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PCGUK on Empire: Total War

August 28th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Creative Assembly, Preview

The PCGamer UK preview of the upcoming Empire: Total War is online, courtesy of Tim Edwards. Here are the highlights.

Formations are the new rock-paper-scissors of warfare. It’s all about arranging men in such a way as to present the most possible muskets at the line of enemy advance. “A square of men beats a cavalry charge. A column of men will beat a long line, but only if it arrives. And a line of men, pointing the maximum amount of muskets to an advancing force, will always beat a square.”

Gamers say they hate rock/paper/scissors, but it actually makes a lot of sense to do musket warfare in this way. Each formation was developed for a purpose and if you can translate that purpose to a game world then you do a lot to help the player understand what is going on both historically and game wise.

“Because combat moves on from melee,” explains James, “cover becomes really important. In the Battle of Blenheim, for instance, a lot of the fighting was focused around capturing and occupying key buildings. That creates focal points for the battle – adding drama. It’s almost like terrain ‘plus’: can I capture this farmhouse? It’s a strong point that you can try and hold. A dramatic node for the battle to focus around.”

Imperial Glory had this, one of the few redeeming features in an otherwise disappointing game. The ability to seize and fortify a building, and then hold it against assault can be a the fulcrum around which a frantic defence becomes a counter attack. Artillery figures into this mix allowing you to destroy battlefield structures. Will this be reflected in battles that take place in the same locale on another turn?

On the sea game, the developers say:

“It already looks beautiful,” Mike says. “I’ve been staggered by how good it looks for quite some time now. And we’re not done yet. There’s one guy I gave a job to. I said ‘make sea look like the sea.’ It’s a hard challenge. Sea is incredibly complicated stuff. We want to model different wind conditions, different light conditions, different weather conditions. The thing is that gusts of wind don’t actually move at the speed of the wind. A gust of wind is caused by a whirlpool of wind moving vertically; they actually move quite slowly and cover quite large areas – you see it because it makes the surface of the water rough, and the rest shiny. It means you can build gameplay into entering and chasing gusts of wind, and using them to overtake an enemy fleet.”

For some reason this doesn’t make me feel better about sea combat. Edwards has a lot of paragraphs of Creative Assembly describing the naval game, but never describes what he sees. Probably because it’s not close to being showable. Probably because it is going to be very hard.

James Russell then lets loose this little nugget of “what the hell?”

“One of the quirks of the old engine was that the diplomacy and military AI were two separate routines, developed separately by two different programmers. Those systems fought each other. The military side would say ‘we need to invade’ while the diplomatic side will say ‘well, I just made a treaty with them.’ Getting them to work together was difficult. It meant the behaviour wasn’t always consistent.”

I know very little about game design or game production, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. It certainly explains why it was so hard to keep from fighting a three front war in Medieval II or why Macedonia wouldn’t stop being suicidal in Rome. Military calculations should be part of the diplomatic AI; war is politics by other means and all that.

Probably the best news in the preview is this paragraph:

Even better, they’re aiming to draw armies out of the cities, removing the dominance of sieges. That’s being done by making region improvements – structures such as barracks, mines and palaces – exist outside of the city, vulnerable to attack. Generals can no longer afford to hide behind their city walls in the event of an invasion. They must sally forth and chase the aggressor away.

Anything that gives the player a reason to witness your strong suit (the battle engine) is a good design decision. And there just weren’t enough incentives to engage the AI in a field battle in Rome or Medieval II. To some extent this was period appropriate in Medieval II; castles were designed for this very strategy. But the AI liked to assault cities and could be easily beaten back. The 1700s are, for the most part, a time of field encounters. You can’t have Marlborough hunkering down and waiting for Maximilian to blunder through an open gate. It just doesn’t feel right.

Does putting region improvements outside a city also raises the possibility of a pillaging war? Can weaker opponents can behind your lines and put your mines to the torch if you don’t leave a home guard in place?

“Some people will be quite offended by that- that we’re not allowing them to trade slaves. But it’s not necessary to make the game work. You’re not going to be landing in Africa and dragging slaves off to America.”

Who are these people who want to actively trade slaves? Is there some SCA slave trading Renne Faire thing that I don’t know about?


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Michael A.

    “The 1700s are, for the most part, a time of field encounters. You can’t have Marlborough hunkering down and waiting for Maximilian to blunder through an open gate. It just doesn’t feel right.”

    I have to disagree with this. The 17th-18th century was the time when the art of fortifications and sieges were perfected – I am sure you know who Vauban was.

