There comes a point when you just have to sit back and admire the sheer ambition of Empire: Total War. The Total War series has never exactly been humble in its objectives, but it is remarkable to see how far the series has come since the original installment, Shogun, was released in 2000. Put simply, Empire makes Shogun look like a quaint little board game. A lot of games claim to be 'big' - which usually means they're loud, sparkly and have a huge marketing budget - but very few games can match the scope of Empire. Three continents, 11 playable factions, naval battles and multiplayer could all conceivably keep you occupied for a year, and you still wouldn't see everything. We put ten hours into the tutorial campaign before deciding we'd better get stuck into the main game. When was the last time you played (and enjoyed) a ten hour tutorial? Crazy.
The Total War games have always been intimidating on first contact and Empire is no exception. Dropping into a Grand Campaign, with all its military cogs and political gears grinding away at full speed, can provoke a kind of mental log jam. Where to go? What to do? Why does everyone hate me? Thankfully, getting a toe hold on Empire is made much easier by starting out with the Road to Independence, the previously mentioned tutorial campaign. It's divided into four chapters, with each chapter introducing new game mechanics and concepts, aided by in-game narration from an advisor. It's practically a game in its own right, with some nicely animated cut scenes and exciting, set-piece battles. However, the scripted nature of it will eventually start to feel restrictive, which is a good indication that it's time for the big league.
The Grand Campaign takes place over a hundred years (two hundred turns), or you can opt for the 'short' version which runs for 50 years. Each playable faction has to capture and hold a set number of regions to win the game. The overall management of your empire is made on a turn-based map, while individual battles play out in real time on a variety of terrain types. Having a deeply personal context for the real time battles has always been the at the heart of Total War, and Empire is no exception. When you've spend hours tuning an economy to support an army which is led by a five star general who you've hand-reared over 20 turns, there's no such thing as a quick skirmish. Everything counts.
Even though the turn-based part of the game takes place on a wider stage than ever before, Creative Assembly have done a terrific job of streamlining the interface and making vital information accessible and easy to digest. Empire is much less spreadsheety than other Total War games, and feels somehow lighter. Like any good strategy game, you'll constantly need to make enjoyably difficult decisions and we never felt that extracting the necessary information was hard work. Everything you need is summarised and hovering right near the surface. Your two main concerns will be keeping your treasury in the black, so that you can afford a formidable army, and keeping your population happy, so that they don't burn everything to the ground as soon as your back is turned. Money mostly comes from developing and harvesting resources that are dotted around your nation's regions, though international trade soon becomes equally as profitable. Happiness is tied into tax rates, religion, security and how much entertainment is available to distract your population from their otherwise miserable existence.
Having resources scattered across the map, rather than being condensed into one major city as in previous Total War games, now means it's possible to mess with an enemy's economy without getting involved in a full scale assault. Hit-and-run guerrilla warfare is a real option, as you scamper over the border, set fire to a cotton plantation and then head for the hills. It's possible, with luck and a real knack for being an irritating swine, to nibble away at an enemy's income stream to such an extent that their army starts to wilt and vulnerabilities start to emerge. Just don't complain when they do the same to you.
There's a new tech tree to explore as well, and it works much as you'd expect. Researching one thing opens up new avenues for further research, and it's a good idea to keep things bubbling along so you don't become the last one to discover that sticking knives on the ends of rifles can be quite handy. The tech tree quite neatly functions to keep the player focused as it essentially creates an ongoing series of mini-objectives - if you want that, build this. Having these clear, short-term objectives makes it a little easier to avoid wafting aimlessly around inside the sprawling freedom of Empire.
Sooner or later, of course, someone is going to pitch up on your doorstep and start pointing boomsticks at you. You can choose to auto-resolve the conflict - not recommended unless the odds are overwhelmingly in your favour - or slip on a new pair of war-mittens and head to the tactical battlefield. While the tactical part of the Total War games has always been the big selling point, it's also been the most problematic in many ways. It works better than ever in Empire but still, maddeningly, bundles a few too many irritations in with the spectacle. Unit control is still, after all these years, rather unwieldy. A new unit control panel lets you control the facing and movement of your units but it's still almost always preferable to perform the 'right click and draw a line' method to get your units exactly where you want them. The pathfinding AI is simply not up to the job, particularly when dealing with sieges. There are few things more annoying than ordering a unit to move from from an enemy wall to the courtyard below and, rather than taking the convenient ramp right next to them, seeing them climb back down the outside wall and take the most lethal route possible past massed ranks of enemy musketeers.
The enemy AI also has issues. It often leaves artillery completely undefended, and is seems to have trouble responding to threats on the flanks. We were able to consistently move units up to within firing distance of the enemy and have them simply stand there, taking potshots with no response whatsoever. It's a shame to see the tremendous atmosphere of the game simply evaporate in the face of an often brain-dead AI. And yet, in spite of this, the tactical battles can be gripping, tooth-and-nail affairs backed up with some of the best visuals around. The various units are remarkably detailed, and tracking a charge into enemy ranks, as your men leap over fences or fall victim to a ricocheting cannon ball, can be utterly mesmerising.
The new naval battles are, if anything, even prettier than the land battles. The detail on the various ships is astonishing and there's something about the stately, deadly grandeur of a sea battle that's hypnotic. Unit control is similar enough to that used in the land battles that you don't have to learn a whole new system, but with enough differences to present its own challenges. Which is, we'll be honest, a way of saying that we weren't very good at them but had fun anyway. We were never quite sure what we should have been doing, and just making a beeline for the enemy and opening up with all guns never quite worked out as intended. With land battles, the idea of lining up a whole lot of men and having them shoot all at once is quite easy to get your head around. With ships, however, it all seems a little bit more... elusive. In the short term, auto-resolving naval conflicts is a handy solution, and we have a sneaking suspicion that naval warfare could prove to be one of the more intriguing aspects of the game.
We found the game to be mostly stable, suffering only one crash to the desktop and an odd instance of a tactical battle running in slow-motion. Having two full-strength armies in the field at once with all graphical options cranked up to high will slap anything but the most cutting edge PC into submission. We ultimately ended up running the game without a hitch on medium settings, on a Quad core PC with 2GB of Ram and an 8800GT video card, and it still looked sensational.
Empire: Total War is easily the best game in the series and it's difficult to think of anything that can match it, at least outside of the MMO genre, for the massive amount of gaming it offers. The panoramic scale of the turn-based section works well without degenerating into information overload. It's baffling that the unit handling and AI issues that have haunted the series since inception are still present but you'll quickly adapt to being more hands-on with your units than should be strictly necessary. With a bit of luck, future patches will address these issues and nudge the game a little closer to perfection. As it stands, Empire: Total War is a monumental slab of strategy gaming that is as brilliant as it is irritating.