Empire: Total War
People Have Been whining about Empire: Total War's AI, in particular its inability to launch naval invasions. Put a good 10 hours into Creative Assembly's bar-height-maintaining RTS and you might just notice that your island nation is invulnerable to attack. I never noticed this, mind you, because I'm rubbish at Empire. I was rubbish at Rome, and at Medieval, and now in the spirit of unshakable tradition I am great big hairy balls at Empire.
It's the same old problem. I know perfectly well that the guys who can shoot the farthest should go at the back, and running around the side of the enemy is called "flanking" and that it's good, know about square formations, having read the incredible World War Z (sure they were fighting zombies and not people on horseback, but the principle is the same - if not more pronounced - when facing millions of relentless, unfaltering corpses). But it comes to naught when I sit in front of a keyboard and mouse.
Who's fault is that? Most people would say, "you, Steve," but I'm inclined to disagree. Creative Assembly have been running with the same RTS formula for a long time now, and for years I've tried to get into Total War games without success. Everybody I know who's enjoying the game found their entry point some years back. I've yet to meet somebody who, coming from a non-RTS background, has picked up Empire: Total War and found it anything but hideously inaccessible.
But would I rather they drag Empire down to a point where the masses "get it"? Not at all. I love that there are still games around that confound me. I can only hope to ever love this game enough to even recognise that there are problems with it, but until then I'll simply enjoy being treated rough.
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It May Have taken eight years, but it looks like the wait may have been worth it. Just shy of its 10th anniversary, the Total War series has finally added naval battles to its real time combat arsenal, an inclusion that, if executed with Creative Assembly's usual aplomb and eye for detail, could finally stop the mewling of tens of thousands of fans hankering for a galleon gangbang. Including this one.
This isn't a responsibility that CA has taken lightly. Acutely aware of the importance of nailing sea warfare, the team has resisted the temptation to inject past games with substandard naval battles, preferring to take its timeoi in order to create sea skirmishes that are every bit as breathtaking as the series' land-based warfare.
If you want proof, just take a look at that sea. Go ahead. Looks realistic enough to take a piss in, doesn't it? That's because one member of the team spent an entire year working on it. A year! Just on the sea! And as for the naval combat...
It's a calm summer afternoon. Waves lap gently against a fleet of ships as it races towards an approaching armada. Wooden masts creak at the behest of straining sails as the two fleets close in on each other. A mighty 120-gun behemoth leads the charge, its deck abuzz as scores of men prepare for war, while below deck, cannon crews shift nervously, awaiting the onslaught. (I'm a Horatio Hornblower fan, can you tell?)
The enemy ships are now in range and suddenly the serene sea is transformed into a watery warzone. Cannons light up. A barrage cripples an enemy vessel, devastating its main sail, leaving it to the mercy of the sea. As the burning sail plummets it ignites the deck and in moments the vessel is ablaze, spreading flames forcing countless men overboard. The remnants of the crew battle to contain the fire, but their struggle proves futile as the blaze finds an ammunition stockpile, the ensuing explosion severing the galleon in two. But no, this isn't a naval drama starring loan Gryfydd and Robert Lindsay that was never quite as popular as Sharpe -all this is happening in-game.
Based on a similar control system used for the series' land battles, Empire's naval combat will feature around 20 ships per side, (the exact amount is yet to be confirmed due to ongoing balancing) a number that CA believes will be the optimum amount to ensure peak playability while still providing a grand sense of scale.
"Ships are more complicated than land units," explains lead designer James Russell. "There's more you can do with them. Ships have hulls, crews, different kinds of shot, sails and masts. You need to pay attention to wind direction and they're constantly moving and firing from all sorts of angles and directions. We're looking to get the best spectacle while keeping things manageable for the player."
As well as long-range cannon battles you'll also be able to engage in close-quarters combat during these sea-based encounters, by boarding. By navigating your ship parallel to an enemy vessel, your onboard contingent of soldiers will be able to snare an opposition boat with grappling hooks and pull it close enough to board. Should your troops win the ensuing battle, the ship will come under your control and if it contains technology that your faction has yet to research, you'll gain access to it on the revamped campaign map.
Capturing enemy vessels will be made easier by strategically targeting a ship's masts to cripple it. With every cannon ball and musket shot calculated as a physical property (rather than a mathematical damage calculation as was the case in previous Total War games), every shot will be subject to real-life physics and trajectories, promising an even more authentic combat experience on sea and land.
Spanning the entire 18th century, Empire's gaming world will be larger than ever before, stretching from India to America and focussing heavily on exploration, conguest and colony building, with naval combat and trade routes playing a big role in proceedings.
