E3 2008: Empire: Total War Impressions

We hoist our mizzenmast and set sail with Creative Assembly in this hands-off look at its newest strategy game Empire: Total War.

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Creative Assembly is certainly no stranger to the strategy genre and to date has been responsible for the popular Shogun, Rome, Medieval, and Medieval 2: Total War games. While the team has already tackled feudal Japan and historical Roman settings, this is its first foray into the 18th century. Between the advent of sail and gunpowder, it already has the makings of some exciting gameplay elements as the arms race kicks off.

While we didn't get a chance to go hands-on with the fleets and control the action, our demo consisted of a naval battle between British and American forces, complete with a smattering of the game's 40 types of ships. We were shown the British forces bobbling gently in the ocean in what we have to say is some of the prettiest looking water we've ever seen. Even out away from the shore, waves rolled and knocked up against the hulls of the ships producing realistic-looking swell in the process. Though tactically you'll probably want to be a little removed from the action to survey the battlefield, even in its work-in-progress state, this game is looking impressive on the PC. You're really going to want to zoom in to appreciate every minute detail, such as inspecting both the upper and lower decks of your ships, as well as watching cannons fire and the rich colors of your admiral's outfit.

Once the gameplay was underway, our guide sent our smallest and fastest ships to intercept the enemy's frontline using one of the four preset attack patterns. Clicking a unit indicates its cannon range, as well as its firing direction, and tells you which way the wind is blowing. Negotiating an aggressive line, we staggered and positioned our ships between oncoming enemy units before unleashing a barrage of cannon fire. Because you're able to fire from both sides of the ship, you'll need to avoid friendly fire while attempting to scuttle or maim your adversaries by destroying their masts. Once you've achieved this, the unit is effectively dead in the water and you can finish it off at your leisure. It wasn't all smooth sailing up front of our pack, so once we had taken some ground, stemmed the flow of reinforcements, and lost a couple of our own in battle, we brought in some bigger, heavier artillery. Like previous games in the series, Empire: Total War includes a proximity-sensitive morale system, which increases the performance of those at your command. Our boost came from our admiral who resided on our largest and most powerful ship. While it may seem like a great idea to charge in guns blazing, the risk of losing your sails to enemy mast-shot should be a big enough deterrent to keep you from doing so. That said, when the action does get up close and personal, what naval warfare experience would be complete without the ability to incapacitate, then go in for the kill by boarding and even claiming your opponent's ship? This feature is being included in the game, and once you've captured an enemy ship, pilfered units become permanent fixtures of your fleet.

Once you have disabled them and pulled the two vehicles together with ropes, the game has a unique AI system that will automatically assign each AI player a mate of the other faction. By doing this, battlefields (both in the land and sea portions of the game) will be populated by throngs of dueling men all baying for one specific character's blood. They'll even go as far as to pick them out of the pack and go exclusively after them. Our ship caught fire and we had to bail out before any real fisticuffs broke out on deck, but it's apparently quite the sight. Weather will also play a major role in the performance of your squad in Empire: Total War with rain and mud not only hampering your land speed, but also your musket accuracy.

The development team at Creative Assembly has been hard at work making sure this fifth game in the series is as realistic as possible. Each cannonball's trajectory is being independently mapped once fired, which means that rather than offer a simple decal swap for generic damage, each cannonball will smash up only the place it will hit on impact. Likewise, each boat has been run through a rigorous physics calculation, which means damage below the waterline of your ship will cause you to gradually sink. Once you do start to take on water, your crew will abandon ship, and while not in the current build, we were assured that the dev team is hard at work on adding sharks to finish off any survivors.

Empire: Total War is already shaping up to be a visually impressive and comprehensive strategy game. With an anticipated early 2009 shipping date on the PC, there's still plenty of time to polish it further.

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