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November 16th, 2014

Empire: Total War

This increasingly homogenized gaming landscape of ours is a double-edged sword. On one hand it means we all get to play the latest games no matter what platform we run as our gaming setup, but on the other the lack of platform-exclusive titles means there are very few games that aim to do what a specific machine does best. The PC is not always the ideal arcade machine, but what it does right is strategy games and Empire: Total War is one of the strongest and most complete strategy games there is or ever has been. What The Creative Assembly (CA) is doing with Empire is making a game that is at once more in-depth, more complicated and even more far-reaching than any of its predecessors, while still making it the Total War iteration that can really bring in new players. After all, the Total War franchise has always been one of those series that practically every PC gamer has at one time or another thought was a series they ought to play. Sadly, all too many felt they'd be coming too late to the party. So late in fact that everybody else would already be insensible and the only way to catch up would be to down that unpalatable bottle of ginger wine that is inexplicably the only thing left, inanimate or otherwise, that's not drunk. Empire though includes an arm round the shoulder of the newcomer to overcome this feeling of alienation and help you catch up with the folk that have been there quaffing since the beginning. Natives. Thousands of Them For all the historical battles and skirmish modes, the meat of the game is, and always has been, the Grand Campaign. This time though there is another, shorter campaign - called the Road to Independence (RTI) - designed specifically to draw in the new player and guide them through the game's structure. It's so much more than a tutorial though. The shorter play time and specific goals make it a far more story-driven and immediately involving affair. From the first skirmish with hordes of native Americans hurling themselves at your unfamiliar firearms, to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this mini-campaign rattles along at a fair pace. It loosely holds your hand all the way through, giving you objectives and a tighter, less dauntingly huge campaign map, but still gives you the freedom to explore and experiment. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this story-driven route sets a precedent for the inevitable expansions that are bound to follow. The RTI campaign is a great place to start even for experienced players, as the Grand Campaign is truly huge and not a little daunting. The three meaty continents (Europe, the Americas and India) coupled with another four (naval-only) trade theatres comprise the full playing area and can lead to wars on many fronts if you're not careful. With the previous games, your faction would start out small, giving you time to expand at your own pace. Empire drops you in at the deep end with plenty of the playable technologically advanced factions that are and already spread out across the globe. The RTI serves as a good proving ground for what is a very different - yet still familiar - game. The big change that CA has been making the most noise about is the inclusion of the playable naval battles. Taking your ships into a skirmish is a very different experience from the more traditional land battles and helps breaks up the campaign, stopping it from ever really feeling stale. The visuals on these briny skirmishes are incredible; with crew swarming the rigging, snipers taking pot-shots from the masts and everyone leaping to their watery grave when the wooden boats start to get a bit leaky. Get a lucky shot in to ignite the powder kegs and you're treated to some beautiful explosions; get a fire started aboard ships and you'll soon see it spread through the masts and sails in no time. Unfortunately though, the naval battles still feel very much like a first run at getting vehicles into the Total War series. Controlling these lumbering, cannon-laden beasts can be frustrating: genuine naval tactics fast disappear out of the window as you struggle to bring your navy's cannons to bear on the enemy. It's not too bad when you've got a small group of ships, but once the engagements escalate in scale, it starts to feel like you're trying to herd cats. Brittle cats with no sense of direction that are prone to running into each other and inexplicably dying. I can't help but love the action, though these sea-borne shenanigans bring a salty breath of fresh sea air to the campaign game. The land battles feel remarkably different too; the age of gunpowder has changed the way you need to approach an enemy. And is it satisfying. Watching the on-rushing enemy collapse under the weight of lead ripping through skin as your front line unleashes a devastating volley truly is something to savor. Everything's Relative Everything is interconnected this time as well. From the campaign and battle Al right down to the trading price of a loaf of sugar. Want to increase the prices of a certain commodity? Then blockade a rival empire's ports, cut down the supply and watch the market go through the roof. The beauty of the game is you are not obliged to play right down at the micro-management level. If all you're interested in is the warfare, then you can simply move your pieces from battle to battle, or if it's the grand Risk-style strategy that floats your flagship, then you can opt to let the Al figure out the skirmishes. Should you want to get elbow-deep into the minutiae of the 18th Century process of empire-building, you can, but it's not necessarily a decision that you have to stick with either, allowing you to pick and choose your level of involvement. But where would a Total War game be without Al bugs? Admittedly, the Al is far better in general compared to the occasionally times when an enemy army will be attacking on the campaign map, only to hold their lines on the battlefield, refusing to budge an inch. These are relatively minor niggles in the shadow of this colossus of a game. The challenges presented by the Grand Campaign firmly establish Empire as the stuff of legend: it's far-reaching, truly massive and utterly engrossing. Once more, CA has refused to rest upon its laurels, creating one hell of a time-filching game; expect some late nights and cancelled social engagements once Empire hits your hard drive. 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