I think I must be starting to lose my gaming touch. After over 20 years of playing games, from the ZX Spectrum to the modern PC – and having a soft spot for strategy games in particular – I’ve finally come across one that makes me throw my hands up and beg for mercy.
And it’s not like I’m a newbie here: I’ve played every title in the Total War series, from Shogun nearly 10 years ago, through Rome and the Medievals, to the most recent in the shape of Empire: Total War. Besides that I’ve been into Civilization from the start, and the offshoots (Colonization), strategy classics like UFO/XCOM, big 4X space strategy epics, like Master of Orion, GalCiv, etc. The list goes on. So I can honestly say that I’m no slouch when it comes to deep, complex thinking games. But Empire has nearly got me beat.
Maybe now that I’ve reached my thirties my brain has started its inexorable decline. Even so, I can’t be the only one who’s thinking there’s a hell of a lot packed into the latest offering from Creative Assembly, can I?
I dabbled a little in the story-driven tutorial, then moved onto the meat and potatoes of every strategy game, the single-player campaign mode. Woah! Talk about attention to detail. I’m playing as Great Britain (natch) and you start the game with your homeland, the British Isles, and a couple of isolated colonies in the Americas. There’s nothing in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s there for the taking. Oh, and the Thirteen Colonies in the not-so-United-States is your Protectorate – not sure about the mechanics of that yet (I know, I know: RTFM!), apart from the fact that they seem to offer you missions every now and then.
What’s so hard about that? Well, for starters the action is spread across three theatres: the Americas, Europe and India. There are also trade theatres which don’t house colonies, but you can interact with them via trade ships. In addition to the main settlement in every region, you’ve now got a number of towns, villages and ports (all of which can be individually cycled through). Each of these might specialise in a particular line of work, depending on its location. For example, you can build sugar or coffee plantations in Jamaica, but you won’t be able to set up a fur-trading outpost unless you’re in North America or Canada. And maybe Europe – I haven’t checked…
Each of your minor settlements can be upgraded through several steps. But it’s not just trade you need to think about. Cambridge houses a School building, which can be upgraded to a College – but only when you’ve researched Empiricism. Yep, you need to dabble in research, too. Actually, “dabble in” is a poor choice of phrase – “become immersed in” would be better. There’s a proper tech tree this time with three branches – military, industrial and philosophical. Gentlemen can help you here. They’re special agents that assist in research, but only when you place them in a research-based building. Oh, and Gentlemen can also duel with other Gentlemen – or Rakes, which are like Spies and Assassins in the previous Total Wars.
I haven’t even touched on the intricacies of trade yet. I keep getting an advisor popping up telling me to keep an eye on what my adversaries are producing in the New World because I need to undercut them on the markets or somesuch. Well, I’m not sure how I’d know that. There are trade routes marked on the map by dotted lines. Some of these routes are yours; some belong to your allies or enemies and many are shared by multiple nations. Apparently you can sit your navy on these and pillage, but I’m guessing that doesn’t make you too popular with the owners of the routes.
There are multiple reasons for dissent in your colonies: religion is a big factor again, as is appetite for revolt, and I suppose the presence of garrison forces has an impact. However, it’s not as straightforward as that because a city has a “lay-garrison” in addition to the units you recruit which can be called upon when attacked. I haven’t fought any land or sea battles in the campaign game yet, though: the strategy portion is giving me enough of a headache!
Don’t get me wrong: I can tell the game is good. It’s just that there’s so much of it! I suppose back in the day I would’ve sunk hours into a game like this until I was familiar with all its intricate details and foibles. Now – well, I’ll persevere because it’s so highly rated on metacritic. It’s got to be worth it, right?