Preconception is probably the greatest enemy a game designer has to defeat. When a game series becomes a 'franchise' and has reached its third or fourth iteration, people's expectations and preconceptions are always going to edge towards the principle of diminishing returns. So when Empire Total War was announced, I was gripped by the ambivalence of both hope and cynicism. Hope that somehow Empire could live up to the hype, yet cynicism that Total War was now beyond its peak and descending into the grassy paddock to join other cash cow franchises. As we all know, when it comes to psychology mathematics, cynicism trumps hope every time. So my expectations for Empire, along with its much-vaunted naval combat, were not actually that great. Initial impressions were likewise "so far, so familiar", but I was reassured that once I had actually got stuck into a campaign, Empire is not content to rest on the laurels of its illustrious predecessors and is instead intent on treading new ground for the series.
The basic structure of the game remains as before, with the metronomic, gently-paced heart of the game on the strategic campaign map being pierced by the sharp stabs of frantic (and often spectacular) action as tactical battles are played out on land or sea in real-time. Small but significant changes have been made in every aspect of the game, so while Total War veterans may initially get a feeling of deja vu, the alterations do make themselves more obvious in the long term. The most striking difference is obviously the revamped graphics engine. Empire is without doubt the best looking Total War game yet, with an impressive amount of detail on the wonderfully animated campaign map. Given that here is where you're most likely to spend the majority of your time during a campaign, it was wise of Creative Assembly to put as much time into polishing this part of the game as they did. Units and cities are exquisitely detailed, with wisps of smoke rising from industrial chimneys and the reflections of ships shimmering in the water as fleets glide along coastlines. The game interface has also been refined, allowing easy access to the government, research and diplomacy screens, along with the very handy lists menu, that enables you to hunt down armies or agents with spare movement points with the absolute minimum of fuss. At the tactical level, there are also numerous improvements to the 3D engine, meaning that units are better animated and more detailed than ever before. This all has a cost, however: namely some slothful loading times and a fairly colossal install around the 15GB mark.
That hard drive footprint should give you an idea of just how big the game is. Empire is boldly epic in scale, reflecting the broadening of horizons as the expansionist powers of the 18th Century - such as Great Britain, France and Spain - travelled beyond Europe to colonise the new world. There are three theatres of war, Europe (including parts of North Africa and the Middle East), North America (including Mexico and parts of Central America) and the Indian sub-continent. With over 100 regions and over two dozen nation states (twelve of which are playable), there is not only a huge amount of diversity in military units, but also in the terrain to be fought over, taking in deserts, forests and everything in between.
All new for Empire is naval combat. This has a very different character from the land-based battles, as unit speed and effectiveness are no longer based on tiredness and morale, but damage levels to the hull and sails. Unit morale is still a factor in naval battles, however, as ships may surrender if too many casualties are taken, or may try to flee the action if they catch fire. Theoretically, fleet engagements are relatively simple affairs. Ships may fire three different types of cannon shot: the classic, large round shot used to damage the hulls of ships; chain shot, which can shred sails to reduce a ship's mobility; and grapeshot, which is best employed at close range to kill enemy crewmen in preparation for boarding and capture. Specialised ships, such as carronade frigates and bomb ketches that carry mortars or other indirect fire weapons, may also be researched and built, adding a further tactical dimension, but on the whole, the key to victory in naval combat is making best use of the prevailing wind and using the correct type of cannon shot as the opportunity presents itself. For example, rather than using a simple exchange of broadsides with round shot until one of the ships sinks, employing chain or grapeshot at an enemy's bow or stern can cripple a ship's ability to manoeuvre, without risking a counter-strike.
Naval battles are perhaps not quite as thrilling as those on land, mainly because the terrain is not as varied or interesting, but it certainly has its moments. The first time you see the gunpowder stores catch fire on a bomb ketch, causing the vessel to disintegrate in a huge fireball igniting any ships unfortunate enough to be nearby, will probably make you leap out of your seat. The naval combat is not without problems, however, as despite the intricate detail of the units, which goes right down to the uniforms on the marines scurrying around the decks, unless you assign units to groups and formations properly, you will end up having to intensively micromanage the battle in order to prevent your units ending up in a scruffy melee, unable to manoeuvre. There is also a fairly comical issue with some of the animation. For example, when a crew abandons ship, the seamen and marines can be seen treading water in perfect unison, like an Olympic synchronised swimming team. So while the naval battles are a welcome change of pace from the strategic map and the land-based battles, they're not exactly an unqualified success.