Epic strategy games don't get much more epic than the Total War series, which has always put players in control of a historical nation on the brink of international war against neighboring countries. The series has made a name for itself with its deep, strategic turn-based campaigns and impressive battles that feature huge throngs of soldiers onscreen at once, all fighting in real time. But fans of the series still want more and better: improved diplomacy options when dealing with neighboring countries, improved artificial intelligence, and faster late-game management. We cover those topics and more with lead designer James Russell.
GameSpot: Give us an update on Empire's development. How far along is the game at this point, and what is the team working on now?
James Russell: We're currently in beta, which is a very hectic but exciting time in development. Our main tasks now involve optimization of the code and the balancing of the many elements in the game--from nation balance to specific unit-versus-unit balance on land and sea. There's a lot to be done, but seeing the game coming together is proving a massive drive for us all.
GS: The Total War series has been around for quite some time and has cultivated a loyal following of fans who truly enjoy the series...but are definitely looking forward to new additions, and maybe some tweaks. One issue that's cited frequently by fans is diplomacy, and how other nations didn't always behave completely realistically in previous games. What's being done in Empire to address this issue?
JR: Like all elements of the Total War formula, diplomacy has enjoyed a big overhaul for Empire. Diplomatic relations between nations guide AI behavior and change as a result of player actions in a way that makes the world come alive for players: Different nations respond in a psychologically convincing and understandable manner. This is far more finely tuned than in previous games, with every event and action carried out by a nation having an effect on how they are regarded by their rivals. Religion, government type, aggression, other alliances and wars, espionage, trade and treaties, and honoring alliances all impact how each nation views every other.
As the campaign progresses, players can now access this rich political tapestry via a new panel which lets them see at a glance how each nation is regarded by others, and how they regard their rivals. Players can also see which events or factors have created the current state of relations between nations.
These relationships provide the backdrop to the negotiations that players will be involved with as they strive to develop a network of trade partners and allies, or negotiate military access to enable them to further their expansion. Throwing a nation a suitable gift before asking for a trade agreement or a particular technology trade can often help grease the wheels of negotiation. Similarly, don't expect a rival to roll out the democratic red carpet if you've previously proven untrustworthy. The AI has a far better recollection of previous events than ever before, and it will bear grudges or honor sacrifices.
GS: Fans also seem to always be looking for a challenge from the game's AI opponents. How will Empire improve on the AI and make it smarter and more challenging, to play as a realistic opponent (as opposed to advancing at an unrealistic rate or having an unrealistically larger supply of resources and/or troops to supply an artificial challenge)?
JR: We were very aware early on that the AI would come under close scrutiny by our fans, and that's why we've made this a major priority with Empire. We believe that [the game's AI opponents] should be the most real and challenging yet.
In terms of battles, Empire has expanded on the AI in two significant ways. The first is the introduction of a new plan-based approach where the AI can dynamically reassess and rebuild its tactics as the battle progresses. This gives it a more human-like feel, as it picks and probes with individual groups of units, as opposed to having a template of stock tactics for the whole army to run through, which quickly becomes predictable. The second is through the use of "special tactics" specific to certain nations and/or generals. It is also aware of the context of the battle within the campaign. Of course, the focus of battle gameplay has shifted, with ranged weapons becoming much more important, and the AI has undergone a major overhaul of the way it responds to and attacks with missile fire.
The campaign map AI has also been completely rewritten and acts to achieve longer-term goals and specific war aims.
We have had three talented programmers working full-time on nothing but AI throughout the project--a level of resource we haven't had before.
GS: And how will friendly AI be improved, especially in larger real-time battles? What features will Empire be adding to give players more control over their units?
JR: We no longer have the AI controlling any of the player's units--your own reinforcements come onto the battlefield one by one (with up to 20 at any one time), and you control all of them. Allied AI nations who reinforce the player always remain under AI control.
GS: One of the best things about playing a Total War game is building a massive kingdom full of conquered provinces, though once you begin to achieve real territorial dominance in a campaign game, not everyone is a fan of managing all those provinces and their economies. How will Empire help streamline the later game to keep the pace brisk?
JR: First and foremost, by bringing buildings out of the cities and presenting them to the player on the map itself, we've made the management of regions more immediate and accessible. Buildings can be upgraded straight from the map, with slots available for upgrade seen at a glance. This is in contrast to previous Total War games, which forced the player to drive down into city menus in order to build and upgrade. You can also see the level of development of a region on the map itself, rather than inside a city panel.
Secondly, we've made the recruitment of units much more convenient. Armies commanded by generals can now order up units that make their way automatically to that army. This means that players no longer have to build units at each city (although you still can) and then manually move those units to join their armies in the field.
Thirdly, many of the strategic elements such as tax and governors that used to live in each city in previous Total War games have now been centralized. Players can now tweak tax rates across an entire continent. Similarly, the player will have a cabinet of ministers that offer bonuses across their nation's regions, rather than governors which must be moved to each region.
This means we can actually deepen gameplay choices (for example, having different tax rates for the nobility versus the people), but still streamline the game because players don't have to repeat the choices across different regions. Similarly, diplomacy is conducted centrally, not through the old system of individual diplomats all over the map.
Add to this improved advisors, tutorials, and an extensive tooltip system which offers information on almost every button and panel in the game, and we believe that this is the most accessible Total War experience we've created.
