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Old 08-22-2007, 04:15 AM   #1
sharky~
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Empire Total War (omg yes!)

Quote:
Napoleon had the perfect quote for this moment. "One must change one's tactics every ten years if one wishes to maintain one's superiority."

This is what he meant. The developers of the Total War games are changing their tactics. Out go suits of armour, big sticks and straightforward conquests of Europe. In come ships. Cannons. Muskets. Steam power. The American Revolution. The race for colonisation. Men in extravagant hats.

Are you excited yet?

One of the greatest names in PC gaming is getting a makeover. An epic, empire-building, sea-faring makeover. So take Napoleon's advice to heart....

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Empire is being developed by Creative Assembly in a mechanical-looking office block just inside the Horsham ring road. Presenting it to me are James Russell, lead designer, and Mike Simpson, founder of the company.

Organised and precise, James is working from a list of pre-typed bullet points. Mike is different: a distracted, intellectual, almost Doctor Who-like figure. While James lists the things they're prepared to talk about ("I think it's fair to say we'll be improving the campaign map"), Mike enthuses about the issues that interest him.

Such as game design: "It's easy to design a complicated system. Hard to design an easy system that retains flavour", gusts of wind: "The thing is, gusts don't actually move at the speed of the wind," and programming: "Getting 10,000 guys to collide with each other, and objects, and find their way out of a paper bag - now that's a problem".

Both share a passion: their games, and the periods they're set in. Best of all, for them the two subjects are almost entirely interchangeable. They'll talk about the game and the history in the same breath. Every time they mention a tactic or strategy, they'll reference what happened in the real world, and how it's identical in the game. They don't use special-case scenarios to illustrate how their battles work. They just pick an example from history and say: "Yes, you can do that."

Spend even a few minutes with them, and you feel the same passion.

The Total War games are a delicious mix of grand strategy and battlefield tactics. Empires are planned from birth to death, princesses married off to loyal generals, armies raised, alliances arranged. But when nations clash the focus switches: now you're controlling the troops themselves, commanding cavalry to ride down routing archers, ordering cannons to assault an enemy castle.

There are some fundamental truths to Total War. The first is the holy trinity of pikes, archers and cavalry. Cavalry will cut down archers, no question, but will buckle if charged into pikes. But pikes are slow and vulnerable to archer fire.

In Empire, that's a thing of the past. The new 1700s-to-early-1800s setting, with its muskets and artillery, demands new stratagems. Generals will have to rethink their entire approach.

Total War's second rule is that battles at sea are fought silently. When great navies clash, you're just handed the result. In Empire, that's been fixed. Add maritime warfare to your list of required skills.

Total War's third fundamental is that you're there to paint Europe your nation's colour, invading your neighbours from the outset, developing a giant hammer of an army to crack open the continent.

That, too, is no longer true. Empire is about exploration and conquest, founding colonies and fighting wars away from home. Sure, you can invade your neighbour. But there's wealth to be had in India and the Americas.

So, Empire is an epic strategy game starting in the early 1700s, in which you direct your nation to dominate not just Europe, but the known world. A question: why then?

Mike has a couple of prerequisites for a Total War setting. "One is a shift in technology to drive the arms race. The second is lots of different factions all vying for some prize, where in reality any of them could have won but only one of them did."

Empire's technological leap is the industrial revolution - where the hand- and horse-powered mills and factories were replaced across Europe with steam and smoke. Tactics and battle plans changed extraordinarily in the process: soldiers began the period carrying sharpened sticks and swords, and ended it with muskets.

Cavalry lost its dominance. "In this period, the key use of cavalry was not to plough into the infantry, but to scare and harass the infantry into remaining in a square formation."

Formations? 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."

Why? Because a flat line of men firing will obliterate a single target. If that unit is placed into a square, only a quarter of the men, those facing it, can fire. But columns, men filing behind each other, present a small target to the inaccurate muskets of the men. The men in front might take a few bullets, but those behind will survive.

The key battle of the era was Waterloo (but not the only battle: "Why does everyone always come back to bloody Waterloo?" Mike grumbles). It's a grand demonstration of the tactics available to you in Empire.

