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Empire: Total War

Exclusive: It's time to master and command the world

Napoleon had the perfect quote for this moment. "One must change one's tactics every ten years if one wishes to maintain one's superiority."

This is what he meant. The developers of the Total War games are changing their tactics. Out go suits of armour, big sticks and straightforward conquests of Europe. In come ships. Cannons. Muskets. Steam power. The American Revolution. The race for colonisation. Men in extravagant hats.

Are you excited yet?

One of the greatest names in PC gaming is getting a makeover. An epic, empire-building, sea-faring makeover. So take Napoleon's advice to heart....

Empire is being developed by Creative Assembly in a mechanical-looking office block just inside the Horsham ring road. Presenting it to me are James Russell, lead designer, and Mike Simpson, founder of the company.

Organised and precise, James is working from a list of pre-typed bullet points. Mike is different: a distracted, intellectual, almost Doctor Who-like figure. While James lists the things they're prepared to talk about ("I think it's fair to say we'll be improving the campaign map"), Mike enthuses about the issues that interest him.

Such as game design: "It's easy to design a complicated system. Hard to design an easy system that retains flavour", gusts of wind: "The thing is, gusts don't actually move at the speed of the wind," and programming: "Getting 10,000 guys to collide with each other, and objects, and find their way out of a paper bag - now that's a problem".

Both share a passion: their games, and the periods they're set in. Best of all, for them the two subjects are almost entirely interchangeable. They'll talk about the game and the history in the same breath. Every time they mention a tactic or strategy, they'll reference what happened in the real world, and how it's identical in the game. They don't use special-case scenarios to illustrate how their battles work. They just pick an example from history and say: "Yes, you can do that."

Spend even a few minutes with them, and you feel the same passion.

The Total War games are a delicious mix of grand strategy and battlefield tactics. Empires are planned from birth to death, princesses married off to loyal generals, armies raised, alliances arranged. But when nations clash the focus switches: now you're controlling the troops themselves, commanding cavalry to ride down routing archers, ordering cannons to assault an enemy castle.

There are some fundamental truths to Total War. The first is the holy trinity of pikes, archers and cavalry. Cavalry will cut down archers, no question, but will buckle if charged into pikes. But pikes are slow and vulnerable to archer fire.

In Empire, that's a thing of the past. The new 1700s-to-early-1800s setting, with its muskets and artillery, demands new stratagems. Generals will have to rethink their entire approach.

Total War's second rule is that battles at sea are fought silently. When great navies clash, you're just handed the result. In Empire, that's been fixed. Add maritime warfare to your list of required skills.

Total War's third fundamental is that you're there to paint Europe your nation's colour, invading your neighbours from the outset, developing a giant hammer of an army to crack open the continent.

That, too, is no longer true. Empire is about exploration and conquest, founding colonies and fighting wars away from home. Sure, you can invade your neighbour. But there's wealth to be had in India and the Americas.

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