Reviewing Creative Assembly's latest epic and it's potential for modding.
Posted by Bird_of_Prey on Jun 29th, 2009
In the year 2000, Creative Assembly released Shogun: Total War, the first in their long lived and critically acclaimed series of strategy games. Since the feudal Japan themed Shogun, the Total War series has covered conflicts in the Roman era and twice gone Medieval. Empire takes places in the turbulent 18th century, a time when empires were expanding into the new world and the muskets and cannons where the height of military technology. If you're into strategy games than you've probably already heard about the game, maybe even read reviews, played the demo, or even bought it by now. But what about it's modding potential? This review will be exploring what can be done with this game and it's engine, though it is by no means the end all on the subject. By the end of this article, I hope to give you enough information to make an informed decision on whether Empire: Total War is a suitable candidate to be the vehicle for your particular creative vision. To this end I'd like to bring three points to your attention.
Moddability: Not all games can be modded, however, some are more easily modded than others. A game might only have third party tools available, while other have first party, fully supported mod SDKs.
Popularity: This is more a matter of whether you're making a mod just for the fun of it or to be played by the greatest number of people. If a game is dead or dying you may not want to start modding for it. Making a good mod can take years, so ask your self if people are going to be willing to load up this game to play your mod when it's done.
Flexibility: some engines can be bent and worked out of it's original form to make something completely new, others can break with only slight deviations. You have to be thinking about what type of mod you are making and if it will fit into the game you're modding.
So how does Empire measure up? Let's take a closer look at each point.
One good indicator of what is possible with a game is to look at mods that are already out for it. Currently, mods are a little scarce for Empire: Total War. While there are some promising projects in the works, the lack of official tools means that most of the mods out are just tweaks to the interface and factions. Considering that the game is still fairly young, this isn't surprising. A mod development kit is in the works, but until then modders have to make do with third party utilities. One that I was able to find was the Pack File Manager, which allows you to pack and unpack assets into files that the game can read. These “.pack” files hold packed game data, as the name suggests, and are designed to stay packed. The packs can be one of three types: Release, Patch or Mod. Each successive level overrides the one below it, so that patch data is on top of release data and mods are on top of the patches. This allows for a very none destructive mod system, though multiple mods trying to override the same data can conflict with each other. This means that there is no need to have players unpack files in order to play a mod. You can read more about the file system in this post on the Total War Blog.
At this point the game is moddable, but very limited. We're still waiting for the mod SDK, so there are many unknowns. This doesn't mean that you can't do anything, or that you can't get started on the preliminary stages of mod development. You just might want to be a little conservative in your goals until you can get your hands on the tools.
The game as been generally well received by critics, and sales of the game have certainly been strong. Empire has regularly been in the top 10 PC games sales charts for both retail and digital several times. They're recently released DLC also did very well, topping newer games like Prototype and and ArmA2 in revenue on Steam when first released (and considering that it costs almost fifteen times less, that's rather impressive). It is without a doubt the best selling Total War game to date, with more copies sold than Rome and Medieval II combined. This means that there is a huge potential player base for any mods made for it.
Before we discuss how much the game can go beyond it's original design, let's look at that design. Empire: Total War fallows the same formula used in all of the Total War games to date with two types of gameplay in the single player campaigns. The first type takes place on the campaign map, which has three theaters this time around (Europe, India and the New World). On the map are representations of all of your cities, towns, armies, ships and other units spread across predetermined territories. This part of the game is turn based with each nation moving one at a time. It is here that you move your armies and manage your empire. Set taxes to generate income, but beware rebellion from over taxed citizens and local economic contraction. With the money you earn you can build buildings to produce goods for a town, research more advance technology, fortify the city, increase happiness in the provinces or recruit military units.
When opposing armies meet on the campaign map the battle can either be auto resolved, if you're sure you'll win and are in a hurry, or you can fight the battle in real time. These real time confrontations are the second type of gameplay. Units are in groups according to their types, allowing you to easily control hundreds of troops at a time. You can set their position within an area on your side of the battlefield before the engagement starts to better set up your strategy. Once battle starts you must make the best use of your troops and the battlefield to ware down the enemy moral. The later time period means that ranged weaponry is much more advanced than in any previous Total War game. You're main line infantry use muskets, though bows and arrows are still used by some nations, and melee is still a very viable option. There is also more in the way of artillery at your disposal.
Empire is also the first Total War game to have naval combat. Ships act as individual units in battle and move as fleets on the campaign map. Battles on the high seas are much like their dry counterparts, but the the crew/hull/sail damage dynamic that should be familiar to anyone that's played many games set in the age of sail.
There are two single player campaigns that you can play through. The “Road to Independence” campaign puts you in charge of the thirteen colonies in North America, allowing you to build up to becoming the United States. The “Grand Campaign” on the other hand is more free form, allowing you to pick any nation you want with a variety of victory conditions. You can also play quick battles that allow you to jump right into real time battles, either historical or contrived, on land and at sea. Currently multi-player is limited to real time skirmishes, but there are planes to make full campaigns playable online in a future update.
The Total War games have always been noted for their technical achievements in graphics, and Empire is no different. While landscapes tend to be a little bleak, this is a mater of function to accommodate the vast armies that march across them. Thousands of troops can be on screen during the real time battles and each one is exceptionally detailed. Sea battles are similarly impressive, though the water tends to tile when you're zoomed out. Even the campaign map is rendered in full 3D and looks rather good. Though not quite as impressive as the RTS sections, it's still an improvement over previous games. But if you want to see Empire in all it's glory, you'll need a descent computer. The game can scale down but I wouldn't recommend it for anyone using a computer that's more than three years old, unless you're going to set everything to low. In the end, Empire offers an impressive graphics engine that shouldn't hold back your artistic vision, at least in the RTS battles. The campaign map is much more limiting in what you can do so you might not be able to add every little detail.
Empire, much like previous Total War games, is built primarily to do one thing and do it well; combine turn based, empire management with massive, real time battles in a historic setting. While the addition of naval combat and the emphasis that the era brings to ballistic weaponry opens up your options quite a bit, the engine still feels fairly closed and inflexible. This tends to be a problem with all strategy games (though Warcraft 3 certainly showed that it's not impossible). It's possible that this will all change when the modding development kit becomes available, with new tools comes new possibilities. Judging from previous Total War titles, it's not going to be impossible to create total conversions, but it probably won't be very easy. However, if you're looking to create a mod that fallows the Total War formula and is technically similar, you might find Empire to be one of your best choices.
In summery, Empire: Total War is another masterpiece of real time strategy from Creative Assembly. While technical problems bogged down the initial release, I experienced little to no trouble in my time with the game. It's hard to deliver a decisive verdict on the Empire's viability as a mod platform at this time as the SDK is still unreleased, but progress by modders already working with the limited resources available give hope. Again, it's going to be a bit hard to totally change the gameplay. But if you have a Total War type of mod in mind, this is the best Total War yet to do it on.
Powerful graphic engine
Large, loyal fan base
Perfectly suited to historical mods
No SDK, yet
System requirements may be steep for older computers
No evidence of much flexibility in the game engine
Still no multiplayer campaign mode, yet
Load times can be long for large battles