I'm rather tired this morning, as I was up until OhmyIshouldreallybeinbedbynow o'clock, finishing off my colossal Empire Total War review for Videogamer. At 2025 words, it's the longest thing I've written in a while, but I think the end result is worth the lack of sleep. I probably could have written another couple of thousand words on the game, but my insomnia does have some limits...
I originally didn't actually have such high expectations of Empire, since I think after playing Medieval II I was suffering from a bit of Total War-weariness, if you will. I didn't enjoy Medieval II quite so much as I liked Rome, and I was a bit unsure of how the game would play, transported to the 18th Century. I also wasn't that enamoured with the idea of the naval combat, either, but having now put an obscenely large amount of time into the game over the last few days, Empire is the best Total War to date. As I point out in the review, it's not without flaws or glitches, but on the whole, the changes to the Total War formula made by Creative Assembly for Empire have paid off and give the game a fresh feel a series this old really has no right to have.
The Naval combat, which I thought would be the weakest link, is arguably the least compelling section of the game (the water effects are great and all, but how interesting can you make seas look? Oooh, this water is a slightly different colour to the last map! Wooo!), but is interesting enough (and different enough) from the land battles to warrant persisting with and mastering. The switch to the 18th Century and its more adaptable units and more advanced tactics also reinvigorates land battles that would have felt stale had they clung to their horse vs. sword vs. bow roots. The changes to the strategic management however, are the ones I like most - particularly the decentralisation of resource buildings from a region stronghold to outlying settlements throughout the region. This greatly increases your ability to inflict economic damage on your enemy and also provoke unrest, should you lay waste to the local cathedral or bawdyhouse. It's a great way of annoying enemy powers, even if you don't have the manpower to win a stand-up fight.
This is only my personal preference, but I enjoy the turn-based strategy aspect a lot more than the tactical combat (nice though it is). I've always been more of a person inclined to implement a grand design rather than get my hands dirty. In fact, I've found that it's only ever really worth fighting the real time battles yourself at all if the forces are evenly balanced or you're at a slight disadvantage and want to try and have a go at outwitting the AI. Otherwise, if the balance of power is 2:1 or better in your favour, you're better off leaving it to the autoresolve, as you'll end up losing fewer troops. Okay, so maybe it's not quite so much fun that way, but if you're playing by the percentages and planning ahead for the long-term game, autoresolve is clearly the way to go (and is also a boon if you're not particularly adept with real-world military tactics).
But I think the thing that's most encouraging about Empire is that it's unrepentantly a hardcore PC game. It's a huge, complicated, time-eating monster of a game, and the fact it's now sitting prettily at the top of the all-format games chart should be hugely reassuring for the future of PC gaming. It shows that PC games don't have to dumb down to be successful for the developer and rewarding for the player. So congratulations to Creative Assembly, and lets hope that they keep making games as good as this in the future.