David Mcmurdo On February - 7 - 2010

There is a very good reason that I do first impression pieces as well as reviews. How often have you played a game for a short time, formed an opinion of it and then had that opinion totally changed by the games end? Lots of times right? Therefore I think it’s a mistake to offer a definitive opinion on a game unless you’ve experienced it from start to finish because more often than not you’ll regret it. In the case of Empire: Total War, I have rarely been so thankful that I gave my first impressions on a game rather than my final word because I went from believing it to be an epic masterpiece to seeing it for the buggy, inexcusable mess that it truly is. So here my friends, only on Wedotech, is my review of Empire: Total War. Great justice is about to be done.

A Bloody History

In my first impressions of Empire: Total War I sang the games praises and judging by the comments I sold a few more copies of the game for Sega and Creative Assembly (the publisher and developer respectively). They were again my first impressions and clearly titled as such. Now every gaming magazine and website that was throwing near perfect scores at the game, they are a slightly different story.

Let me explain something that some people might not be aware of. Professional reviewers working for a publication or website don’t have the luxury of deciding what game to review and when to review it. They are given a game and a deadline by which to deliver their verdict. Therefore with games of such a massive scale as Empire: Total War professional reviews can be nothing but first impressions because they simply don’t have the time to play it as much as they might like to and indeed need to. So I don’t blame them for the ridiculously high scores they gave a truly undeserving game, they were simply charmed like I was originally. Of course I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here, a simpler explanation was that they were paid to rate it highly but that’s an unpleasant reality of the industry so lets move swiftly on and forget I said anything.

Now before I get onto talking about the game itself please allow me to wave my Total Warcredentials in your face. I started playing the series with Rome: Total War (shut up fanboys I later went and bought the original Medieval: Total War as well) and then continued on with its sequel Medieval 2: Total War. I really loved playing those games but they were still very clearly bugged in a number of crucial ways and Creative Assembly simply ignored this fact after failing to address the issues across three patches and released an expansion pack Medieval 2: Total War Kingdoms which itself remains largely unfixed to this day.

Needless to say the Total War Community was very wary when Empire: Total War was announced and many people decided to wait until others on the Total War forums delivered their fanboy verdicts. They certainly weren’t going to listen to mainstream sources. Of course they would lavish the game with awesome scores. But what would the real gamers think?

I was not one of those people who wisely decided to wait and see what the feedback was like. I pre-ordered the game and not just the standard edition oh-no, I pre-ordered the Special Forces edition which contained a number of unique units. So I got it, installed it and gave my glowing first impressions. Then I actually sat down and played the game for a considerable time. Thus the true horror of Empire: Total War became slowly apparent and a tragic tale of disappointment and betrayal began to unfold…

Overview

For those of you entirely unfamiliar with the series, a Total War game is literally a game of two halves. There is the turn-based campaign map where you manage your settlements and move your armies with every faction present in the game taking turns to do everything they need to do including attacking enemy forces. When the player is one of the factions involved in an attack the camera zooms into the campaign map and the battle map where the two forces engage in real-time to decide the outcome. This mix of abstract strategy and tactical warfare is key to the success of the Total War franchise and has been present from the first instalment, Shogun: Total War.

The land battles are the meat and potatoes of the Total War series for most.

The two major changes that Empire: Total War brings are the time period (1700-1799) and naval battles that could be fought in real-time. Previously naval combat had just been a matter of auto-resolving but now we can actually control our ships on the high-seas and blast enemy fleets apart with cannons. Given the new time period, expanding upon the maritime aspect of Total War was pretty much essential but it also meant a big change for the battles as a whole since gunpowder was now commonly employed in warfare and battlefield tactics had changed drastically from the time periods portrayed in previous Total War games.

Something that was a bone of contention amongst the Total War fanbase was the fact that Empire: Total War made use of Steam. Theoretically this was a good thing because it meant that patches could be released more quickly but many people resented having to install the program in order to play the game. Then again some Total War fans hated the series moving to 3D and would have us still playing with horribly misshapen 2D soldiers if they could. Personally I have no real issue with the game using Steam. It’s a minor inconvenience but as long as I can still buy a physical copy of the game then I have no problem with it.

The Campaign Map

Even to a veteran of previous Total War titles such as myself the campaign map of Empire: Total War seems complicated at first. Instead of just a single theatre of war there are now three, North America, Europe and India and colonial powers such as Great Britain start off with territories on more than one continent. The game does succeed in conveying the sense that the known world is a truly large place, managing construction in London before defending your fur trading outposts from roaming Native American hordes in North America in a single turn makes you feel like you really are protecting an empire. In previous Total War titles the loss of land anywhere in the early game could be a real threat to the existence of your nation but in Empire the loss of a colony while undeniably a setback doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the ropes.

