Frankly, it's almost too big to review. Give me a month off work and 10,000 words to play with, and I might just be able to give you a final and definitive verdict on Empire: Total War. As things are, you'll have to settle for my honest opinion of the game as I've experienced it, and bear in mind that there are huge sections of The Creative Assembly's latest opus that I've had to leave virtually untouched. More and more I feel that the Total War series isn't just a series of games, but a virtual cathedral to epic strategy, each instalment resting on and building from the foundations, walls and towers put in place by the last. Even for those of us familiar with the series, beginning a new one can be an intimidating business. For anyone new, Empire: Total War might feel terrifyingly detailed and complex.
It doesn't have to be though. Beneath all the features and complex game mechanics, Empire remains a mix of turn-based empire building and real-time strategy, these two elements kept separate but affecting each other throughout the game. In the one half, you're developing your cities, raising and moving armies and sending out agents to spy, sabotage or steal technology on your behalf. You also have to maintain diplomatic relations with allies and rivals, steer scientific progress to develop new military, social and technological assets, and ensure that your economy remains headed in the right direction. When conflict rears its ugly head - and inevitably it will - it's time for the other half of the game to take over. This is the 3D real-time strategy that you'll remember from previous Total War games or the BBC programme Time Commanders; a fast-paced, realistic simulation of warfare featuring dozens of units and thousands of men on the field at any one time.
It's a mix designed to satisfy would-be Bismarcks and would-be Napoleons, and the game cleverly allows you to play the way you like best. Handling both portions gives you the full, rich Total War experience, but if you want to let the AI handle the management of the economy and the society, you can. If you want to let battles resolve themselves and concentrate on the political drama, then that's fine too. If you want, you don't even have to spend a second in the central 'Grand Campaign'; you can just set up your own battles or play the pre-defined scenarios, and just enjoy the sounds of booming cannon, musket-fire and clashing steel.