GS: Obviously, Empire takes place in a different part of history than previous games. The time period in which the new game takes place was very much a time of upheaval, from the industrial revolution to the American revolution. How will these major historical events be represented in the game, and what effects will they have? For instance, will the cotton gin be just another technological advance to research? What role will the American plantation have in the game?
JR: We've never looked to shape the Total War experience for the player by forcing historical events on the player within the campaign game. We've made the odd exception of course, but Total War games are about the player creating and rewriting history within the historical starting position and sandbox we present them with. We have a set of features and mechanics that represent and model the political, military, and technological dynamics at the time, but the player can navigate their nation within the gameworld as they choose.
As an example, the player can cause a French revolution using the mechanics available with the game's new class-based happiness system and the system of "clamor for reform" created by researching new ideas and philosophies via the technology tree, but we don't force a revolution on the player at a given date.
The technology tree hands players the tools they need to develop their nation and forge their own history. They can choose to industrialize their nation by researching the industrial branch of the tree but the speed they progress is down to them. Again, we don't push the industrial revolution on players at a given date--it's up to them to explore and implement this at their own pace, if at all.
Specific advances like the power loom and the spinning jenny do boost your industrial output should you choose to research them. You can also build plantations in the Americas. You can choose to focus on different commodities like tobacco or cotton. You gain income from these plantations directly, and gain more profits if you export the resources to other nations via trade routes.
GS: Given the game's time period, clearly, trading goods will be different--desirable commodities will be tobacco, sugar, and cotton, among other things. How will economic trade in Empire be different from previous games, and how will it be better? How will trade with Native American tribes work?
JR: Trade is a vital component in the campaign game, and we've expanded it considerably as a feature. Resources are scattered around the various regions and can be exploited by players through constructing mines or plantations, for example. Some of these resources are tradable goods which all have their own market value, and which rise and fall depending on their particular availability and demand.
Players are driven to acquire valuable resources, but in order to trade them, they will need to establish trade partners. They will also need to develop ports and roads to support their network of routes on land and sea. These routes are vulnerable to attack, so they need to be protected by fleets and armies. Similarly, the player can turn this to their advantage and look to raid enemy routes with their own ships and armies for profit.
In addition to this, we've introduced trade theatres. These are sea regions that are located in various areas of the globe including the East Indies and the Ivory Coast. These regions are rich in tradable resources and can be controlled by placing merchant fleets on trading outposts. The more merchant ships you have active on these outposts, the more profit you glean from them. Of course, these routes and regions are also subject to raiding, and there can be fierce rivalry over the monopoly of trading posts across the theatres. This provides an excellent springboard for naval engagements throughout the campaign.
There's a whole new world of strategy here if the player wants to explore this feature to the full. Alternatively, they can opt out as a trading nation and focus on other strategies such as industrialization, enlightenment, or good old military expansion.
GS: And of course, because the game takes place during the settlement of the New World, we assume that Native American tribes will play a pretty significant role. How will players interact with them?
JR: The colonization of the New World is a major priority for nations such as Britain, France, and Spain. They will have to interact and work with or against the various Native American factions we've included. The player can enter into diplomatic relations with them the way they can any nation in the game, or they can cut out all the talk and just attempt to steamroller through their territory with their European armies. That's not going to happen without significant resistance from the Native American forces they will come up against.
The Native American tribes also play a key part in the Road to Independence campaign in that they provide the first major obstacle that players come across in the opening chapter. They then become a key ally as the British attempt to fight off the French in the second episode.
GS: Of course, one of Empire's most distinctive, and impressive, new features is its real-time naval combat. In practice, how will naval powers change the campaign game? How much of a factor will it be for players who don't necessarily want to focus on the sea?
JR: Command of the seas will be important in the campaign game in order to establish a profitable trade network and to seize monopolies in the trade theatres. That's only applicable, of course, to nations who wish to explore this strategy. Landlocked nations with ample trade routes available on road may not require such investment in their navy and can look instead to expand their military might on land--as long as you are content to stick to your starting continent. However, if you want to be a serious colonial nation projecting your power across continents, you would be wise to invest in a strong navy.
In short, we want the player to explore the naval battles with any nation they choose to play, but we leave it to the players to decide how crucial this aspect of the game is to their own campaign. There is no right or wrong way to play and win Total War games, and this is certainly the case with Empire: Total War.
GS: Of course, the Age of Sail was a time of great international competition as many captains sought to claim new territories and trade routes for the glory and wealth of their home nations. But it was also a time of naval piracy. To what extent, if any, will we see buccaneers in the game, and what role will they play (that is, will they just be neutral parties who spring into being to occasionally harass wealthier nations, or will they play a larger role)? Any chance players will get to do some freebooting of their own?
JR: Commerce-raiding a rival nation's trade routes on land and sea is a very effective strategy to boost your own coffers, whilst inflicting hefty damage to an enemy's economy. So yes, players will have every opportunity to construct fleets specifically for naval piracy.
Similarly, pirates are a faction in the game in their own right, and they will attack and plunder the trade routes that they come across, including those of the player, throughout the campaign. You can stamp them out, but lawlessness in certain regions can see them reemerge.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Empire: Total War, its improvements on the series, or any of its other new features?
JR: At this point, we'd just like to say that we can't wait for this game to make it onto the shelves so people can start playing it. We've obviously been buried in intense development for so long now, and we're desperately keen to see the reaction to the game from the public, and particularly the loyal Total War fan base. Empire: Total War is by far our biggest and most ambitious Total War release ever, and we hope that those who play the game enjoy it as much as we've enjoyed developing it.