As we all know professional game reviewers spend most of their time fellating big publishers - and if one isn't good enough they lose all access to pre-releases and have to find a real job. So imagine my shock when the "universally acclaimed" game like Empire: Total War didn't live up to the fella... I mean critical acclaim.
By the way, this spinelessness only affects game reviewers - movie reviewers seem to be fairly honest, even if they're highly opinionated pricks. I guess it's mostly because it's so difficult to control access to movies - you can write your review 2 hours after theatrical premiere (or scene premiere, which often happens a couple of weeks earlier) even if the distributors hate you and want you to die.
But it is somewhat disappointing - as previous two games in the series were actually good, especially after a mod or two.
What's good about Empire: Total War
I will let my hate out in due time. Let's concentrate on the good bits.
Micromanagement which plagued Medieval 2 Total War and turned it into Eve Online once your empire reached 20 or so settlements (at least in vanilla, there's a mod for that) is trimmed to more reasonable levels.
Diplomacy works from diplomacy screen, there's no need for diplomats and princesses... It was particularly bad part of M2TW - in Rome diplomats were very powerful as they could bribe units and settlements - there was never any point in engaging in actual "diplomacy" due to bugs like this one, still unfixed at time of writing. Medieval made bribing nearly impossible, and added extra type of diplomat - Princess - with even more useless options.
Then there were priests of all kinds, heretics, witches (I never had a witch do anything other than fool around), inquisitors (supposedly trying to burn your agents on stakes, but they always had very low levels and I don't remember them succeeding even once) - what it really was was infuriating micromanagement.
And then there were spies - useful agent type for a change; assassins - ridiculously useless as the only enemy agents worth killing were the ones particularly difficult to kill; and merchants - somewhat profitable if you loved micromanagement or play Moors and use the fort merchant stack cheat.
Empire gets rid of all that nonsense, leaving just Gentleman, Rake (Spy), and Missionary. And you can actually see where cities are on the map, and who owns what. This part of the game has been improved - but when you think about it "oh look, we removed a lot of annoying shit we put in previous games" is not exactly such a great achievement.
You get nice explanations why units on the battlefield feel better or worse - I vaguely recall them being there in Rome and not any more in Medieval... And why different powers feel what they feel about you - not that it matters that terribly much, they'll eventually all attack you anyway.
I'm ambiguous about the new system of buildings, social classes, town wealth, trade goods and all that. I'm not terribly enthusiastic about it, as I got used to Rome/Medieval system, but then it doesn't strike me as particularly bad - just different.
What's bad about Empire: Total War
Enough with the praise. Let's get to the parts that suck hard. Do you remember M2TW and its gunpowder units? Artillery was somewhat useful for sieges - I remember my Citadel with Cannot Towers and relatively weak garrison destroying 3 full Mongol stacks invading all together; and even simplest bombard or catapult could make a lot of holes in most city walls unless defenders had their own artillery (or balls to charge knights into your artillery, which AI has never quite developed).
And in a field battle it would shoot itself out of ammo without hitting stationary enemy once. You know how to detect a n00b in M2TW multiplayer? Start a no-rules game (normally artillery is banned). If they buy any artillery - they're a total n00b and they will suffer.
And that was perfect. Medieval artillery was a siege toy. The first effective use of artillery in the field was by Jan Žižka's Hussite armies in 1419 - and these were wagon forts - imagine a group of medieval battle tanks - not cannons standing in the field and waiting to be run over knights.
Amongst their weaponry were such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the cause of Utraquism... I mean pikes and crossbows. Widespread use of field artillery had to wait until 17th century.
It gets worse. Remember how firearm-wielding infantry in Medieval 2 Total War was good at maybe scaring off elephants and Indians (not that you ever got to elephants or Indians, by that time the campaign was almost over), and Pavise Crossbowmen could absolutely massacre any firearm units? That even if they got to shot anything, if anyone as much as looked funnily at them, musketeers and arquebusiers of M2TW would get all confused spent the rest of the battle changing and rechanging formation.
So how awesome would be the idea of taking two most broken unit types from Medieval 2 Total War - artillery, and firearm infantry - and basing an entire game around them? About that awesome.
They are still broken. Artillery is completely useless for hitting anything smaller than fort walls, while missile infantry confusingly runs around trying to form nice lines instead of actually shooting anyone.
To balance it out they decided to nerf cavalry. Now cavalry in Rome and M2TW was ridiculously overpowered. And you know what? That's historically accurate (except it should historically be way more expensive than infantry, but wasn't).
It's a myth that coming of gunpowder brought end of knightly heavy cavalry. That's what began it - only once infantry gots crossbows and firearms knight started wearing full plate armor! And the greatest cavalry charge in history - and the reason women without burqas are on the street - was Polish hussar charge of 1683 breaking Turkish siege of Vienna.
Early 1600s hussars - almost time of the Empire Total War - routinely massacred professional armies ten time their size. Here's an example. Here's another. How about this?
Yes, not every cavalry unit was that great, and a century of progress in firearms does its thing. But Empire Total War cavalry got so ridiculously nerfed that the only reason it's useful at all is all other units being so bad! Pretty much their only functions would be killing off routing units and destroying artillery - as if all that crappy artillery was worth the bother.
I'm not over. I hate what they did to the user interface. All units look the same. Now I know this is more historically accurate - but I cannot see anything on a battlefield. They don't even bother properly highlighting unit flag or card as they did in previous games. Radar is horrible - displaying vague blobs instead of locations of units... you cannot cycle through units with Tab - you have to select them manually one by one, try to figure out which one got selected as highlighting is horrible - and give orders which it will then ignore running around looking confused.
I almost feel as if all my input was limited to setting up initial deployment before battle starts, and then chasing routing enemy units with my cavalry. Bad user interface and bad unit AI synergistically work together to create a really horrible user experience.
There are naval battles - which is a massive ridiculous waste of effort as in no Total War game ever navies had any significant use. Oh sorry, in M2TW other countries with which I had friendly relations or even an alliance, and with which I had no common border would sometimes get a mission to blockade my ports, which they would do starting the most pointless war imaginable.
And just like with land battles, once it gets past 2 or 3 ships per side it turns into a massive clusterfuck of confusing interface and AI ignoring your commands. Someone even made a Hitler Downfall video about it - it's that bad.
What shocks me is how easy would it be to fix the UI - give units distinct looks, make highlighting better etc... If you have any mod recommendations, please tell me.
But then, why should I act surprised if half the people buy game based on bribed reviews and initial shininess, and the other half would pirate it anyway, so why should they bother finishing it before release?
tl;dr version: Would be good if they bothered finishing it instead of rushing the release - even more so than previous Total War games; also professional game reviewers suck publishers' cocks.