At the halfway point of the battle, British infantry took up position along a ridge, firing down at the French armies. Mike takes up the story. "Columns of French [infantry] marched up towards the British line stationed on a ridge. The British maintained their line, and managed to chase them off. The French then charged with cavalry - they got a bit impetuous and just all went - so the British formed squares. But because the French didn't have any infantry supporting the cavalry, the English could see them off again. They repeated that cycle a number of times - they couldn't get infantry and cavalry to the English lines at the same time."

That brings up some important questions. We've all seen episodes of Sharpe, or other period dramas where musket men wait for the very last second to fire, to guarantee their rounds will hit. Will we, as generals, have that kind of control over our men?

"Yes," says James. "We will have a fire button. It's a sort of override tool so you can time your shot when you want to. And timing is critical. Let off muskets too early, and you won't do enough damage. Let off your muskets too late in the face of a cavalry charge, and you've got every chance of being crushed by a flying dead horse."

It's not just the troops that face technological upgrades. The battlefields themselves are getting revamped. A new emphasis on battlefield buildings plays directly into the heart of era combat.

"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."

Add to that a new ballistics and physics model that enables you to take down buildings a cannonball at a time, and ragdoll soldiers who leave great stains of blood and death on the field, and you have a recipe for carnage-based hilarity.

James laughs as he describes the battles he's already fought. "Cannonballs go through people, they bounce, and they bounce differently depending on the surface they hit. They leave huge stripes of dead bodies as the unit routs."

Unfortunately for these poor units, there's one place where they just can't rout. A place where they can't flee muskets, and have to stare cannonballs in the face.
It's on the water. Under-decks, loading shot in one of Empire's great galleons, in a naval battle. Commanding those ships under fire is going to be awe-inspiring.

When James and Mike talk about the period Empire is set in, they repeatedly affirm that the 1700s were the "great age of sail". It's a time when the nations of Europe realised there was serious loot around the world, loot that could, if captured, fund their own expansion. Every nation wanted a piece of the action - and were willing to kill to get it. It is the perfect time period with which to demonstrate Creative Assembly's new naval combat technology.

Sea battles have been absent from Total War games since the series' inception. Why? "We've always wanted to do naval battles," says Mike, "but we've always wanted to do them properly - that's why we haven't tackled them in previous games. It's a big chunk. If you're going to do it, you have to do it really, really, really well."

How well? "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."

You'll command not just one ship, but entire fleets, using the full range of tactics and stratagems from the period. Want to know how's it's going to play? Watch Master and Commander - and just imagine what it's like to be Russell Crowe.

Mike is enthused. "We've got a full and very detailed damage model on these ships. The cannonballs can damage the hull, they'll damage the panels they go through, they'll kill individual men, they also knock down masts, tear sails off... that obviously affects the manoeuvrability of your ships. You can tell your ships whether you want to aim at the sails or at the hull, or at the men on the decks. You can choose what ammunition to load, or even whether to board an enemy ship."

Best of all, you'll see and feel it all: the wind in the sails, the choking atmosphere of the gun-deck as the crew frantically reload the cannons, the fights on deck... the man at the steering wheel, driving the boat. Umm. Maybe we need to read up on the actual nautical terms before we start wearing epaulettes.

Reading up might indeed be helpful, because naval tactics is an entirely new subject for even Total War veterans. Learn from the experts. Such as Nelson. Or James.

"You want to cross in front or behind - it's called crossing the enemy's T. That's the classic line of battle. You want to line ships up so your gunnery faces the enemy: essentially the ships are just great big floating double-deckers full of guns. You want those rows facing the enemy. There are other tactics: doubling, where you effectively get your line of ships around the front of the enemy, and bring them around the enemy's line so you're firing from both sides."

Mike: "That's important because boats only have enough gun-crew to fire from one side at once. You're getting a two-to-one advantage."

"Exactly," says James. "That's a tactic we can get in the game. It works. Similarly, raking fire - what Nelson did at Trafalgar - was precisely the opposite. He charged in and fired along the longitudinal axis of the ships, from stern to bow (from back to front - Naval Translation Ed). Instead of the cannonball going through one gun-crew and out the other side, potentially it could plough all the way along the decks, and take out nearly all the gun crews in a single shot."

The conversation changes tack. While the battle sequences of the Total War games are the eye-catching, extravagantly brilliant banner feature, purists know that the real challenge comes from the long-term building of a kingdom - the campaign game. How will all these battles affect the wider world?