At least the game deserves to be called epic.

There have been some really innovative changes made to how your nation grows. Rather than constructing everything from the capital city of any given region, small towns will slowly emerge in the surrounding lands, towns which can then be developed in a number of ways. Perhaps a harbour would be more beneficial than a fishery in that coastal village, maybe that church school is better off being razed and rebuilt as a place of learning or perhaps more industrial enterprises would be more beneficial in the long run. There are so many choices to be made all of which have an impact on your nation as a whole whether it’s in terms of how much food is being produced, the kind of technology you have access to, the kind of military units you can recruit or the kind of agents that spawn into your service.

Thankfully no longer do you have to guide diplomats across the earth to open negotiations with foreign powers, diplomacy is handled entirely through a clearly laid out interface with you having the ability to contact any nation at any time provided they are willing to talk to you. There are now two agent types in Empire: Total War. The Gentlemen who conduct research in any available schools or universities and who can enter duels and Rakes who are spies, assassins and saboteurs all rolled into one. The reduction in available agent types certainly cuts down on the amount of micromanagement required which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective and yes there are cutscenes that play whenever one of your agents performs a task.

Another key evolution of the campaign map is the aforementioned research that can be performed provided you have at least one centre of learning. Gentlemen working in such places speed up research but they are not required and the more schools and universities you have the more fields you can work on at any given time. Fields of research are divided into three categories, Military Technology, Philosophy and Industrial Technology with there being a number of technologies to be developed within each. These technologies have a real impact on how your empire functions and you will see the benefits of each during gameplay. It’s enormously satisfying having just researched “fire by rank” to see your soldiers employ this tactic on the field of battle for example. The fact that you can choose in which way the technology of your nation develops is the best new addition that Empire: Total War brings to the series in my opinion. It means that even if you play as the same nation twice, your path to victory might be entirely different depending on where you focus your research.

The campaign map is undoubtedly the area in which Empire: Total War shines the brightest but that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. The importance of characters such as generals and their traits has been given something of a backseat in this instalment which is a shame because seeing them develop with their experiences was one of the strongest points of the Total War series for me. In Empire you’ll get several notifications a turn telling you that such and such a person has become an alcoholic or has a mistress or whatever but you probably won’t know your characters by name and since the button to jump to the character in question doesn’t work you’ll probably never know who the message is referring to. Not that it matters since the traits now have a minimal impact on gameplay anyway. Depending on your form of Government you can also now hire and fire ministers although again I’m not convinced that it makes enough of a difference to bother with.

Troops can now be recruited anywhere in a region and not just in its capital city as was the case previously and while this is certainly convenient I don’t really see the logic in it. The same applies with replenishing your forces as well. If you’ve taken a beating on the field of battle you can simply keep your army where it is and have the required regiments refilled on the spot over the course of a turn or two. A definite improvement is the fact that you can now stop armies from moving once you’ve right clicked on a location. There were few things more frustrating in past Total War games than accidently clicking on some out of the way place and then being completely helpless as your last line of defence marched there with you screaming “nooooo!” at the monitor.

You'll be seeing this screen... a lot.

The absolute worst aspect of the campaign map is unsurprisingly the behaviour of the AI. Diplomacy is just as ridiculous as it has always been with nations making completely pointless demands of you and absolutely refusing to accept peace even after being reduced to a single settlement. They will also send small armies into your lands specially to burn down the towns you have spent time and money developing. This is realistic perhaps but it makes for frustrating gameplay since they never give you a moments peace and you’re constantly chasing these pathetic forces around the map. Razing your towns also seems to be a priority of the AI because they will do this even when they could quite simply march into your defenceless region capital and take ownership of the whole lot.

The priorities of the AI as a whole seem frankly bizarre. While playing as Great Britain I was forced to go to war with The Marathas Confederacy early on in the game because they were allied with a nation I needed to make war upon. “No problem”, I thought since after all they were only a small people on the Indian subcontinent and my holdings lay exclusively in Northern Europe and North America.

Imagine my surprise then when Indian fleets arrived in the Caribbean and unloaded massive armies onto my islands there before proceeding to invade my lands in North America as well. The Spanish? Fine. The French? Fine. I could even understand Prussia doing this to an extent. But why would a small Indian nation sail all the way to North America to begin an entirely unnecessary conflict with a powerful empire they would otherwise have had no contact with for decades to come? The AI is simply too aggressive for its own good as has been the case in the Total War series since Rome: Total War and while these games are indeed games, they are also meant to be somewhat historical and having an Indian people invade North America simply they are at war with a nation there is just ludicrous.

