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Previews

Empire: Total War

Preview: Strategy rebuilt

Empire is close. So close we can taste it. It's the first in a new generation of Total War games, with a larger and more complex strategic map that takes in most of the world - and boats.

In your conquest of the 19th century, you'll fight on land, using the muskets and cavalry of the day, or on the ocean; directing fleets in superb ship-to-ship combat. It's such a massive game we simply had to catch up with Kieran Brigden, one of the game's leads, to see what's new to the series.

It's going to be big in the USA
There are five campaigns in Empire. Four of these are held within the "Road to Independence", an historically driven series of episodes.

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In the Road to Independence, you lead the US colonies to overthrow British rule and eventually form the United States, taking in famous flashpoints (the recreation of Bunker Hill is extraordinary). These aren't tutorials. Think of the Road to Independence episodes as mini- campaigns like those from previous Total War expansions.

You'll build colonies and wage war across the entire world
The Grand Campaign takes in a massive area of the globe. You won't simply be marching across Europe. Instead, you'll be pursuing interests far further afield, founding colonies and defending trade routes in North America, the tip of South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Northern Africa and India.

Each area has its own dramatic pratfalls, such as monsoons, violent storms and drought. And don't make plans based around marching an army through what Kieran calls "the frozen mess" of Eastern Europe. "You'll come unstuck just like Napoleon."

Muskets and rifles require new battle tactics
Gunpowder changes everything. Unlike previous Total Wars, in Empire cavalry-charges into soft infantry will be decimated - flattened by musket fire.

Instead, treat horses as gentlemanly taxis to the front line. Dragoons ride them to the heat of battle or their enemy's flanks before dismounting.

They then assemble into infantry ranks, fire, and scarper. The cads. Other cavalry is used to harass or to break lines - forcing infantry into box formations where they'll present less rifles at your troops.

Even better, soldiers use cover. Positioning a line of infantry along a fence or hedge-line, or garrisoning them around and inside a building, pays dividends.

You can change economic and political history
There's a sense of alternate history to the Total War games, and Empire is no exception. You have the chance to deviate from the real world's technological development, along avenues of ideas pioneered, but never progressed upon. Like, say, the Puckle Gun - a precursor of a machinegun that could fire nine rounds a minute. Don't laugh, that's three times the rate of a traditional musket. The Puckle Gun failed to attract investors and its creator, James Puckle, eventually fell into bankruptcy. In our timeline, he'll own India.

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You'll fight on beaches, fields, towns and jungles
Creative Assembly's battle engine is much improved. The big change is how battlefields are generated from the terrain in the world map. They've ditched the standard squares and moved to a 'per-pixel' model.

That means the countryside you fight in better reflects the area on the campaign map where it's taking place. When fighting in the farmland around Boston, we used the natural woods as an ambush point, trapping the enemy in a horseshoe of death.

Diplomacy is meaningful
Alliances and trade agreements can be negotiated at the end of a gun: in the Diplomacy section, you'll discover that if you wish, you can choose to 'negotiate with threat'. "Just don't expect leaders to respond if you're not a strong military power," says Kieran. "And, if they refuse to bow to your wishes, be ready to carry through with your threats."

But you'll need to be aware of the consequences of waging war - the period was characterised by a series of extended and shifting alliances. Kicking off against one government could see you igniting a world war.

It's smarter and faster and streamlined to extremes
The interface has seen a massive verhaul. "Our senior designers sat down with players and actually counted the clicks they'd make," says Kieran. "We then worked out how to cut that number down, without reducing the complexity." Rather than selecting town improvements from a menu, you can upgrade buildings in situ. Agents (the spies, diplomats and merchants from previous games) have been coalesced into two types: gentlemen or rakes, who between them have more abilities than ever. Gentlemen can even challenge generals to duels.

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