The Total War series has won a lot of fans since the first instalment, Shogun, blended real-time battles with Risk-style strategy.
Playing as an ambitious ruler, you command your armies to conquer zones on a map. When they encounter enemies, you move to a battlefield view to take control of your forces.
You can follow a storyline mode that guides you through an historical scenario or a free-form mode that lets you take full control. The storyline mode is useful as an introduction to the game, but there’s more fun to be had playing god.
As you conquer territories, you set up towns to supply your troops. Special buildings in these towns give you access to new types of unit. You can also conduct diplomacy with neighbouring factions to form alliances or make trade agreements. There’s an element of empire-building, but not to the extent that you’ll find in games such as Civilization IV: Colonization.
The meat of the game is in the battles, and although you can let the computer decide the outcome of a battle based on the strength of the opposing armies, it’s always better to fight them yourself. This way you can take full advantage of the terrain and any special units. Unlike previous Total War games, though, the fighting is a bit of a disappointment.
In Shogun, your units were split into three main categories: archers, swordsmen and cavalry. Each type had a natural advantage and a weakness, just like rock-paper-scissors. Later games in the series introduced new elements, such as artillery, which added to the diversity of the battles. Empire, however, is set in a period when muskets were the primary battlefield weapon, and there is significantly less tactical diversity involved when you’re dealing with massed ranks of troops firing at each other.
For the first time you can take full control of naval engagements. This helps to flesh out the storyline of the era, but sea battles aren’t very exciting. Controlling one or two ships is easy enough, but more than that and you need to rely on the computer to carry out automated attacks, which seems to lead inevitably to boring broadside-to-broadside engagements.
The Total War games have always had superb graphics, but there’s less reason to zoom in and watch your troops fight in Empire. If you do, all you’ll see is ranks of muskets and smoke, rather than the excitement of hand-to-hand swordplay or the panic of a cavalry charge.
Our initial excitement at a new Total War game was quickly dampened, and we hope the developers go back in time for the next outing. The current direction of the games is based too much on history rather than fun gameplay.