Bigger than the already colossal Medieval 2? Amazingly, yes. Not only does the introduction of the two new theatres add extra weight to the game, but there’s a new focus on seafaring activity. This means sea trade and piracy, plus the ability to exploit new trade theatres (and prevent other nations from doing so). However, it also leads us to the game’s big headline feature, Empire being the first Total War with naval combat.
Expert opinion is currently divided on how successful this new expansion is, and naval combat certainly seems a little haphazard and messy in comparison to Empire’s land-based battles. All the same, there’s still plenty of scope for strategy and detailed control here, particularly once you get into the intricacies of turning the ship, switching ammunition types and firing broadside cannonades. More importantly, the naval action is heavy on atmosphere, capturing the same kind of nervous tension and noisy release that you might remember from Hornblower or Master and Commander. The lack of scenery can make naval encounters somewhat samey – I’ve yet to see one take place with land in sight – but they’re an entertaining addition to the Total War formula, and one that The Creative Assembly will doubtless improve upon in the future.
Otherwise, we get a host of tweaks and enhancements, ranging from a new relationship between agents and buildings (now certain buildings effectively spawn certain types of agent) to the new ability of some agents (say, the rake) to dispose of enemy agents (say, the all-new Gentleman, who doubles as scholar and duellist). Diplomacy is now a more complex business, as befits the period, and technological progress has a far greater impact on the buildings you can construct and the units you can manufacture. More plates to spin, in other words.
Needless to say, the change of period also has a huge impact on the action on the battlefield. Infantry formations and cavalry charges still have a vital part to play, and siege warfare remains a key part of the overall picture, but the new dominance of the musket and artillery on the battlefield soon affects the whole way you play the game, making you much more careful about how you attack heavily defended positions, and making you think seriously about the way you deploy and control your musket-wielding units. Again, this kind of thing will be familiar from Sharpe on the telly, and it’s interesting to note how new advances in the turn-based Grand Campaign affect your troop’s efficiency in combat. If you thought you’d mastered the tactical aspects of Total War, prepare to think again.