Creative Assembly, 2009
Video game review
Empire: Total War
A "one more turn!" game up there with Civ and GC2. Massive battles add to the experience but aren't required. Better than previous entries.
AI is ok but not astounding. Some lag on older computers and peculiar graphics quirks on some chipsets. Camera controls are pretty awful.
Terrible UI can make it impossible to move around. STOP FUCKING SHOOTING MY OWN FUCKING UNITS.
5


By 1766, the Franco-Spanish war had reached a stalemate. France, locked in domestic turmoil with her overseas dominions in North America, committed her army abroad--choosing to fight the war overseas, attacking Spain even well south of the Great Lakes. Spain's vast financial resources, however, allowed the crown to purchase equally vast amounts of military materiel, although nearly all of this was sunk into protecting tradelanes from the expansion of the United Kingdom.

The equilibrium, though, was unstable. With her American colonies progressively throttled as Spain gained the upper hand, the British Empire moved closer to the brink of concession. Throughout Europe, countries broadly understood the potential tinderbox. East of Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian compact controlled all of Eastern Europe and the gutted remains of the Austrian Empire. To Poland-Lithuania's direct west, Prussia exerted control over everything all the way to Amsterdam. Between Prussia and Spain lay only France.

Prussia, whose government was comparatively friendly with France and Poland, saw itself as the bulwark against possible Spanish expansion. The country was not on good terms with the Spanish Empire, terms that had weakened substantially with Madrid's decision to proselytise with increasing aggressiveness. The King's apparent mandate to take control of all of Europe for Spain left Prussian leaders equally aware that, if France fell, Berlin would be next on the chopping block. In 1765, the Reichstag ordered the country prepared for mobilisation, and with the approval of Louis XV of France, Army Group Red moved towards the Alps.

The Spanish annexation of Venice in August, 1766 proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Following news of the invasion, the Reichstag voted unanimously for war. Sending a detachment of the Home Guard to liberate Venice (and protect Prussia's southern border), Prussian commanders directed Army Group Red to cross into Spanish home territory.

Army Group Red was, at this point, then divided in two: General of the Army Hans Kastner remained in command of I Corps, reorganised with the infantry and artillery, with General Konrad Blucher taking control of II Corps with all the Army's cavalry save three regiments. II Corps fanned out, setting Spanish crops and vineyards alight. September 20th, I Corps reached Madrid. No attempt was made to hold the city; it was ransacked and burned.

At this time, the Spanish Army lay mostly in the south and west, suppressing rebellions in former Portugal. Its capital burning, however, and the government in flight, Spain quickly set about raising a second army. By the spring this had been completed, with a total of 32,000 men being raised to the cause. A mix of mercenaries, regular Spanish line infantry and partisan "guerrillas", the Spanish, under General Gutierrez, departed from Gibraltar in April. Hearing word of Spanish troop movements, Kastner dispatched a messenger to recall Blucher and pulled back from Madrid towards France.

Blucher moved slowly, taking advantage of his mobility to spend time pillaging Spanish towns and farms along the north coast. Kastner, meanwhile, set up camp south of Zaragoza, at the only major bridge permitting a crossing between France and Spain. By the winter, earthworks had been completed and, with no sign of the Spanish, the Prussians simply played a waiting game--Zaragoza being too important for the crown to simply abandon. In this way was the stage set.

Battle of the River Ebro, 1767

With Blucher well to the north, Kastner could count on only three cavalry regiments, though all were highly-trained and a number were seasoned combat veterans, having seen action against the Austrians four years prior. Beyond this, I Corps consisted of four regiments of crack light infantry--jaegers, in German--and four of standard line infantry, all told amounting to around ten thousand men. Supporting the Corps was a number of 24-pound artillery pieces, eight "Gatling guns" and a section of Congreve rockets, the men having been trained in England.

Opposing them in July, General Gutierrez could call upon twelve regiments of Spanish line infantry and eight of lighter guerrillas, comprising thirty thousand men. Kastner received word on the night of July 10th that Gutierrez planned on linking up with General Serrano, commanding an additional twenty thousand line infantrymen fresh from fighting in Portugal. The odds having now reached five to one, Kastner's advisors counselled him to withdraw.

Retreat, for Kastner, had two primary downsides. First, it gave up the most logical position for containing the Spanish Army. Second--and more importantly--it would strand Blucher, who could not be expected to hold his own against a force of that size. The possibility of facing a second army did compel him to make changes to his defensive posture.

Battle of the River Ebro I
Battle of the River Ebro, initial positions


The Ebro was crossable in two places, a stone bridge capable of fitting eight men abreast, and a wide, shallow ford. Judging the bridge an unlikely crossing-point, Kastner deployed his "Gatling guns" in concealed positions to address anyone who tried to cross. Putting his entire artillery battery on a bluff overlooking the ford, he then ordered mines dug in the sandy ground on the Prussian side of the crossing, setting his jaegers off in cover to either side of a natural path. All four line infantry companies he ordered to take position behind his earthworks.

