I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.
I was very pleasantly surprised.
Disclaimer: I have not played one turn of vanilla Empire. Virtually all my experience with the game has been with the Darthmod Ultimate Commander mod (version 6.0, “enforced edition”), whose forum is here: http://www.twcenter.net/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=1126, installed over the 1.6 patch. I have played a couple of custom battles and a single campaign as Great Britain from 1701 to around 1730 (I put the game down after I captured all my victory provinces).
Now, my previous experience with the Total War games was that the campaigns were incredible fun early on; I really did feel a heroic general when I led small kingdoms and hastily improvised armies to victory against overwhelming enemies. Then the games abruptly wore out their welcome, as the horrible AI (papered over by a cheating computer player), hassle-filled strategy layer in which it took forever to build up cities, and an excessive number of tactical battles (it was that or allow your armies to be chewed up by the auto-resolve) took their toll.
Empire changed that. The battles have less impact, literally and metaphorically. Battles are now principally decided by fire rather than shock, and while still splendid to behold, seeing lines of infantry volley at each other nonetheless lacks some of the thrill of watching hastati tear into a barbarian horde. Yet I grew used to this soon enough – and a cavalry charge to the flanks is as spectacularly decisive as ever. The AI is bad, yes, in that it almost invariably attacked my positions in every battle (even sometimes abandoning its stakes and trenches!)… but then again, I almost invariably showed up with artillery superiority, and the one time I had no artillery and the AI was the defender, it was perfectly happy to sit on the defensive. So I wonder if this was a deliberate way to avoid the problem in previous Total War games in which AI armies would sometimes be happy to stand around as you decimated them with archers or artillery.
But the really big improvement is the strategic layer. I love how so many of the annoyances have been streamlined away: reinforcing armies now takes only a single button-click, a fistful of gold and two turns; agents now automatically spawn; and there are fewer buildings in your cities (no more separate buildings for infantry, archers, and cavalry!) with the income-producing buildings now located around the countryside. Building up settlements no longer takes ages, and I think it helped that I used a Darthmod campaign which starts each player off with a fat war chest, which I promptly invested into my economy. I love the fluidity and emphasis on manoeuvre of troops around the strategic map, given the importance of pillaging said income-producing buildings. I love the emphasis on naval warfare and securing overseas trade routes (again, I think Darthmod helped – ships can move very far, from the British Isles to the edges of the European theatre, in one turn). I love that now it is perfectly viable to focus on the strategic map and auto-resolve most battles. Again, the AI is bad. When I came roaring into Quebec with a full stack of British troops, I found several half-stacks scattered around the province. If they had combined, they would have outnumbered me by a perilous margin. They did not combine. I crushed them one by one. To counterbalance this, I have seen the AI target my hip pocket by raiding my ports and trade routes, and it does go after lightly held settlements.
Perhaps most significantly, Empire captured the fact that history is so much more than shifting lines on a map. It conveyed to me the sense that I was seeing the dawn of the modern world, and that made me enjoy Empire’s in-game narrative on a deeper level than its predecessors. The Civilization-style tech tree, a new addition to the Total War strategic layer, was a key part of this. Available for research, there are not only better ways of killing others, but also the new doctrines of the Enlightenment. Social progress will speed up research and strengthen your economy – but it will also make the common people unhappier now that they can imagine better lives. Then there are the concrete steps the tech tree provides towards the Industrial Revolution, as you invent the steam engine and the spinning mule. And while pop-ups about historical trivia associated with the current game year are not new to the series (remember the establishment of Buddhism in Rome: Total War or the invention of the clock in Medieval 2?), telling me about the development of something we take for granted nowadays, such as the thermometer or the fire brigade, took it to the next level.
What about the bugs? They actually weren’t so bad for me; I had a couple of CTDs during battles, but that was no different to Medieval 2. Loading a particular saved game would invariably also result in a CTD, but I fixed that by rolling back to the previous turn’s auto-save. The most annoying issue was blurry text, which seemed to be caused by the aspect ratio of my chosen resolution (1440 x 900).
Overall, I really enjoyed Empire: Total War, warts and all. And there were warts, most glaringly the AI – though I haven’t been convinced that the patched and modded AI is any worse than in the previous Total War games. But I think that the improvements to the campaign, in particular, make Empire shine compared to the previous entries in the series, and I think that if two people tried the multiplayer campaign beta as countries that would be natural rivals (e.g. Great Britain and France) in order to mitigate the poor AI, they could have a blast.
Note: Since I played the above campaign, a number of patches for Darthmod have been released.
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