Even by the standards of the series, Empire: Total War is epic. It takes the combined real-time and turn-based strategy, and pushes it out into the eighteenth century in style. It's bigger, and it has a hell of a lot more bang.
Faced with so much game, the best thing to do is start small. Fortunately, in addition to its Grand Campaign (which we will get to soon), Empire: Total War includes an introductory campaign. Entitled 'Road to Independence', this short campaign is the perfect way to ease yourself into Total War. Series newcomers will definitely need the training it provides, but it isn't the type of tutorial that babies a player – which is important, because it means veterans won't want to simply opt out of what is actually quite a neat combination of campaign tutorial and impressive set-piece battles, with a stronger storyline than Total War games usually manage.
Experienced generals will find themselves charging through the first few 'chapters' of this mode in an hour or two. Carving out a colony around the Jamestown settlement consists of some infrastructure building and a couple of easy-win battles against natives who have never seen a firestick before. Then there's the slightly more challenging war with the French colonists, before the final act: the Declaration of Independence, and a fully-functional (though still small) campaign that asks you to wrest control of the Thirteen Colonies from Britain. Kiwis obviously won't get as fired up about the patriotic moments, but this is still a neat (and very satisfying) way to warm up for the main event.
The Grand Campaign is huge. I don't think I can stress that enough. Unlike most of the previous Total War games, Empire takes place across not one but three separate 'theatres': Europe (plus North Africa and the Middle East), the Americas (including the Caribbean, most of North America, and all of modern Mexico, through to the top corner of South America), and the Indian subcontinent. In addition, there are special trade regions elsewhere around the globe, where more limited commercial and naval struggles are played out. Across these diverse landscapes, and through the whole of the eighteenth century, there are a dozen powerful empires vying for dominance, and a large cast of smaller nations being pulled along in their wake (useful as allies or fodder for conquest, mostly – but there are also small nations that can be unlocked as playable factions for seriously ambitious rulers).
Each empire has its own challenges and difficulties, its own strengths, and its own goals (introduced at the start the of the campaign by a handy voice-over, while the camera roams around all of your starting territories). This, and the massive geographical scope, mean great value for money. Having played out the Grand Campaign (which comes in a short and a long version) as Prussia, the up-and-coming power in Eastern and Central Europe, there is a whole new experience to be had playing as a colonial empire like Britain or France – and the campaign is different again as the Mughals or the Maratha Confederacy in India. The potential for replayability here rivals even the Civilization games!
Doing battle in Empire is quite a change from previous titles, since the emphasis is much more on guns. Though I worried about missing out on the real action of hand-to-hand combat, my concerns have been well and truly answered. The beautiful battle graphics make you feel closer than ever to your troops. Fences, walls, and even buildings can provide cover, and form the basis of a battle-plan. Artillery bombardments are devastating and exhillerating (one well-timed impact can wipe out half a regiment, and turn the tide of a battle).
But melee isn't gone, either. Bullets alone ill not win your battles. There will be many a time to send in the cavalry, and break the enemy with a sudden flanking movement. And, over the course of the century, you will gain access to new weapons and tactics. Your infantry will be able to fix bayonets for the final charge, or form up in the square formations that historically were Napolean's undoing.
Such advances are made through the new technology tree – one of a few additions to the game that smacks of Civ (others being the streamlining of trade and diplomacy, which no longer require special units). Management of buildings and infrastructure is also quite different from Empire's predecessors: rather than regions being built up solely around a single city, each region now has a capital and a number of smaller towns. Some buildings are built and upgraded in the capital, but the outlying towns can be home to farms, mines, schools, brothels, and all manner of other valuable improvements. The decentralisation makes for different military strategies, too: it is no longer necessary to lay seige to a castle to defeat your enemies; often, you can cripple them economically by laying waste to the countryside. Towns then become battlegrounds (and very interesting battlegrounds, too).
Probably the most talked about feature in Empire: Total War are the real-time naval battles. While some reviewers have found these to be a disappointment (and I will concede that they don't have the polish or the realism of the land engagements), I must stand up favour of the fleets. Though they can be troublesome to control, battles on the high seas are immensely enjoyable, and add a new dimension to the gameplay. The satisfaction gained from sinking ships is, I think, linked closely to the amount of detail in the graphics: seeing the crew on board makes all the difference to me, because I care about my men – and, being a sadist, I want to see those other bastards drown!
Unfortunately, it isn't all smooth sailing for Empire: Total War. While I'm very impressed with the battle graphics (except for a humourous glitch where troops will sometimes elaborately mime climbing over a non-existent wall, only to walk right through the real thing), the detail and beautification of the campaign map actually hurts the gameplay in places because, while it looks good, it isn't immediately obvious what you're looking at. If the various town types (and agent types) were more representative, and less realistic, this would be a rather easier game to control. Also, while it's kind of cool that the giant flag flying over your fleet is reflected in the waters below, there is really no reason for the big trees representing forests to sway in the breeze (and I expect this indulgent animation is contributing to the conquest of your hard drive space and the rather brutal loading times). It would have been good, too, to see agents such as spies (or 'rakes' as this game calls them) and religious leaders go the way of traders and diplomats: micromanagement of this kind just isn't all that enjoyable.
But these are small failings when set against such a backdrop of success. Empire: Total War offers so much gameplay, and such good gameplay, that it is really a must-buy for every little general out there. I eagerly await the full campaign multiplayer which has been promised as part of a future patch!