Eh... you guys do know that the North American Indians are not culturally related to you right?

The Sea Battles

The new real-time sea battles are one of the major new features and selling points of Empire: Total War. Unfortunately leading fleets upon the high seas isn’t as fun as it sounds or indeed looks.

Looks awesome eh? Well it isn't.

Ships are manoeuvred in the same way that land based troops are the most major difference being the time it takes them to move anywhere. Once enemy vessels are in range you must turn your fleet side on in order to give your cannons a clean shot. There are three kinds of “shot” you can make, round-shot which is your regular cannonball designed to punch holes in hulls, chain-shot designed to destroy sails and grape-shot which is designed to kill crew. You can also board a suitably disabled vessel and take command of the ship.

All of this sounds like it would make for an engaging experience but the result is actually quite boring and after the novelty of the experience wears off I can imagine even the most hardcore tacticians electing to simply auto-resolve naval engagements. The mechanics of sea battles are not realistic enough to please historians of maritime warfare with the promises of wind being a major factor thoroughly broken and the ships behaving like they have a motor. Similarly, the battles are too slow to appeal to anyone just looking for an enjoyable experience. It’s actually quite depressing to begin a large scale naval engagement and contemplate how long it will take even on fast forward to have your forces meet the enemy fleet nevermind win a victory.

Even these doomed chaps are having more fun than I am.

It goes without saying that graphically, engagements at sea are gorgeous. Empire: Total War has without a doubt the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen in a game and watching a ship sink slowly beneath the waves as it’s crew leap overboard for their very lives is truly a visual treat. Even simply stopping to watch the crew go about their work on deck as they prepare cannons and climb masts is satisfying at least for a while. All of this eye candy does not lend the sea battles of Empire: Total War a lasting appeal however.

The Land Battles

A major complaint made about Rome: Total War and Medieval 2: Total War was that the battles were too fast and felt too “arcadey” in comparison to the earlier games. Creative Assembly have taken this onboard and ensured that land conflicts unfold at a far more languid pace. Certainly enough for armchair generals to suck on a cigar and sip on a glass of port as their armies move into position.

One area where the developers have not returned to the Total War glory days however is in the area of terrain and weather. Having the high-ground is still undoubtedly an advantage but everything else has almost no bearing whatsoever on tactical decisions. As far as I can see there is no difference between attempting to employ muskets on a rainy day in England and employing them on the scorched deserts of the Middle East. The battles may play out at a more realistic rate but this is not a return to the tactical intricacy of Medieval: Total War and Shogun: Total War.

Tactically things have changed in Empire thanks to the prevalence of gunpowder weaponry. Winning battles is now more about lining your regiments up to allow the most devastating volley possible rather than continuous flanking although cavalry are still very useful in this regard. I find the manoeuvring of troops to be a pleasing experience, it definitely feels right considering the context of the game. It’s just a shame that your micromanaging is usually to counter some truly stupid action of the AI.

The sight of flags above buildings will soon make you weep.

The ability to hide troops behind cover and garrison buildings make a welcome appearance but it goes without saying that the AI is completely incapable of handling this in a competent manner and battles around settlements quickly devolve into one building raid after another which gets tiresome very quickly. The battle AI as a whole is a complete letdown, something that less gullible veterans of the series saw coming a mile away. Often enemy forces will simply stand still waiting for you to come to them which at least can be perceived as a tactic. What can’t be is the AI sending lone regiments towards your ranks one by one to be haplessly gunned down.

The most atrocious example of the AI in Empire: Total War however, and the reason I’ve rated the game so lowly, comes with the siege battles which are quite frankly almost unplayable. Trying to arrange your troops on battlements is an absolute nightmare just like it was in Medieval 2: Total War and the AI has no clue whatsoever as to how to assault a fortified settlement.

Let me give you a real example from my time playing the game. My Prussian city of Warsaw was attacked by Austria but thankfully defences had been constructed so I reckoned my chances of failing to hold the settlement were slim. After arranging my troops in the only haphazard manner the game would allow I clicked to start the battle at which time the AI moved a single unit forward to assault the ramparts. Somehow this regiment survived the volleys of musket and cannon coming from the walls and reached a corner of the fortification which they then used a rope to climb. The moment the rope was in place the entire Austrian force began to advance with the intent of climbing it. Over a thousand men attempting to breach my defences by climbing one single rope. Needless to say it was an embarrassment of a clusterfuck and my processor nearly chocked with so many soldiers attempting to occupy the same space at the same time. So I had a choice. Either I sit there for about two hours even on fast forward while every single Austrian climbed the rope to be slain immediately at the top or I remember that life is too short and quit thus losing the battle. Pathetic. Utterly pathetic. Needless to say I chose the latter option and saved myself the boredom.

