Like diving into a murky lake from the rocky cliffs looming above, plunging into Empire: Total War is an intimidating prospect but an exhilarating experience. As with previous games in this strategy franchise, there's an overwhelming amount of content to unearth, though now the clock has been spun forward hundreds of years. Technological advances have made bows and arrows weapons obsolete, the British colonies strive for independence, and major empires approach their inevitable collapse. These historical waters are deep, but also a bit turbulent. Empire is the biggest and broadest Total War yet, and like an aging historical parchment, it's brilliantly ambitious in scope but somewhat tattered at the edges. Nevertheless, the game's historical breadth, turn-based tugs-of-war, and enjoyable real-time battles (both on land and at sea) will transfix series fans and newcomers alike.
The grand campaign is the meat of Empire: Total War, and it's there where you're likely to spend the most amount of time. The game stretches across the 18th century and lets you choose from a number of world powers, from Great Britain and Russia to fallen domains such as the Maratha Confederacy and the Ottoman Empire. Once you choose an empire, you can select from a few different campaign types that determine victory conditions and campaign length. Whichever you decide, be prepared: Even a short, 50-year campaign can take a good amount of time to complete, given that each turn requires strategic thinking on multiple fronts. Battles usually determine how regions are won and lost, but diplomatic relations, economic strangleholds, assassinations, and many other subtleties must be tweaked and considered at each turn, and they have noticeable impact as the years progress. If this sounds overwhelming, or if you're an American history buff, you'll want to check out the Road to Independence campaign before jumping into the grand one. This is essentially a long American tutorial that slowly introduces you to the basics and culminates in a grand campaign of its own.
The factors you must consider run the gamut, starting with an important new feature: the technology tree. Three areas of research and multiple subtrees let you improve your military, industry, and philosophy; in turn, your choices may benefit your economy or your success in battle. The benefits may seem minor at first, but as the campaign wears on, their effects are more noticeable, and your choices within these trees must be informed by the strengths and weaknesses of your particular empire. Do you concentrate on industry and use sheer numbers of troops to overwhelm your enemies, or do you focus on naval improvements and reap the ensuing benefits of successful trade-route blockades? As your campaign wears on, your needs may shift, whether because enemy blockades require a stronger navy, because you are spreading quickly across land, or because your economy is unable to sustain your growing army. Technology is also a limited diplomatic option, given that it's a commodity that you can not only trade during negotiations but also steal from foes. Additionally, it's not easy to convince a friendly nation to offer technology. Even when offered multiple technologies or monetary compensation, your closest allies rarely accept a request to share even a single technology, which makes it a limited political tool. In Empire: Total War, knowledge is more easily stolen than shared.
In fact, your more successful political dealings are the underhanded ones. Your agents may differ between nations (for example, gentlemen and rakes for the British, scholars and hashishin for the Ottomans), but the tasks are similar: covertly disrupt the affairs of your enemies and potential enemies. Religious agents such as missionaries will slowly but surely convert the populace, staving off potential rebellion in newly captured regions. On the other hand, the impact of religion is not as deep or impactful as in the Europa Universalis series, in which social and diplomatic events are more fully explored. Regardless, it's great fun to cripple whole economies, especially when your strategies work in tandem with each other. Sending in a naval fleet to seize enemy trade supplies, sending another directly into an enemy's port (and therefore obstructing incoming goods), and dispatching an agent to sabotage commercial ports can have profound effects. In cases like these, an angry, resource-deprived public and cash-strapped armies then ease the way for a quick triumph.
Nevertheless, this is Total War, and though assassinations and sabotage lighten your wartime load, there are no diplomatic, religious, or technological victories. Might is right, and as such, your armies and navies drive the quick spread of your domain--and if you want to meet the campaign's success requirements, you'll want to be aggressive, right from the start. The artificial intelligence doesn't always take sensible steps; smaller countries may declare war, only to be quickly steamrolled, whereas major foes can seem almost oblivious to your spread across their regions. However, campaign AI is good enough to keep you occupied across multiple theaters, and minor nations and rebels can often keep your hands full, leaving room for major foes to invade. You will review every fleet and army at every turn, and now that army recruitment, resource production, and other aspects of play are spread across multiple locales within a region, mobility (and therefore, roads) is an important strategic asset.
Unlike with most turn-based historical games, battles can be played out in real time, and though the autoresolve option may look tempting, you should, at least on land, manage any battle in which you have a reasonable chance of winning. The most obvious reason is that they're enjoyable to command and enjoyable to watch. Thousands of units clash in a dizzying mass of artillery and bullets, camels and swordsmen, and as in prior Total War games, it's more about position, formation, and geography than about unit micromanagement. Garrisoning musketeers, and taking heat off of cavalry by keeping enemy gunmen occupied with melee infantry, are just a few of many possibilities to consider. Once armies clash, these prebattle decisions generally have far more impact than any midskirmish choice, and it's as enjoyable as ever to zoom in close to your troops and watch them engage. The landscapes are on the bland side, but soldier animations and the general amount of model detail make for a wonderful visual treat.