    Especially early in the period, a lot of field battles were provoked by the need to protect/besiege crucial strategic fortifications, rather than any real wish for the “decisive” victory of the Napoleonic period. The war of Spanish Succession in particular dragged on for so long because of the heavy fortifications of the French/Dutch frontier. Part of the genius of Marlborough was his ability to strategically wrongfoot his enemies and force them to come to battle rather than hunker behind their fortifications.

    In the eastern and northern parts of Europe, where fortifications were less formidable – warfare was consequently more free-wheeling.

    Unfortunately, sieges are rarely as good gaming as field battles, so its probably no bad idea for them to turn the focus away from them. I generally like what I read about this game so far – although I wish they would spend less ressources on gore and glitz (flying dead horses?!?), and more on the game itself.

  • Troy

    Very familiar with Vauban. And, of course, Louisbourg and other forts dominated the American landscape. They were less central, I think, to military movements than castles were in the Medieval age because good strong forts were less widespread. I could be incorrect on that point as well.

    I clearly overstated, especially since, as you note, the early part of the century was much less free-wheeling than the Revolutionary Age.

    The problem was that in the other Total War games, you couldn’t be Marlborough, angling for that decisive battle because it didn’t matter what you did. The enemy would eventually come out and fight you even though it was better off inside the city and the enemy would storm the gates even though it was better off wearing you down for another turn or two. This was exacerbated in the Rome Total Realism mod where everything turned into a siege.

    I have no problem with flying dead horses so long as they fly at the right time and aren’t there to simply mess with my neat lines.

  • Krupo

    Sieges were huge fun, but they were, from what I recall from first year university History and the papers I wrote for it, not in cities as much, but in standalone forts.

    My only quibble with that entire article was describing the Prussian Empire as a 17th century combo of Germany and Poland.

    To the extent that modern Poland incorporates former German lands after the WWII shifts, that makes sense, but at first glance it sounded like the writer assumed an earlier partition of Poland than reality presented.

    Man, it’d be awesome for Poland to be a faction to allow players a chance to reverse that miserable 18th century decline…

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    Re: The slave trade

    I would quibble with you about leaving the slave trade out for the following reasons:

    1) The slave trade and its consequences take up a fairly big chunk of the history of that time. Not everyone’s going to know the reload times for a flintlock, but most folks will know there were slaves around, and it’ll look odd not having them, because…

    2) The slave trade had a big impact on the economies of various countries and colonies, which means…

    3) It has strategic relevance. A country that used slave labor would (I ass-u-me) have a larger pool of native manpower to draw on before putting soldiers in the field had an unacceptable impact on that country’s economic productivity. And having a restive and sufficiently large slave population might lead to revolt within a country, particularly if the bulk of that country’s forces were galavanting around thousands of miles away, or had just been significantly depleted.

    Just my off the cuff reaction, though. It only matters to the OCD in me, since the game is supposed to be loosely historical, and models economic factors, in addition to strictly military factors. That, and I think it’s dishonest to say the slave trade wasn’t relevant when what they really mean is the slave trade is still a touchy subject and they don’t want to model it.

  • Troy

    You misunderstand me.

    I’m not saying that the slave trade shouldn’t be represented in some abstract way as it is Europa Universalis (generic resources that increase and decrease in value) or as it is in Civ 4 (a civic that can cause problems if used too often or, in the expansion, can waste turns in revolt.) In fact, this seems the very route that CA would take and it’s a reasonable one. The African slave trade is an uncomfortable historical fact best not ignored.

    I’m just not sure that it’s wise to let players actively go out and harvest slaves and swap them for gold or frankincense or myrrh.

    Not that you need slavery for the game to reflect the period. Rome: Total War managed fine with just “enslave populace” and the occasional retainer, even though the Republic became heavily reliant on slave labor, though of a different type than the African slave trade. Similarly, Imperialism II and Colonization captured much of Empire‘s time frame well without the Triangle trade, though the latter game was properly insistent on modeling the pressures that led to displacement of the native populations.

    As important as slavery was, economically speaking, the Total War games are not “economic” games in any sense of the word. Trade flows in and out with just road and port improvements. In Medieval 2 you can plop a merchant on a “good” and reap a little cash. The best source of money in a Total War game is the pillage of an enemy city, which, historically speaking, was as likely to be divided among the troops as find its way home to improve catapult ranges and ballista towers. If you can’t properly model the economic “necessity” of slavery, you can make a good case that you should either abstract it or leave it out.

  • Application Overload

    […] to make that game accessible and interesting. In a comment earlier this week, a reader argued that the obvious importance of the African slave trade means that it has to be represented in Empire: Total War. And to some extent he’s […]