A chorus of riflefire rarely fails to satisfy. Shame about every other aspect of Empire.

Conclusion and Aftermath

According to my X-Fire profile I have played Empire: Total War for a total of fifty-six hours which I think you’ll agree is giving any game “a fair go”. Now I know you’ve read all the rave reviews and think I must be completely wrong about the game so okay then, buy it and find out. I’m not wrong. Empire: Total War was marketed on the strength of its graphics just like the previous two titles and on promises that were simply never kept. It’s eye candy dressed over a confused and broken mess of code. So if you don’t care about anything except the game looking good then Empire: Total War is for you. More than that it has been designed and marketed with you in mind. But if you’re a strategy gamer as I am who’s looking for a cerebral test involving a realistic depiction of 18th century warfare then just forget it because once again Creative Assembly have failed to deliver on their promises spectacularly and have succeeded only in hammering another nail into the coffin of the once mighty Total War franchise.

There have been some absolutely hilarious public relation blunders from Creative Assembly over the past couple of months the most memorable of them being when their Creative Director Mike Simpson began a blog (a decision that proved woefully unwise) and admitted that he was too ashamed to give the game away to his friends at the time of release… oh but you’re not too ashamed to hype the crap out of it and let people pay for it are you? As if that wasn’t laughable enough he later blamed the bad feedback from fans for damaging the Total War franchise his logic being that such feedback will only discourage publishers from investing further in the series. Well Mikey one solution would have been to release a decent product to begin with surely. Or maybe that’s just silly old me.

Empire: Total War was unfinished upon release plain and simple. Of course that was nearly a year ago so you’d think that the game would have been fixed with patches by now but no. In true Creative Assembly fashion the game was abandoned still fundamentally broken after a number of fixes and just as the Total War community was up in arms about not receiving the product they were promised and had paid good money for, what did they do? They announced the next game, Napoleon: Total War. As you might imagine this did not go down well. At all.

Of course unless you follow developments behind the scenes like I do you’d know none of this. All you’d see is mainstream publications and gaming websites praising Empire: Total War and declaring it a classic of the strategy genre. But now my friends, you know the awful truth. Mark my words, unless there is a serious change to how Creative Assembly goes about their business the days of the Total War franchise are numbered. So far it’s surviving purely on the ridiculous hype that surrounds every release and the fact that there is really nothing else like it but belief in Creative Assembly’s ability to release a solid Total War title ever again is almost non-existent amongst the fanbase. Even their most staunch supporters have been forced to sit up and begin questioning what exactly is going on. Some of the more optimistic (read “foolishly gullible”) fans of the series are convinced that Napoleon: Total War will “be the game that Empire should have been” as if that’s any kind of consolation whatsoever to someone who bought a game that will never be what it was meant to be. I myself overlooked the issues with Rome: Total War and forgave the unresolved bugs of Medieval 2: Total War but it will be a cold day in hell before I purchase another game in this particular series. So yeah I bought Empire: Total War and even every single DLC that was made available for it but I’ve learned my lesson and all it will take is a couple more feeble releases and some competition before Creative Assembly learn theirs as well. God willing.

David

Categories: Feature, PC Reviews

7 Responses

  1. Fantastic review. An enjoyable read :)

  2. Alex Witney says:

    I wish I had read this a couple of days ago :S I bought the Total War mega pack off steam, It was only £13 though, I felt it was at least time I experienced the Total War series.

    Great Review.

  3. IronFury says:

    Ah yes, I remember your first impressions video. I’m not all that surprised that you would, at the very least, be less thrilled with the game than you were come your first impressions. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had high expectations.

    Needless to say this was an excellent review and quite enjoyable to read.

  4. Michael says:

    So, a game that you spent -56- hours playing is not worth buying? Seriously? That is -amazingly- poor logic.

  5. How is it? More like a sacrifice if you ask me.

  6. ramtin says:

    i have a feeling about this game which i dont know how to say.hmmm…it’s addictive,but more you play the game more you say,ahh,if they improve this little damn thing the game will be alot better,and it’s annoying.
    the game has MANY MINOR problems!!!!

  7. @Michael: When you consider that a single battle in a Total War game can take near an hour to finish and that you’re often fighting multiple battles per turn for around two hundred turns, fifty-six hours suddenly doesn’t seem like much. I played a couple of campaigns which is the least I should do if I intend to review the thing.

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