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Empire: Total War Preview and Naval Combat

Mon, Oct 27, 2008

Featured, News, Preview

Three months ago, we met the gentlemen from The Creative Assembly and Sega at E3, a group of folks who happened to be working on a game called Empire: Total War. As the latest game in the Total War series, Empire takes the franchise's mix of turn-based army management and real-time strategy, and washes it off, adding naval combat to the series for the first time. We were treated to an extended demonstration of Empire's watery warfare back at E3, witnessing the game's intricate level of detail, including real-time ship damage and individual crew activity, as well as physics, trajectory, and positional tracking for each individual cannonball. At the time, I expressed my concern regarding the powerful CPUs which would be required to handle such a detail-rich experience, but I'm not worried anymore. Now, having seen a second demo, including Empire's ground-based combat, with thousands of on-screen soldiers and individually-rendered and tracked bullets, I'm terrified.

Last week, Sega invited us back to see Empire: Total War again, including another naval combat demo, our first glimpse of combat on land, and a uniquely hands-on lesson on how naval warfare is conducted. Our impressions and adventures are after the jump. Step lively, once more!

Our hosts began the presentation by reacquainting us with the basics of Empire. Total War's turn-based/real-time gameplay has made its way to the 18th century, when most of Europe was ruled by, well, empires. Players will lead one of 12 playable factions in a campaign for dominance of Europe, the new world, and parts of India, carefully managing troops, resources, political and international relations, and a blossoming economy in a turn-based overview of the world. Of course, inevitably, somebody is going to take issue with your global conquest, and will attempt to blast you to pieces, either on land or at sea, leading to large-scale battles that occur in real time.

The introductions complete, we watched another live demonstration of Empire's warfare at sea. We'd gotten a good taste of the game's naval tactics back at E3, but the Creative Assembly team were willing to speak about more of the details during this presentation. Speaking with Mark O'Connell, PR and Online Manager for The Creative Assembly, I learned quite a few impressive details about the game's development and scale. Empire has actually been in development for four years, and the team has spent all that time revising and re-revising Total War's arrival in the age of gunpowder. O'Connell told me that the team had one man who spent an entire year just working on simulating water -- how it moves, how it affects the ships, how waves might carry one vessel into another, how a punctured ship would take on water, and more. We were able to appreciate this level of detail as we watched a new fight break out between American and French ships on the open sea. Much of what we saw was the same as our E3 presentation, including the meticulously-modeled ships, helpful HUD elements showcasing wind, cannon range, and other control elements, and the ability to zoom in and out on the battle, instantly switching between overall tactical ship positions, and individual ship focus, featuring crew members who scrambled to load cannons, put out fires, and more.

A few new details were pointed out to us, as well, including the ability to deploy ships as linked groups for easy simultaneous orders, the ability to cripple enemy ships via morale-killing events (being next to a much bigger ship, being cut to pieces by grape shot, being on fire, etc.), and a few especially spectacular maneuvers and attacks. Our host zoomed in on a pair of passing ships just in time to watch a point-blank broadside slam into a French vessel, and I audibly winced -- the ship looked like it was nearly knocked clean onto its side by the force of the blast. We were told that cannon fire had been modeled to be as devastatingly forceful as the real thing; ships would be able to fire cannonades through one vessel and into another.

As the remainder of the battle played out, with the French fleet routed by hardy colonial sailors, we learned a bit more about the interface. Total War veterans will be happy to know that the controls and UI have been designed to work extremely similarly to the game's land-based equivalents, allowing players to switch easily from one style of battle to the other without having to learn two separate games. In addition, the aforementioned group deployment and order assignment can be automated or manually managed to the player's content. Empire appears to be a game about incredible details, almost all of which can be altered by the player, but The Creative Assembly is not obligating gamers to do so: If micromanagement is not one's style, the ships can be handled all at once, or even automated completely -- if one is so inclined, Empire can be played without personally fighting a single battle, letting the AI do the job instead. Of course, said our hosts, while such an experience is possible, it would be a real shame -- they worked very hard on the battle portions of the game.

Next, it was time for us to see the game's land-based combat in action. Empire promises to bring as much detail to the ground combat as it does to the naval warfare, if not more. Our skirmish featured the Ottomans against the French, the two armies meeting on a massive North African desert, barren of any cover apart from a few dunes here and there. Our hosts reminded us that in the final game, we would also be fighting along coastlines, grassy plains, and even inside towns and cities, featuring an assortment of structures that troops can take cover behind. Soldiers can even go inside these structures and use them as fortified positions, until the enemy decides to level them with cannon and mortar fire. O'Connell informed me that these battles would be truly epic in scale: A given battlefield can occupy up to 1.4 square kilometers. Those battlefields, furthermore, are generated from real-world data based on the armies' locations; The Creative Assembly has used NASA satellite images to generate accurate coastlines, realistic topographical maps, and more -- your armies will be able to fight in a "pixel perfect" location, anywhere on the world that they happen to clash, said our hosts.

