The AI is generally improved across the board, with enemies less likely to be sucked out of a strong position by obvious feints, and less oblivious to sudden assaults or outflanking manoeuvres than in previous games. My one big complaint is still pathfinding. In a couple of cases key allied units cheerfully absented themselves from battle by taking such painfully roundabout routes to, say, attack an artillery unit, that they completely missed the action altogether. When you win anyway, this isn’t a disaster, but in situations where every single unit counts, this can be hugely aggravating, not least because the minutes you’ll waste micro-managing these twits would be better spent handling troops who have made it into the fray.
Other complaints? The system requirements are every bit as intimidating as the scale, and with some long loading times, frequent in-battle pauses and some painful waits while the actions of other factions are resolved in the turn-based campaign, Empire is the first game to make me wish for another 2GB of RAM in my slightly dated 2GB, quad-core, GeForce 8800 Ultra system. What’s more, I encountered a few crashes, the worst being a repetitive, fatal disaster during the AI turn of my Prussian campaign (what were you doing, Maratha Confederacy?) that effectively prevented me from going any further. I’m gracefully assuming that these are just the usual problems associated with pre-release software, but I suspect we might see a little patching before too long. While The Creative Assembly is at it, a few more battle scenarios wouldn’t go amiss.
Still, these niggles are counterbalanced by the fact that Empire keeps Total War firmly at the top of the tree in terms of strategy visuals, despite recent efforts from Dawn of War II or World in Conflict. The amount of detail in the land and naval battles is frequently breathtaking, and it’s good to see that more attempt has been made to give individual troops within a unit their own animations, adding to the sense that you’re a real general putting real men at risk. When you’re in the midst of a cavalry charge or advancing towards the smoking musket barrels of the enemy host, Empire is effortlessly cinematic, to the extent that it’s all too easy to take your eye off the tactical ball while you’re busy searching for the best camera angle. The naval battles can be equally impressive, particularly when the cannon balls are flying and masts and planks are blasted into splinters. Pay attention, purveyors of dishwater dull grand strategy games – this is how a modern strategy game should look!
I won’t go on any longer. If you have the time and the energy for a strategy game of this scale, then Empire: Total War takes over from Medieval 2 as the best in the business. If you don’t, then something like Dawn of War II is arguably better for small bursts, but you’re still missing out on a classic. Can the series go onwards and upwards from here, or is this as good as Total War gets? I’m not sure, but given the fact that The Creative Assembly has raised the bar for strategy once again, I wouldn’t bet against it next time around.
A new setting brings new features and new challenges, and an even bigger scale than Medieval 2. Empire is not just the best Total War, but the best epic strategy game, full-stop.