If you hadn't heard, Empire: Total War is coming. This massive game will build on the foundations of the Total War series, which combines turn-based strategic elements (like managing your cities, oppressing peasants, establishing trade routes, oppressing peasants, researching new technologies, researching new peasant-opressing technologies, and diplomacy) and massive real-time battles. This time around, Empire will offer the huge land battles everyone has come to expect from the series (but with more emphasis on muskets and cannon), along with real-time naval battles that are genuinely affected by the realistic physics engine that developer Creative Assembly has built for the series.
We started our session with a few quick real-time battles that are started from the game's conventional multiplayer interface, which lets you host, join, and search for games from a single screen. Empire will support networked play as well as online play over Steam and will actually take your Steam ID into account and let you sync up with players on your Steam friends list and such. Quick multiplayer battles seem to run about the same way they have in previous games--prior to diving into battle, you'll pick and choose from whichever forces you care to bring into battle using a weighted point system to make sure each player is bringing in about the same amount of firepower (unless you're one of those manly men who prefer to give your opponents a handicap). You then set your armies in place in a timed deployment phase, and after that, you're off.
Prior to starting up a match, you can also set weather conditions; things like wind direction may affect the way ballistics work on land. But wind direction and wind levels, as well as general sea conditions, can have a profound effect on naval skirmishes. Because Empire's physics engine models the weight and mass of ships, as well as the effect of wind on the size and number of sails on a ship, speed and maneuverability become a lot more important on choppy seas. Of course, it's ideal to have the wind at your back filling your sails, while attempting to sail straight into the wind will bring your ship almost to a standstill. Standing still in water isn't always a bad thing, though. Based on what we can tell from our limited time with the game, Empire's naval battles seem to do a good job of capturing the feeling of being on a ship that's powered primarily by whatever winds happen to be blowing. Since there were no nuclear engines or turbo boosts back in the Age of Sail, your best bet is to drop anchor to stop your ship's forward motion, and you'll need to do this if a damaged enemy craft is on a collision course for the hull of one of your prized ships, because a good, solid ramming with a heavy battleship can do serious damage.
Our naval battle went fairly well for us; the highlight of the match was the utter devastation of our opponent's smallest ship as we first killed off his admiral with a grapeshot volley, then encircled our foe with our two largest craft, delivering simultaneous broadsides to both port and starboard hulls with standard cannons that smashed up and crippled our target. We felt pretty proud of ourselves going into our land battle, so much so that we decided to go easy on cannons and load up on swift cavalry to overwhelm our opponent, who may or may not have been a polite and accommodating British staff member of Creative Assembly, and who may or may not have let us win the naval battle. And in the land battle, our opponent may or may not also have been polite enough to show us how effective long-distance artillery is on clustered squads of faraway cavalry (here's a hint: It's really effective in killing your cavalry), after which point we may or may not have dropped out of the game, probably not due to bad sportsmanship or anything, but probably because of some kind of network issue. Yes...yes, that sounds believable.
From there, we headed off to try out a single-player campaign, which includes all the game's many nations with the exception of the United States of America (which must be unlocked from the Test of Time campaign's third chaper--a chapter that tells the tale of the American Revolution) and of the Native American nations, which won't be playable in the game out-of-box but will likely be made playable in short order, considering the industrious and clever fan base for this game (a fan base that's clearly clever and handsome enough to leave many positive comments on this blog post). Native American tribal nations...a naval superpower? It's more likely than you think, apparently.
In our single-player game, we started playing as the royal nation of England, a well-balanced faction with holdings in both Europe and the New World, specifically island nations such as Jamaica and a tiny trading post in modern-day Canada (then known as "Mooseland"), along with a tiny, obscure protectorate consisting of, like, 12 or 13 colonies (or something). Empire has three primary theaters--Europe, the New World, and India. At the start of the campaign, Britain doesn't have any inroads into India, though other sides, such as the Dutch, have access to the near East (and its trade commodities, such as spices--all tradable goods, whether spices, sugar, coffee, or tobacco, will trade on an in-game commodities market whose prices fluctuate each turn and are determined by geographical, technological, and social needs).
Being unable to immediately find the "Oppress Peasants" button (hopefully Creative Assembly fixes this problem immediately), we settled on a plan of economic expansion by way of building up each of our holdings along dual lines of agriculture/population growth (researching such technologies as animal husbandry, which increases food production), and also civic happiness (by building structures such as opera houses), with the thinking that a happier populace early on would provide an early-game production boost and would also experience even more-severe, more-crushing misery and oppression when we clicked and dragged on the "increase taxes" slider and cranked it all the way up later.
You may have noticed that the overland map view in Empire has changed from previous games in a number of ways. Civic structures such as farms and trading posts now appear outside of your main cities, rather than being hidden inside the walls of a single, central location. This change was apparently made to encourage defensive players to be more vigilant and to encourage aggressive players to be more proactive about harrying their rivals, since farms, mines, and other juicy targets of opportunity now lie outside city walls. We dutifully sank all our cash into expanding and improving our holdings' economic infrastructure, with the result being gradually increasing cash reserves and some "trait" enhancements for our military officers, whose inactivity caused them to seek entertainment (and +1 morale bonuses) at the local tavern, though from the looks of it, further inactivity would have caused them to develop somewhat less-savory traits. Fortunately, military training has been streamlined in Empire such that once you research new formations and tactics, you won't have to march your armies back to town to train them; they'll have automatically acquired your new strategems, and you can continue to confidently march forward to war.
We figured our path of peaceful self-development was a can't-fail proposition (after all, who would dare oppose the mighty crown of England? France? Portugal? That little group of 15 colonies, or whatever? Not likely!). Britain starts off in a fairly strong diplomatic position, being either neutral or friendly with a great majority of the Old World powers and already having existing trade agreements with them. Empire's diplomacy interface lets you peacefully negotiate (or threaten for) whichever diplomatic condition you wish, such as trade of goods/territories/technologies, open borders, military alliances, and so on. The interface has a color-coded world map that shows your standing with other nations at a glance. Nations that are bright green are quite friendly, and nations that are bright red are quite hostile. You can hover your mouse over any nation on the map to receive an at-a-glance status report on the various conditions that contribute to your neighbors' attitude; if you have trade agreements, military agreements, or have helped them in the past, you'll have a certain number of positive points. If you've committed hostile actions such as declaring war or declaring allegiances with your neighbors' enemies, you'll have a certain number of negative points, and the total of your points determines how well-liked you are or aren't.
Unfortunately, the wandering pirates of the Carribean, the game's most nonpolitical faction,disagreed with us and hijacked one of our smaller merchant fleets in the Bahamas. Sadly, because this was the early part of our game and we hadn't made any significant investments into our navy, we were easily defeated, though we went out with a bang. In the real-time naval battle we fought, the pirates had our capital ship on the ropes, smashing up the hull with cannonballs and then opening up another fusillade that happened to hit our ships' powder kegs--this is a random event that's much more likely to happen to a severely damaged ship. But as it turned out, even though our ship went up in a fiery explosion, the prevailing wind currents spread the fire to the other pirate ships, which were already severely damaged. One actually routed (retreated due to a morale break); the other sank our final ship. So, at least we went out in a blaze of glory. We're told, however, that in every campaign, the pirates will have a hidden, randomly located base somewhere in the Caribbean that thorough seafaring players can attempt to seek and destroy.
Empire: Total War will finally be released in the next few weeks. Keep an eye on GameSpot for a full review in the near future. We'll also have a new trailer for you shortly.