By way of an answer, Mike talks about Creative Assembly's plans for the Total War series. They work on two titles at a time. The first is a brand new Total War game, using new technology, and new ideas. The second game builds on the first - using the same ideas but improving upon them with a new setting. This is the third time the company has begun that cycle. Medieval was an evolution of the original Shogun. Then, CA rebuilt their tech for Rome: Total War, and evolved from that Medieval II. Empire is the next revolution.

Why go through that process? "At the same time that we start the second game we start work on the completely new engine. From the coder's point of view, that gives you a nice clean codebase to work from. If you evolve an engine over more than two iterations, plus the add-ons, it starts to... creak. It turns to spaghetti. If you start from scratch, everything takes a great leap forward - usually in speed, but in technique as well."

James takes up the theme. "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."

Throwing out those systems should fix the quirks, while allowing for new game mechanics. The big change for the fans is the reinvention of army movement. "It's fair to say that the campaign map in Rome and Medieval was divided into army-sized tiles," says James. "Each tile could hold one army. In Empire, there's no tiling system. The player will never see any type of tiling artefact - it's entirely freeform. It's like taking the squares off the chessboard."

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.

Who will those invaders be? CA are careful not to name specific factions for the campaign game yet - mainly because it isn't finished. But there are obvious candidates. Great Britain formed as a single nation in 1707 - and already had significant holdings in America. Its first task in Empire would be secure these and prevent their revolt - the American Revolution of 1775. Even if America does secede, there's always India, over which Britain and France fought viciously during the Seven Year War.

The French are a shoo-in, too. France held significant portions of Canada, Louisiana, and modern Senegal before the game begins, again finding themselves in conflict with the British.

The German Empire, led by Prussia, a 17th century amalgam of Germany and Poland, has a tough start: it was almost bankrupt after the devastating 30 Years' War. To add to its problems, its empire was fragmented and overstretched. And the bubonic plague killed a third of its civilians in 1708. Nevertheless, it managed to field significant armies and allied with Britain during the Seven Years' War against France and the rest of Europe.

The Ottoman Empire held much of south-eastern Europe and north Africa, while fending off Russian armies to the north, but began to decline in the early 1700s - partly because of its reluctance to rise to the challenge of industrialisation.
But the biggie is Yankeeland. CA are going to enable players to play as the newly colonised Americas, fighting for their independence from the British. The revolutionary war began in 1775 and continued on until 1783 - the tail end of Empire's period, but that doesn't matter.

All that matters is that with a good general and an influx of well-drilled soldiers, Britain should be able to prevent secession.

But the setting brings up other questions. Contentious questions. During the 1700s, Britain and other countries were actively involved in the slave trade, while we're still feeling the effects of colonialism. Are CA about to walk into an ethical minefield?

Mike chooses his words carefully. "Our instinct is to purely tell it how it was. I actually don't think anyone will be too upset about us portraying colonisation in the game - it happened and unless you delete vast quantities of history you can't get rid of it. It was a force for good and ill and exactly what the balance of that is, it's up to historians to work out."

But slavery is different? "Yes. I think the best bet is to include it, but not to have it as a gameplay feature." The Total War games are full of events that change how you play the game - like the Marian reforms that restyle the armies of Rome, or the discovery of the New World that sees you racing to subjugate the Aztecs in Medieval II.

As Mike explains it, slavery appears, but it's not something you can actively get involved in. "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."

When I explained Empire to friends and gamers, they expressed concerns that the 1700s didn't feel violent enough. That it's too civilised, too smart. Too... Jane Austen.
That's not true. This is an extraordinary time in history. It's a time of revolution, both American and French. It's a time of massive industrialisation: I was shown drawings of steam-liners and technology that goes well past the 1820 closing date to enable players to create 'what-if' scenarios.

It's a time of commercial warfare: India wasn't colonised by a country but by a state-approved business, the Honourable East India Company. And it's the period in which the modern democracies were born. It's an extraordinary period in time. It deserves an extraordinary game.
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Old 08-22-2007, 10:46 PM   #2
Decado
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Glad to hear they're finally using a new engine.

That said, while the addition of ship battles is cool, I don't like the change to the gun powder age. Hopefully their next game will go back to earlier times again.

Sure as hell looks better than their God of War rip-off.
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