It's not hard to see why developers The Creative Assembly chose the eighteenth century to base their fifth Total War episode in.
Even if it wasn't for the overwhelming requests from the Total War community to see the age of the musket and tricorne represented, the eighteenth century has been woefully ignored in game culture to the extent that most gamers have a scant appreciation of what a truly dynamic time it was.
If Antiques Roadshow has taught us anything, it's that the eighteenth century largely consisted of widespread furniture making. Scratch below the surface of that Chippendale desk however, and you'll discover a tumultuous time of revolution. A time of glorious rebellion and patriotic fervour. A time when a man could step off a boat, shoot anything that moved and get a small hill named after him.
Indeed, there's much to learn about this incredibly complex century. So much so in fact that Empire: Total War will gradually introduce you to the history of the era along with gameplay concepts through an adequate tutorial mode, which is where you'll begin to appreciate that it's not only the era that is complicated; this game is brutally deep.
For those who are new to the concept of Total War, it's worth going over the basics. Your time is spent alternating between two game modes which are inextricably bound for the duration of the game. One will have you perched over a 3D map shuffling armies about, building various resource-gathering centres and generally protecting your turf through dominance and diplomacy. The other involves extraordinarily large-scale land and sea battles in which your prowess as a leader will be pushed to the limit. It's the latter that makes Empire: Total War significantly better than any Total War title preceding it, and as we're talking about an extremely well developed franchise, you're in for a treat.
The naval battles are a new inclusion in the series, and the hype surrounding maritime melee has spawned intense interest since Empire was announced back in 2007. I'll put you out of your misery - they are spectacular. The HUD is intuitively created to allow quick grouping and rapid deployment of firepower, and there are enough visual aids to allow accurate targeting. You can skim the camera down to just about deck level and watch in awe as an incoming broadside smashes your hull to pieces, or you can position yourself next to an enemy ship and observe your own cannon barrage slaughter the crew. You can easily switch between round, grape and chain shot, and quickly ascertain damage levels above and below decks with the use of a helpful damage dial, and once you've dominated the enemy you can even board and ultimately capture the vessel for use in your own ever-growing fleet.
Every visual aspect of these engagements is an absolute joy. From the rolling ocean twinkling with bright reflections to the sails lazily twitching in the wind, you can find yourself entirely mesmerised by the sheer attention to detail.
As visceral and engaging as the naval combat is, it does suffer from what we'll call "Total War Syndrome". It's an unfortunate ailment whereby everything is so close to being perfect that any flaw that you'd normally discount in another less rounded title becomes glaringly obvious. In this case, the tracking of your ships can sometimes break, and lining up to face the enemy can result in chaos that costs you valuable time. It's occasionally difficult to actually understand what is happening in the heat of combat, and although that probably was the reality for historic naval engagements, this confusion is one attribute that probably should have stayed in the eighteenth century.
Land battles are similarly acted out with a sense of quality and refinement that exceeds the high standard set by previous Total War iterations. Musketeers dominate the largely rolling landscape, and true to the age, cavalry play second fiddle to these infantry units. Your cannon are best kept elevated and protected, as you'll rely heavily on their bombardments to reduce the morale of your enemy and win that crucial breakthrough.
Importantly, the AI is notably smarter, and will actively seek new and unique ways to crush your attacks, such as cleverly using cavalry to cut down any unprotected pockets of resistance. Some of the methods employed would have singularly failed in Rome: Total War due to poorly implemented AI routines; happily no such problems were encountered with Empire.
Again, it's all in the details, as you zoom in and see each troop participating in frenetic ranged and hand-to-hand combat. Empathy is a sign of a truly immersive game, and The Creative Assembly have nailed it. You can't help but feel sorry for the poor souls they modelled these collections of pixels on. Naturally, we're assuming your rig will be up to displaying these pixels in a timely fashion - don't expect too much detail without a relatively new dual-core CPU and a video card in the mid-to-high range of your respective hardware manufacturer. Our Q6600/9800GT didn't struggle too much; your results may vary.
While most Total War veterans will have a minimal learning curve, Empire has clearly been designed to hook new players. A good example of this is the excellent "Road to Independence" campaign, which gradually introduces both strategic and economic concepts to the player under the guise of participation in the American War of Independence. From minor scuffles with local Indian tribes to full-scale naval blockades with English forces, this campaign acts as both a tutorial and a fully immersive game in it's own right, the execution of which will set you on the right path to global superiority.
The overview mode facilitates your warmongering. There are some significant changes to the flow of play this time around, not least of which is the trend towards capturing outlying areas and participating in open battles far from capital cities. These smaller regional areas contain many industries that can be researched and implemented, then incrementally upgraded to generate more wealth and power. This links the military, economic and diplomatic foundations of the game, but without a desire to expand you're probably playing the wrong game, so you'll need to dedicate equal time to conquest.
A lot of the messy micromanagement from previous titles has been absorbed by the game, so depending on your desire to fiddle with taxes, test your diplomatic skills or delve into the research tree, you can just tell the game to sort it out itself. This would be a pity however because despite the perceived tedium of such activities, there's an enormous amount of satisfaction to be gained by balancing each attribute to strengthen your economy and military in turn.
You'll need to have a solid understanding of both strategy and military to make it in the latter stages of the game. The sphere of war spans from North America to Europe, and beyond to India. It's hard to express just how incredibly diverse Empire is - you can play the same campaign from different vantage points over and over again and still be enthralled by the outcome. The Grand Campaign will have you tipping the balance of power in Europe as a leader of your choice, and even if you manage to complete set objectives no two games will ever turn out the same. There is so much to do in Empire that you could conceivably donate most of the year towards it and still have an entirely different experience to that of anyone else.
The interdependence of strategy and military is what makes the Total War series so appealing, even to armchair pundits with remarkably different tastes. Civilization fans will love the overview and the minute attention to every conceivable detail; table-top Generals will froth at the mouth and yell "charge!" at each cannon volley, likely prompting concerned glances from anyone in the vicinity. But for a game to appeal at such a level to so many, and to bring a remarkable period of time to life in such a brilliant and capable way - that's the true sign of quality. Sure, there are flaws - I'm not a fan of the loading times - but there's no problem that couldn't be addressed with a patch or two, and for the most part this is a game that will rate amongst the very best of 2009.
Do yourself a favour and get it.
Or, try before you buy by downloading the demo from Steam!