The Spanish plan of attack was simple. The Prussian light infantry had not yet seen action, and Gutierrez was unaware of their deployment. For him, victory would be a simple matter of securing the ford with his guerrillas, who could move quickly to screen the main body of his army. Keeping Serrano in reserve, Gutierrez planned to make a beachhead and use his light infantry to flank the Prussians to the south, coupling this with an intense frontal assault.

Battle of the River Ebro II
Battle of the River Ebro, 10:00


Gutierrez initially planned on waiting until the afternoon, when the setting sun would be in the eyes of the defending Prussians. A combination of cloud cover and the harassment of the Prussian artillery, which could just reach his units, forced his hand and at 10 o'clock he ordered his light infantry forward.

What followed dissolved into catastrophe immediately. Halfway across the ford, and bogged down in the mud of the river, Gutierrez's light infantry began taking fire from Prussian sharpshooters still concealed. The volume of fire increased as they approached the far bank, though Kastner had ordered the bulk of his men not to engage. Having gained the Prussian side of the river, all hell broke loose. The Prussian artillery unloaded in a fierce barrage of canister shot, then kept up a constant rain of shrapnel into the ford. Despite being deafened by the roar of the cannon, the jaegers--picking off individual targets--then began a withering enfilading fire. By 10:30, three regiments of light infantry had been completely annihilated or broken without even having had the opportunity to return fire.

Gutierrez quickly perceived the situation turning against him, but with the weight of numbers declined to call off the attack. Instead, having identified the jaegers as a key threat, he shifted his attention to overrunning them, ordering his light infantry to test the strength of the Prussian lines. In the north, the jaegers held a shorter line but their numbers were only half-strength, and having failed to push through in the south he committed all his strength on breaking the Prussian stranglehold on the north.

Although heavily pressed, the jaegers managed to withdraw in a relatively orderly fashion. Despite this, and a constant fire being poured into the Spanish ranks, Kastner's position was precarious. The jaegers were neither deployed well enough nor strong enough in number to hold against the onslaught. Only the opening distance between the Spanish guerrillas and the trailing, slower line infantry presented itself as an opportunity; Kastner dispatched a regiment of cavalry to encircle the guerrillas.

Battle of the River Ebro III
Battle of the River Ebro, 11:15


This manoeuvre, however, proved unnecessary. Their lines stretched thin and now close enough to the Prussian trenches to draw massed fire from Kastner's line infantry, the Spanish guerrillas folded, abandoning their plans to pursue the jaegers and retreating, half-broken, into the oncoming main body of Gutierrez's army. From 12 to 12:30 a period of comparative quiet reigned over the battlefield as Gutierrez's army regrouped in the ford. Cautiously, Kastner moved his cavalry closer, to support his beleaguered northern jaegers.

At 12:45 Gutierrez ordered the attack resumed and, seeing the large movement of men, Kastner ordered his artillery batteries to hold fire. Subjected only to the sporadic harassment of the jaegers to the south, twenty thousand Spanish musketmen crossed the river unopposed. With half of them now across, Kastner detonated the mines that had been laid. In a flash and terrible roar, four regiments vanished completely, and before the dust had even cleared the batteries reengaged the remainder.

At this point, the Spanish offensive had completely stalled and now wavered uncertainly. With his batteries laying waste to the Spanish infantry near his line, Kastner now committed his cavalry in a massed charge against the men closer to shore. Against the fresh Prussian horses, Gutierrez's men broke ranks and fled, but there was nowhere to go. To the south, sniper fire from two jaeger regiments raked their ranks and prevented any escape. The only way was back across the ford, but here too the artillery was ruthless. In a desperate bid to stave off collapse, Gutierrez ordered Serrano committed, but Serrano had misjudged the rate at which the battle was progressing and was now too far away to matter.

Battle of the River Ebro IV
Battle of the River Ebro, 13:30


By 1:30 the battle had effectively concluded. At 2:00 Serrano's men crossed the ford but, facing fierce opposition and cannon fire, and shaken by the sight of their fallen comrades, they turned back with heavy casualties before ever reaching the lines. The Prussian cavalry commander now urged pursuit of the fleeing Spaniards, but Kastner--worried about leaving the cavalry trapped on the other side of the Ebro--declined. It was this, and not any particular strategy on Gutierrez's part, that saved the army from annihilation.

All told, Kastner had lost seven hundred men dead or wounded, the vast majority in the jaeger regiment that had borne the brunt of the Spanish assault; among this number was also around fifty cavalrymen, at least some of whom, it is suspected, perished from Prussian artillery. Gutierrez lost eighteen thousand dead and six thousand wounded; Serrano lost another five thousand dead or wounded. The "missing" figures for both were substantially higher, as many infantrymen simply fled and sought refuge in neighbouring towns, but when Gutierrez returned to Madrid he had only three thousand men out of the thirty-two he had started with.

