Category: Real Time Strategy
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Mac Port by: Feral Interactive
System Requirements: 2.0 GHz processor, OS X 10.7.4, 4 GB of RAM, 15 GB of disk space, 256 MB video processor (not supported: ATI X1xxx series, NVIDIA 7xxx series and Intel GMA series)
Review Computer: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMac
Availability: Out now
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Empire: Total War. Real-time strategy games tend to cheese me off because the computer has a distinct advantage in games that require you to zoom all over a map, commanding multiple units and dealing with the chaos of a battle. No, I much prefer turn-based games like Civilization, or the even less realistic shooters where one man armed with fifteen guns and thousands of rounds of ammo takes down an army all by himself. But what I was pleasantly surprised to find is that ETW uses simple, intelligent controls and an easy-to-understand interface to make managing a large army a snap while still keeping that hectic, real-time feel.
The game is set around 1705 as America is settled by Europeans who start to carve out large swaths of land for their colonies. Cannons are powerful but inaccurate, cavalry swoops down on exposed flanks, riflemen can take minutes to reload, and warships are at the mercy of the wind to close on their enemies and fire broadsides.
Two quick tutorials will introduce you to the basics of combat. At the bottom of your HUD is a display of all the units in your army, as well as their strength. Click on the image to select it, or double-click to select the unit and fly to its location on the map. Control or shift+click to select multiple units and they’ll all obey the same command: attack, move, guard. On the right hand side is a list of the specific commands you can give a unit, along with special attacks like a cavalry charge or an artillery bombardment, but for the most part you can command your units with a smart right click; right-click on an enemy unit and you’ll attack. Right-click on an empty space and your unit will move there. Right-click on a special building in a town, and your troops will occupy it.
Troops that get weakened enough will eventual break and run from a battle, though once they reach safety they have an opportunity to regroup. Keep wounding them and eventually they’ll flee the map. But even if they do, that doesn’t take them out of the game. The meat of the game is in the story mode, where your army travels on an “over-map,” sieging enemy towns and encountering enemy armies. Armies that flee the battle but are not destroyed return to the over-map, and can flee to safer territory or attempt to flank the enemy, reinforcing friendly troops in another battle.
The other half of combat in the game is set on the high seas, which uses the same interface in a different way. Whereas troops will march to wherever you send them, ships have contend with the wind to get them where they’re going. They also have a different style of combat; ships will fire automatically in a wide cone (marked in red, on the sea when you select a vessel) whenever an enemy comes into range, or for a more focused attack you can choose a broadside. Broadsides do more damage, but in a tighter zone and the player must choose the moment to fire. Damage an enemy ship enough and you can board her for capture, adding the ship to your fleet.
While the game is focused mainly on grand army-vs.-army battles, there is an element of resource management sandwiched between them; while fielding the largest army will obviously give you an advantage, you’ll need to recruit reinforcements from your territories as well as come up with the taxes to pay for them. That means building farms and mines to trade your goods, or raising taxes on either the nobles or the middle class, neither of which will be happy with that situation for very long. To build better troops you’ll have to construct better government buildings. To build a navy you’ll have to put a dockyards in your port, but if you do that you can’t use it to generate income from fishing.
Empire: Total War takes the elements of real-time strategy that make it challenging—managing lots of units, adjusting your tactics as the battle shifts moment to moment—and takes out or mitigates the annoying parts: losing track of units, issuing commands to multiple units all at once. It’s challenging without being frustrating, deep without being nitpicky.