Empire: Total War
Imperialism – it’s a horrible thing, really. Extreme patriotism, militarism, dehumanisation of opponents, slavery and the willingness to spill blood for one’s own devious ends combine into a terrible whirlwind of aggression, directed squarely at fellow beings. The motivation is land. Land is everything, but what’s wrong with sharing? Unfortunately, people are in general self-serving bastards, and it’s with this mindset that Empire: Total War must be approached. Cast aside all preconceptions about the evils of expansionism and embrace it without demur, because, guess what, the clue’s in the title.
To hold any reservations about mercilessly annexing neighbours would bring morality into play, but to succeed in Empire: Total War, any qualms of the sort must be overlooked. Become an abolitionist state and see a fall in production; fail to ruthlessly wipe out an area’s populace and suffer down the line; be even handed in exchanges with the AI and become subject to pushover status. There’s no place for ethics on the course for world domination, and fervently throwing oneself into the concept of empire building is quite scary. Not because it is daunting, understand, but because it’s so incredibly compelling – and should the player ruminate on their positive reaction to the brutality of it all, the inherent atavistic inclinations of even those who would like to consider themselves of a high-minded, discerning and purportedly caring nature is revealed.
Enough for self reflection – it’s doubtful even that many care – but this must first be established before any objective evaluation of Empire: Total War’s considerable merits is to be carried out. In short, armchair generals will be pleased to know that no other videogame quite satiates their twin urges of slow burning diplomacy and large-scale strategic warmongering as well as this one does. The series’ long standing and rigid divide between base building and combat is both a curse and a blessing, however. Although it means no single gameplay sequence takes too long to see to its conclusion and draws a line between the two distinct systems, there is at times a bizarre disconnect between the overworld number-crunching and down and dirty skirmishing. Surely in the days of steroid-guzzling video cards purportedly powerful enough birth ten galaxies a minute and still not overheat (but not quite run Crysis) we can afford a mite more consistency. Why can’t we watch as our thousands of troops cross the border into new territory? Some might say practicality, but it would certainly create a more cohesive and coherent play experience. After all, it’s difficult to visualise just how large an army of two-thousand men is – beyond “bloody huge” – until they’re standing ready to fight.
A game about conquering the planet needs to have a sense of grandeur, and this is achieved with a cool confidence in the form of scale. It’s profoundly breathtaking. Watching literally hundreds of individuals charge their enemy in unison is in some ways a beautiful thing, and the ability to zoom down to a personal level is outright astounding. The men on screen scratch their noses, fiddle with their equipment (no, Mike) and express some basic emotions. Rather than just being looked upon as disposable peons as in other games of the ilk, each troop seems like, well, an actual human. The little personal touches help create a realistic foundation for every single one of the countless people on screen at once, and more complex questions can be raised. Does he have a mother, wife or child anxiously awaiting his return? If not totally halting the player, it can make one pause and think of the net result of the course of action to be taken – no longer should we heedlessly sacrifice a body of men quite as inconsiderately as before. Time can be slowed or paused at any time during a clash, which is not only useful for tactical ends, but allows the player to take in their surroundings. The full camera control granted truly is something to marvel at when married with the sheer level of detail The Creative Assembly has imbued each stage of the game with.
Diplomacy, though somewhat streamlined, is essentially as complex as ever, though thankfully not quite to the degree that it’s impenetrable to new players. Some may find the option to have the computer deal with parts of the more finicky micromanagement useful, and it doubtless eases the strain at times. Players that enjoy commanding every aspect of their chosen nation can do so, but for those of us that would rather have near immediate access to the action it is a great means of doing so while skipping over the more plodding and exhaustive elements of the experience.
Aside from the lavish detail, expanded overworld feature set and other generous tweaks, Empire: Total War’s biggest draw is the newly introduced naval combat. Fleets of ships are overseen much like the land-based armies, and the order of the day is clicking, clicking and more clicking. Given the larger scale, there are fewer units, and on a whole the strategy feels quite stripped down and direct compared to the non-seafaring encounters. That’s neither particularly praiseworthy nor an issue, and thankfully it can come as quite a relief from the occasionally stressful battlefield. The sea, however, lacks the context terrain provides to ensure each fight is unique, and familiarity sets in far too soon. Charge the other fleet, pick the shot type, board. Although the spectacle of watching a ship get smashed to bits in several different ways is a novelty at first, by the ten hour mark it’s laborious to go through the motions yet again. Worse, it becomes difficult to resist the substantial pull of the quick resolve button and neglect these encounters altogether.
The full package is completed by a stunning layer of technical prowess. The Creative Assembly show an exceptional mastery of their tools, especially in the visual department, with large scale, small scale and every scale in between presented beautifully. Its soundtrack, too, is fitting and rousing, spurring the player on even against seemingly insurmountable odds. An area of weakness comes in the shape of occasionally ropey AI on both sides of each battle. Enemy armies can lack the tactical considerations a user might make, whilst player units have a tendency to ignore orders. On top of this, contextual movement can be unclear; is the cannon unable to move for some reason or simply defying what it has been told to do? Either way, frustration is never far off.
Despite the somewhat disappointing oceanic escapades and occasionally overloaded meta-political wrangling, Empire: Total War charges on to victory and plants a tattered flag firmly both in the heart and mind. Its technical depth is unparalleled, and it challenges the player in ways other games simply cannot. It’s difficult not to begin wondering if it’s more than just a strategy title and in fact an allegory for the brutally impersonal nature of war itself, though perhaps this is over thinking the game’s nature. Regardless of any latent, potentially ethically inquiring core, however, this is a strategy title that triumphantly captures the essence of oppressive and authoritarian leadership in conflict, in the process achieving – on the surface and indeed for most players – exactly what it sets out to do.