Empire: Total War demo on Steam - it's a slice of win-cake

Posted on 25th Feb 2009 at 08:41 by Clive Webster with 2 comments

I’m not sure how I missed the Empire demo going on Steam last Friday, but somehow I did. I suspect Harry did too, as I’m sure we would’ve heard him saying "I’m leaving at six on the dot to go play Empire" last Friday. Cliff clearly didn’t miss the news but I only stumbled across it by accident when wondering whether to buy Dawn of War II through Steam or Play (why does it cost £11 more through Steam, by the way?). Anyhoo, I saw the ad for the Empire demo and started it downloading immediately.

Empire: Total War demo on Steam - it's a slice of win-cake <i>Empire: Total War</i> demo on Steam – it’s a slice of win-cake

The following are my initial thoughts on the two tutorials and the land battle that I had time to play before heading off for family funeral. (I’m not pitching for sympathy messages there btw, just explaining why I’ve only had time for a quick initial thoughts blog).

The intro video for Empire sets the scene very well. As we saw with our hands-on preview, the game has tremendous scale, covering land and sea battles across the world, and the political machinations to go with it. The demo only gives you a tutorial for land and sea warfare, and an historical battle at both land and sea, so we can’t see more about how the turn-based strategy map works as yet.

Empire: Total War demo on Steam - it's a slice of win-cake <i>Empire: Total War</i> demo on Steam – it’s a slice of win-cake

What I did get a feel for, even after a couple of hours of gameplay, was how the game looks, plays and feels as you orchestrate a battle. For example, I’ve already practically dismissed using Dragoons as they’re too fiddly to manage. Dragoons are cavalry units that need to dismount in order to fire their guns, and the constant dismounting and remounting makes them a pain to use effectively.

Empire: Total War demo on Steam - it's a slice of win-cake <i>Empire: Total War</i> demo on Steam – it’s a slice of win-cake

Dragoons seem to work reasonably well as shock-type cavalry, charging gun emplacements on horseback, but I suspect their recruitment cost will make me look elsewhere for that kind of unit. Cavalry still seems fairly potent in Empire, as mounted troops can charge around destroying gun emplacements quickly (just as I used to do in Medieval II and Rome). Gun batteries could therefore need some anti-horse protection.

While I’ll need more persuasion to use Dragoons, canon units seem to be brilliant in Empire. Not only do they quickly destroy buildings (killing any troops garrisoned with) but they also demoralise and rout non-garrisoned infantry units fairly quickly. Horse-drawn cannon is also very manoeuvrable, but it looks as though standard cannon can’t be moved.

I did notice a few niggles with the otherwise excellent Empire however. The shot below shows you an error with the depth of field effect for example:

Empire: Total War demo on Steam - it's a slice of win-cake <i>Empire: Total War</i> demo on Steam – it’s a slice of win-cake

It seems that the depth of field blurring is applied to the entire screen from a certain height upwards, and is not dependent on the Z-depth of the object being drawn – see how the rigging of the Dutch ship in the foreground blurs at a certain height. I also got a bit annoyed at the slowness of scrolling across the battlefield when zoomed in – even speed-scrolling with Shift is sluggish. Scrolling is much quicker when zoomed out, but I found myself muttering under my breath every time I had to zoom out in order to scroll from one end of a battle line to other (I wanted to see all my troops firing off their muskets as I sweep across).

A double-click on a unit - to focus the camera on that unit - also places the camera too far behind that unit for my liking. When switching to a unit, I want to see as much of what’s happening in front of that unit as possible, not what’s happening behind it. I also find it a bit weird that you can select two different move speeds for ships at sea (just as you can have land units run). Surely a ship doesn’t tire if it quick-moves, so why would ever want a ship to travel and less than full speed? I’ll need to do a bit more research here, but if you’ve worked this out, please leave a comment below.

Empire: Total War demo on Steam - it's a slice of win-cake <i>Empire: Total War</i> demo on Steam – it’s a slice of win-cake

I do like the way that a unit’s travel path is displayed on the battle field though (see pic above) as you can instantly see whether a unit is going to march dumbly toward danger. I was also quite pleased at my frame rate which hovered between 25fps and 32fps at 1,680 x 1,050 with maximum detail settings and 2x AA and 2x AF – I really thought Empire was going to be a system killer, but it seems okay. I do have a Core 2 Quad overclocked to 3GHz, 2GB of RAM, Windows XP and an overclocked GeForce 9800 GTX+ though, which isn’t an overly modest system. How’s your frame rate on your system? Post specs and fps below!


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nicae 25th February 2009, 11:34 Quote
I've pre-ordered E:TW, and haven't downloaded the demo as we're so near the release!

Which C2Q are you running? I'm wondering if E:TW will miss the extra cores on my E8400. Let's see!

The Z-Buffer bug must be something localised or driver-related. If you search for gameplay videos on Youtube, you'll notice it doesn't seem to happen with others. Maybe it's AA related?

The game seems fun! Can't wait!
Tyrmot 25th February 2009, 11:40 Quote
Agreed, the 'marching lines' are a nice touch and definitely help when telling units to move around somewhere compared to earlier games. The scrolling is way too slow yes, I'm assuming (hoping?) that there will be options to change this in the final product. I found the need for formations a lot more interesting/important than before, a 'thin red line' of infantry volleying musket fire into the yankee cavalry did a much better job of breaking them than my initial tactic of trying to bayonet them!

I would suppose that the variable ship speeds are firstly for realism's sake but also I can see where if a ship got separated or something you might want it to set full sail where your main fleet is only moving at half-speed or so? You also need to slow down to unleash a nice broadside on the frogs as well...

I was running an E8500 @ 3.6Ghz, 6GB RAM and a stock 8800GTX with the same settings and got no slowdown at all so I'm v happy! Was wondering if I'd have to push the OC a bit further for this one until now
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