Muskets and cannons replace archers and siege engines in the 18th century. How do I know this despite repeatedly falling asleep in my History lessons at school? Creative Assembly, responsible for genre crushing strategy games, introduce us to this very fact as they move onwards through our historical timeline. They present their next wargame, Empire: Total War.
Never afraid of a challenge, Creative Assembly usually take a huge section of history and attempt to fit nigh-on everything from it into one game. This has proven both brilliant and damaging. As I mentioned previously in the Medieval 2 review, their end game crumbles due to balancing and micromanagement issues.
It looks like Empire will introduce various steps to limit or prevent this from happening again. This will, in-part, be achieved by the campaign option "Road to Independence", which breaks the 18th century focus into three sections. Starting with the establishment of Jamestown by the British, moving on to the French and Native American wars against the British and finishing up with the War of Independence, against the British.
As you complete one section you move on to the next, thus eradicating the far-too-broad 'winning conditions' of earlier titles and deal with a bite size time period and its goals. Ok, so it’s still more like taking a bite out of a triple-whopper-super-mac than your average sandwich but CA are more likely to keep things balanced this way.
Now, as far as micromanagement is concerned they have focused on keeping the numbers of menus, tax schemes, army building/ordering and even the number of player mouse clicks to a more sensible level. By taking a global management approach they are attempting to streamline the logistics a player faces without taking away the depth of rulership. An example of this would be setting tax levels in one go across your nation rather than one city at a time or the replacement of the diplomats/princesses/merchants/spies, which are moved around manually, with Gentlemen and Rakes. Gentlemen enable the honourable discharge of enemy generals through duals, while the Rake is used for all the more underhand tasks like theft and espionage. Economics, espionage, religion, and diplomacy, they are all back with the promise of being reviewed and improved.
Total War has always given us two distinct parts to a game, the above mentioned ruling aspects and then the ability to play out our own historical battles in real time. In Rome Total War it was fairly obvious that the overland maps were separated into a grid that our units moved around. In Medieval 2 they blurred these lines even further but it was still understood that in a certain area the battle map would be chosen by the point on a grid. In Empire these areas are defined down to the individual pixel an army occupies. So when you move your armies around the turn based map (a turn is 6 months, by the way) you can be see the the strategic implications of terrain. For example, encountering enemy units near a forest, river or town can be considered before you commit your troops. This should allow better awareness of pre-battle tactics.
The battles of the 18th Century were fought primarily with gunpowder charged weapons, muskets being the staple. Now, I haven’t ever fired one but I hear they’re pretty good fun and a devil to reload. Of course CA have modelled this in Empire where it becomes a real strategic factor. Also, with the battles heavy on ballistics there will be more cover on the battlefields, in the way of hedgerows, stone walls, farm buildings and so forth. Units will hunker down behind these obstacles for safety while cramming buckshot into their guns. The cavalry, which in previous games were mostly rapid shock troops used to charge into the enemy flanks, will now be used to carry troops swiftly to new locations, where they will dismount in order to take aim with their thundersticks. All in all it is looking like Empire is remaining true to its roots and yet bringing us a whole new set of strategic considerations.
Hands up who knows what main feature has been missing from all the previous titles in this series? You there, General Squee. That's correct, 'ships'. Or more to the point, 'ship battles'.
But guess what?
Ok, ok, so you all know already, but it’s still very cool. Empire introduces the first, full-blown armada simulator. Awesome. While cannon balls are great, the new ship combat allows your cannons to fire grape shot, used by admirals to thin the enemy crew and chain shot, to rip apart the masts, therefore slowing the enemy in the water, ready for boarding. For those of you unfamiliar to the Total War battle mechanics, let me enlighten you, they allow real time unit selection, slick order allocation, and all the while your thousands of units magically maintain a semblance of rank and file. It’s simply a joy to behold and if this can be transposed onto the icy waves of the Atlantic Ocean then it certainly might be a game I could happily drown in.
I was thinking, Alexander, Rome Total War’s final expansion, came out in 2006 closely followed by Medieval 2. So how then did CA manage to put together Empire, with all this new content it's reported to have, in just 2 years? I’ll tell you. They set their Australian based studio on to Medieval 2, using the Rome Total war engine once it was made; meanwhile they began Empire sometime around 2005 in their Sussex based, UK studios. Consider what they can achieve in four years with the heart of Medieval 2 as their starting block.
Let me just say, I am excited. But I’m always excited by Total War; they have a brilliant system that they seem to work hard at expanding upon. So, will we be welcoming a new King or sinking a tired old monarch beneath the waves? We need only wait a month before the splendours of our 18th century past open up to us.