I had my doubts about Empire’s 18th Century setting, but I really needn’t have worried. This is an exciting period of European colonial expansion and internal conflict, taking in events that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Neal Stephenson’s excellent (if equally intimidating) Baroque Cycle, and leading up to the Napoleonic wars and the wars of German and Italian unification that will dominate the century to follow. If your nearest reference point is Sharpe, don’t worry. The weaponry and tactics work along similar lines, and you’ll still have a pretty good idea of who is siding with whom. The important thing is that it’s a vivid period with a lot going on, and that – as a result – there’s an awful lot of meat in Empire to chew on.
Playing as glorious Blighty, for example, you really have your hands full. Not only must you guard against attack from the forces of France and Spain, but the action now stretches across three distinct theatres, taking in not just Europe, but the American colonies (full of treacherous rebels who don’t like tea, or something) and the Indian subcontinent (where two rival Empires need sorting out, in good old-fashioned Imperialist style). That’s an awful lot of plates to keep spinning, and it’ll take a superb grasp of economic and military strategy and detail if you want to even have a hope of winning through.
Too much to contend with? Try the Prussian campaign. The Kaiser and his chums have control of two regions, inconveniently divided by a large chunk of Poland. Wouldn’t it be better if you could just join the whole lot up, and maybe annexe the rest of Germany while you’re at it? Isn’t it time you showed the Austrians who’s boss? When you bear in mind that these are only two of the twelve playable factions, each with their own objectives, it’s pretty obvious that this is a really extensive game.
I think The Creative Assembly realised that the scope and scale of the Grand Campaign made it a little daunting for newcomers, so the game also features a more accessible campaign reminiscent of those introduced by the Medieval 2: Kingdoms expansion, following the growth of the US colonies towards settlement and independence. This starts off simple with the basics of the game and drip-feeds new concepts and game mechanics in as it goes on, taking you from your first towns through to your first conquests, diplomatic alliances, agents and onwards. For many games this would be THE main single-player campaign, so when I tell you that it’s best seen as a gentle introduction to Empire: Total War, you get some idea of how huge the main game is.