With the battle underway, we were shown, once again, the level of detail and micromanagement available based on the scale of the battles. When zoomed in, we were treated to a view of the Ottomans' Tatar riders, featuring excellent horse animations, motion-captured duels when in combat with enemy soldiers, and more, watching the front lines come together as our troops fought for position. Zooming back out, on the other hand, showing off the full square kilometer of combat, was akin to watching ants carrying flags and banners around the landscape, giving one an instant appreciation of the larger tactical maneuvers taking place. With the entire battlefield in view, we were able to keep an eye on the French army as it broke troop formation, sending its men scattering to the sides -- only to reform in parallel charges as they attempted to flank our heavy infantry.

The Creative Assembly has spent the last four years crafting an especially devious new AI to battle aspiring player-generals, utilizing what they call the "Goal System." As opposed to previous Total War games, which used what the team called a chess-style approach, planning out several moves in advance, Empire's computer opponents have been designed to be far more reactionary, adapting quickly to the player's moves and tactics, and focusing much more effort on the moves at hand, rather than the ones further down the line. However, the AI has also been conditioned to follow the general rules and tactics of the faction it represents: A British AI can be expected to employ British formations and strategies, going up against a famous general from history will likely see the player encountering that general's signature tactics, and so on. By way of demonstration, we watched as the incoming French army took formation in a "Monster Column," a long, narrow surge of troops intended to penetrate a front line through sheer force. Our hosts responded with a classic box formation, ensuring that once the column broke through the thinned front line, they would be surrounded on three sides with heavy crossfire.

Moving troops proved to be an astonishingly simple task. Unlike similar games where one might need to pre-define one's troop formations or select via pop-up menus or hotkeys, we watched our hosts select a collection of troops with a single click -- and then, with a simple trace of the mouse, draw a new line and position for the troops to reach, which they quickly hurried to accomplish. With marvelous military precision and discipline, the soldiers swept across the map, swarming like ants from one formation to the next. The effect was like watching a finely-choreographed marching band from the upper deck. Well, a marching band being shot and stabbed to death as the French destroyed their artillery and wiped out their footsoldiers, but still.

With two battles now complete, our visit concluded with one final skirmish, which promised to deliver an all-new appreciation for the finer points of naval combat.

You just don't get a photorealistic simulation like that every day. Boarding the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain, manned by the good folks at Gray's Harbor Historical Seaport, myself and several other game journalists were pressed into service for a skirmish at sea!

Well, skirmish at bay, anyway. Though Empire: Total War will include adverse weather conditions as a factor in battle, our conditions were ideal for a quick battle in a pixel-perfect representation of the San Francisco Bay, created from real-life data, including actual building placement and accurate topography. Soon, the deployment stage was complete, and we prepared to do battle.

Though there was no HUD to assist us here, our captain helpfully explained the factors affecting this battle -- the same sort of conditions that might face players during naval combat in Empire. Our foes aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain, seen here in front of some kind of bridge (I guess it's famous, I'm not sure), were upwind of us, presenting them with a clear tactical advantage. With the wind at their backs, our enemies could outmaneuver us easily, and we'd have to wait for them to come to us. Our vessel, however, the Lady Washington, was the more "weatherly" of the two, giving us added maneuverability when the actual battle got underway. There wasn't time to think much about the game balancing issues, though, before the Chieftain made her move, and it was time to get to work.

As promised, when you zoom in, you can see individual crew members, hard at work. Empire won't task you with so much detail as to worry about hauling individual lines and sails, but this was clearly an alpha version of the game with no AI automation, so we had to manually set these things. As promised, the Washington proved a maneuverable vessel, and with the enemy in sight, we let loose a vicious cannonade.

Oddly enough, this didn't cripple their morale as we'd been promised. If anything, trading loud explosive noises back and forth seemed to raise everyone's spirits. This game is so broken. These developers need to get their act together.

That is, once they get back to land. And once they're finished showing off how naval combat is done. I suppose they can get back to work later.

Empire: Total War is scheduled to launch in the U.S. on February 3rd, 2009, and on February 6th in the U.K., for Windows PC.

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This post was written by:

Jesse Henning - who has written 474 posts on GameCyte.


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  1. Nometet.com » Preview - Empire: Total War Says:

    [...] to slog it out on a computer screen. The Creative Assembly didnt speak to us, they spoke to GameCyte.com and said: the team had one man who spent an entire year just working on simulating water how [...]

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