Serrano saw the writing on the wall and took poison. Gutierrez stood trial in Madrid, defending himself against charges of gross mismanagement of his army. He suggested that it was possible the Prussians might've been employing witchcraft, but even in the land of Torquemada this was too much to bear. Although he asked to be beheaded, Gutierrez was hanged like a common criminal, sentenced for "the wholesale theft of the Spanish Army and all of Spain". It was the King's last act in Madrid before fleeing the city again for Seville, the Prussians close at their heels.

+++

This happened.

Not in real life, of course, but in a game called Empire: Total War, the latest entry in the series that also included the superb Rome: Total War, the... medieval... Medieval 2: Total War and a few entries previous, including the first Medieval and the original, a game set in feudal Japan that came out when I was in high school.

The basis, for those not familiar, is that Total War is a turn-based strategy game much like Europa Universalis except designed by people who understand a user interface. It is a little closer to Civ IV, actually, if Civ IV always played out on the same map and was divided into regions and didn't involve founding cities (the formation of new towns happens automatically in ETW). The AI is better, the diplomacy is a bit more involved, and the research tree is divided into several branches, but most of the elements are the same.

When a battle occurs, however, you have the option to take direct command, and if you do the game switches into a view of the battlefield. Each regiment is about 10 times smaller than it would be in real life, so a regiment with 160 men in it--each rendered individually--represents about 1600 in real life. Even with this scaling down, the battles are simply massive, with thousands of infantry and cavalry pitched against each other. You command troops by unit, not by click-dragging to select all of them, so it's really about ordering units on the strategic, rather than tactical, level.

The graphics are staggering, especially considering the scope of the game. Sunlight glints off bayonets and massive clouds of smoke rise from cannon batteries. Units no longer seem to be composed of clones of each other, as they were in different games; cavalrymen have horses of different hues. There is some arcadeishness--a cavalry charge literally scatters men into the air somehow--but for the most part the graphics are both realistic and compelling.

The game underneath the graphics is staggering as well. The AI in the turn-based mode is decent--not up to GC2 standards but definitely better than Civ's. Aside from some quirks--it's quite easy to buy them off, but they won't ever give you any tribute--it definitely works well, and can provide a competent challenge. The battle AI is also pretty good, and seems to be able to determine weak spots in your strategy fairly regularly. It's a little like chess, and feels somewhat cerebral--but it also feels good, when you pull off a gambit well or utterly crush an opponent. It doesn't feel entirely unearned.

There are some definite failings. Because you're ordering at the regimental level, you lose some nuance, and it can be hard to position people exactly where you want. Even worse, they don't look in front of them before they shoot--we're not talking about failing to determine which is your cavalrymen and which is theirs from a hundred yards away, here, we're talking about standing up and shooting the person in front of you right in the back, or artillery pieces unloading grapeshot into men standing still in front of the barrel. It can be incredibly frustrating to feel like you have the battle in the bag and then lose a quarter of a critical regiment to the overeagerness of some artillery captain.

The difference between ETW and, say, Far Cry though is that the gap between the awesome write-story-about times and the jesus-christ-this-sucks times is much, much smaller. Even at its worst, Empire: Total War is a credible game, and about 80% of the time even at its worst it's damned fun. Some people say it simply doesn't add enough to count as a new entry into the series; I don't buy that. It's definitely worth $30 or $40 and probably worth the $50 it's still commanding as of right now.

This is not to say it is completely flawless, of course. It lags my computer badly, and the UI can be slow and unresponsive. When it's not unresponsive, it can still be stupid. At 5 or 6 towns per province, my seven province Prussia has maybe 35 or 40 towns that could all have things built in them, but to get to this you have to click through each one individually. Such a fucking pain.

Trying to keep your provinces from rebelling can be an issue as well. As a monarchy, for instance, you face "clamour for reform". If this ever gets too high, your provinces rebel. If they do so frequently, you'll face a general uprising in which you can choose to side with the revolutionaries or the monarchy. Side with the revolutionaries and win, and you become a republic. This lessens the revolt risk somewhat, but it can still be irritating to have to micromanage it--though, to its credit, the game has strongly reduced the micromanagement required to play it effectively.

For all that, though, there's simply nothing like ETW. Each gameplay mode works independent of the other--you can simply create battles if you want, or you can play the campaign without ever understanding the difference between a double-envelopment and a doubloon. For fans of both, though, Empire continues Creative Assembly's proud tradition of delivering on their promises.

Oh and I hear you can have naval battles too now but I mean, Prussia. Navy? What navy?

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