire: Total War is clearly inspired by the Civilization games, with a light touch of Europa Universalis for good measure. Balance happiness between the nobles and the lower classes. Work your way through a relatively broad tech tree that has an immediate effect on the gameplay. Train and shuffle stacks of armies that drink up your income. Rely on a combination of trade and taxes. Set up a system of alliances with your neighbors to determine who and where you fight. Instead of having to build individual agents, they're periodically spit onto the world stage based on how you've configured your towns. Each of these new twists to the Total War series is grounded in some of the best strategy games you've already played. To Creative Assembly's credit, it's borrowing from the best.
Overall, the basic strategic system is a welcome change. Empire is less clunky than any of the previous games in the series. The interface is still a disappointment, with too few hotkeys, not enough information displayed on the map and far too many game mechanics displayed but not explained. For instance, Creative Assembly obviously appreciates the way Civilization presents rows of icons to represent the balance of positive and negative influences on factors like happiness, income and growth. But it doesn't seem to understand that what made Civilization good wasn't the way it lined up icons, but the way you could manage the icons. In Civilization, you can clearly tell what creates how many icons, and how many you need. They're not there for information. They're playing pieces. That's not the case here, where icons line up for various reasons buried far deeper in the game.
On a need-to-know basis, and you don't need to know
Being obtuse wouldn't be such a problem if it weren't for the first and earliest problem with Empire: Total War. This is one of the most poorly documented games I've ever had the misfortune to try to play. There are other games with worse manuals, to be sure, but very few that neglect so completely to explain basic gameplay. For all the fine work Creative Assembly has done trying to design a game, it couldn't be bothered to teach players how to actually play? There's a heavily scripted American Revolutionary War campaign that introduces some of the mechanics over the course of a few scenarios. It's a start, but only a start. The manual, which should pick up where the tutorial campaign leaves off, is a pathetic CliffsNotes travesty that might as well be a promotional pamphlet. The tooltips are moderately helpful at laying bare some of the game's mechanics, but they shuffle of their own accord between information and flavor text. Did Creative Assembly really think we wanted to hover the cursor over something to get flavor text? And did it really think we wanted to wait for the flavor text and the actual tooltip to blink between themselves to get whichever of the two we were looking for?
Frankly, for a game this ambitious that plays at this scale, it's insulting to have it simply dumped in our laps with so little information. It's bad enough for guys like me who actually want to play. Consider how alienating it will be to someone who's not so sure. It's as if Creative Assembly got sick of making Empire: Total War, so it just shoved it across the table and said, "Here, you figure it out." There's no reason people should be puzzling out on Internet forums vital parts of the game like trade and diplomacy and the efficacy of various troop formations. There's no reason I should have to wonder what stats like prestige and command rating are for. There's no reason to include several paragraphs of historical backstory about types of bayonets, instead of an actual explanation of how these bayonets affect the gameplay. Instead of telling us how to play its game, Creative Assembly provides a useless history dump that we can get just as easily on Wikipedia.
Look how many of us there are? With numbers like these, what does it matter if we can't win a battle?
That's not to say Empire: Total War isn't playable. It is. You can have a great time putting together units, moving ships around, watching battles play out, and generally letting some narrative emerge about the rise of whatever nation you're playing. Here are stories about America, India, Great Britain, France, Prussia, Poland, Russia and more. It's a spectacular costume drama, with a huge cast of distinct players, each written with detail and panache. But I have to wonder what kind of strategy gamer is going to play through a story that progresses from plug to socket to ring bayonets without wondering what those things mean. Mere detail, you say? Who cares about bayonets? Okay -- on the other end of the spectrum, what kind of strategy gamer is going to manage an empire and all its armies without caring how trade works? It's an entire subsystem of the gameplay, and it's as undocumented as the difference between a ring and a socket bayonet. For shame, Creative Assembly.
King of fools
The wretched documentation is the earliest problem with Empire: Total War, but it is by no means its biggest or longest problem. Instead, once again, Creative Assembly has made a game that its AI cannot play. This is evident on numerous levels, from the way your own ships behave in a naval engagement, to the enemy armies standing helpless in a corner during battle, to the stupid choices other nations make on the strategic map. After mastering the system -- if you ever reach that point -- you're going to discover that you cannot lose because you're in a world without meaningful opponents.
It seems that many of the game's features simply aren't used by the AI. Perhaps the most glaring omission is that the AI can't move armies across water, which makes life as the British Empire particularly easy. The AI is incapable of organizing any sort of practical offensive, and will instead just raid towns ineffectually. Enemy armies shuffle around the map noncommittally, apparently unable to seize territory, which is the whole reason armies are in the game. Barring huge differences in army size, which is where the only real challenge lies, other nations are little more than speed bumps. On even the hardest difficulty, winning the grand campaign is pretty much a guaranteed outcome, often long before the clock has run out. Even though you've met your victory conditions, you still have to wait until the 19th century arrives to end the game, which means many more turns of watching the AI's ineffectual fumbling. Frankly, it's embarrassing. You find yourself wondering, "I?m spending 20 hours and this is how the history of the 18th century is going to play out?"
It's easy enough to say "wait for the patch" or "wait for modders," both of which have dramatically improved Creative Assembly's previous games. I can only presume that will be the case here, at which point I look forward to seeing how Empire: Total War turns out. But we review the games we're given, not the games we wish they'll become. And right now, Empire: Total War is blunderingly stupid, relying on a handful of the same tricks, lots of shuffling and scooching, and long bouts of inaction.
These problems might be understandable if this were Creative Assembly's first game. It might even make sense in a sort of "sophomore slump" situation. But the guys at Creative Assembly have been making these games for 10 years. They're not new to the concept. At this point in the history of a franchise, we should be seeing some polish, a better sense of presentation, and perhaps most importantly, a competent AI or at least a move to a multiplayer model. None of this is happening. Instead, we get more (undocumented) detail and sexier graphics in lieu of smarter AI. As Creative Assembly grandest design yet, Empire: Total War falls apart more spectacularly than ever.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.