"It was a time when trade on a global scale was becoming very important for big imperial countries, meaning that good trade routes were essential," explains Russell. A major new tactic in your empire building arsenal will be to disrupt enemy trade routes by attacking their ships. Trade ships will also be at risk from pirate attacks if they lack the adequate military protection to ensure safe passage from far off lands.
While CA has yet to decide on an exact number, it's likely that Empire will feature between 20 and 40 ship types, ranging from sloops (small, single mast ships) to hulking 120 gun admiral ships. Towards the campaign's latter stages, you'll be able to research some deadly vessels including rocket ships; water-based artillery launchers that fling fireworks onto the decks of far-off enemies to set fire to them. Research diligently enough and you'll even be able to construct a steam-powered ship (a rare case of CA employing creative license to include a ship type not of the time period). Free from the restrictions imposed by sails, these battleships will possess a huge advantage by being able to turn on the spot, enabling them to bring their guns in line with enemies far more quickly than conventional vessels.
While CA may have spent vast amounts of time working on naval combat (and ultra-realistic sea, don't forget the sea), it clearly hasn't been neglecting Empire's land-based battles. Subject to the same graphical makeover that's making the sea battles so visually spectacular, the team has put a great deal of effort into improving the variety of units seen in Medieval II.
"We wanted to try and create a sense of differentiation between the armies so that they don't look like groups of clones," explains CA's communications manager, Kieran Brigden. "We've added different breeds of horses and more facial and uniform differences. We've also tried to add more variety to the vegetation."
The result is a far more eclectic mix of units, each imbued with the ability to identify an opponent on the battlefield and engage him in brutal motion-captured mortal combat.
With Empire set during the technologically rich 18th century, it'll come as no surprise that firearms play a far greater role in battles than in any previous Total War game. Troops will be Jable to learn special drills from generals, including barrages that will see well-marshalled regiments letting off salvos a line at a time then dropping to their knees to let the line behind them have a crack, before advancing on the enemy and engaging them with bayonets and blades.
Garrisoning is another new feature. While I didn't get to see it in action, CA feel confident that they can seamlessly incorporate this tactic into land battles, which will once again feature up to 10,000 combatants slugging it out on 3D real-time battlefields. Placing your men inside buildings will give them a huge defensive advantage against advancing foes. However, this won't be without its risks, as your men will be far more likely to come under artillery fire as the enemy attempts to flush them out into the open. Garrisoning will be particularly effective when defending a city from an enemy attack (city defences will constitute the majority of the game's siege battles). By ensconcing your men within buildings, hostile armies will be forced to take your town building by building and street by street running the risk of suffering major losses against your well-protected and elevated units.
Weather With You
Empire's weather system has also received some loving attention, and will play a far more influential and dynamic role in determining the outcomes of land and sea battles.
Troops battling in downpours will have to contend with quagmires created by a combination of increasingly saturated soil and schlepping booted feet. As the rain continues, the ground will slowly degenerate from firm soil to sticky mud, slowing troop movement and ensnaring horse-drawn artillery in an inescapable bog. The dangers of hostile weather conditions will be even greater at sea where bucking waves and swirling winds will make navigating your fleet during combat infinitely harder.
With its revamped visuals and spectacular looking naval battles, Empire is shaping up to be the most ambitious real time strategy game of all time. But with the era's propensity for ranged combat, CA faces a whole new host of challenges as it seeks to maintain Total War's dominance over the RTS genre.
Get ready for some seriously smart AI
After the criticisms levelled at some of Medieval ITs overly predictable AI, Creative Assembly are determined to exponentially raise the intelligence of Empire's computer-controlled generals and units. In previous Total War games, each faction followed a tactical template. However, Empire will feature an AI template for each battle type and goal-based planning for armies, which will hopefully ensure that enemy AIs will employ unique tactics based far more on what's happening around them rather than on preset variables. If CA can puli this off, it could be immensely brilliant.
Bigger, better, more productive
Empire's campaign map to be larger but more streamlined
While CA is presently holding off the full unveil of Empire's revamped turn-based campaign map, the developer did reveal some other details.
Diplomacy has received a makeover, with negotiations now taking place on a diplomacy screen, meaning no more traipsing around with a diplomat. Allied nations will no longer break allegiances without warning and will give out subtle clues before attacking, such as hijacking a trade route.
Religion's influence has been reduced, but social classes (the rich and the poor) will have greater sway over your decisions. Thanks to a universal taxation system, you'll be spared micromanaging taxation, while the amount you tax each class and your decisions will determine whether each group supports you or rises up against you. If one class becomes too disillusioned they'll start a revolution, which you'll be able to support or attempt to quell. Though if the latter fails, you may find your head being used as a urinal by stray dogs outside your capital's gates.