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Saturday, February 20, 2010

A more honest review of Empire: Total War

Combat Laila by mize2oo5 from flickr (CC-NC-ND)

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.

User Interface

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.


Quickshot said...

Guess we'll have to see if the follow up Napoleon, Total War will clean up many of these problems. Or if it will remain fairly poor, one wonders why they don't give the makers of the Total War series the time to finish it properly anyway though... it's a fairly major game franchise these days, isn't it?

taw said...

All Total War games followed the "why hire testers if players can test it for us?" philosophy. I've even heard an opinion somewhere that Empire was a paid beta for Napoleon.

Two more things. First, another user interface failure:
* You control camera with WASD
* You do a lot of ctrl/alt/shift-something (even more than in older TW games)
* So one would think that ctrl/alt/shift-WASD would be unbound keys. Not so! Ctrl-W orders panic withdraw. (fortunately this can be changed)

And of course AI is atrocious. I think it actually got a lot smarter than in RTW/M2TW. But unit control is now far more challenging now, so the end result is it routinely getting massacred with 2:1 advantage.

Pat said...

That really sucks but I'm not surprised to hear it. I just hope some of these issues (particularly the battle AI) get fixed in patches/fan mods. Are there any good mods out for it?

taw said...

Pat: AI will never be fixed - either play multiplayer or use more difficult settings (which give outrageous bonuses to AIs) to compensate.

You can get used to the interface.

There are mods, but I don't know if they're any good. I'm probably not the right person to ask about mods - I hated all M2TW mods with passion (so I wrote my own) and only played Vanilla Balance (bugfixes+minor balance tweaks) mod for RTW seriously.

Anonymous said...

here's some shit it hate in E:TW

the game slows down to a f*ckin crawl in some siege battles. Instead of say 30s reload time on the cannon it takes f*ckin 3 minutes!
I think the reason is the bad "AI", who doesnt know what to do.

The AI in this game is total bollocks. Each siege on a city is exactly the same: Make a hole in the wall, enemy assembles at the hole, hit the hole with artillery and lined infantry.

The defending enemy NEVER does anything except wait in the city to get crushed, even if he has 4 times the amount of forces and could easily make a counter offensive.

The diplomacy is total bollocks too. Once you occupy ~40 areas, you are universally hated by most everybody, even if you saved their butt earlier from an enemy and give them some territories for free for good will. That just sucks, because if basically forces you to invade everything, instead of acchieving some goal in Europe, and then let them in peace and go to America.

I wont even go into the extreme bullshit that STEAM is. I never ever will buy a game that requires this crap!

Anonymous said...

I was totally disappointed in this game. I spend 50 dollars when it came out thinking it would be a great as Rome Total War. I felt cheated and should have waited for an honest review.

I would like for Rome Total War be remade. Keep the same era, the same units, the same factions, but open up scales so that we can command massive units of 40,000 men, more realistic graphics, faster movement, realistic settlements, and above all, keep the same feeling that Rome Total War has, but explode the scales to match up the computer power of today to put those new quad processors and 8 GB of Ram into good use.

By the way, the best MOD I enjoyed was LOTR. That was a fantastic mod that turned Rome TW into something I never imagined.

Kalmsten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MNC said...


Empires and Med2 TW are the shittiest chapters in TW-games history.

Med2 is just more boring MEdTW with ONE good enchantment - characters can cross over Dardanells without a ship and thats ALL !

I havent seeked for your Shogun 2 TW review (i'll do it right after finishing this comment) but what i think is that TWS2 with(!) "Darth mod" is Awesome !!
Original S2TW without darth mod has too much technical and AI related issuses for being acceptable - Thanks to SEGA.

Age of Empires said...

This is the best strategy game after the Age of Empires franchise.

Anonymous said...

Wow, did you even play the game? First off, artillery was a major piece during the warfare of the 1700s so i find it very logical that its important in a strategy game set to that era as well. I dont think cavalry was nerfed, it was just that 400 years of rifle development has made them substantially more lethal whilst cavalry had failed to adapt, also the bayonets of infantry effectively turn their weapons into spears, which are great against cavalry.

About navies, if you havent noticed times had changed for them as well, as no longer was it firing crappy bows at eachother but firing dozens of cannons at huge ships.

Anonymous said...

I still Like medieval 2 more. looks simple but actually complex.

Tobiaz said...

omg this review has so much truth in it, i've played on vh/vh and a fresh generals unit(24men) could not kill an artilery unit(18 men) without loosing 14 men and the general... god this games just sucks so bad, i'm lucky i didnt buy it...
at last the unit movement and control has gotten worse since rtw and m2tw... just a sad game

taw said...

Tobiaz: This is true once you get canister shot - that's overpowered but boring as hell.

Artillery on normal shot is pretty useless in vanilla.

Anonymous said...

i actually liked etw