Why I’m Not Excited About Empire: Total War

May 19, 2008

The original Medieval: Total War is one of my favorite games to this day, as I still play with it frequently. I remember buying the game when it came out, playing through the tutorials, starting up a campaign, and for the next several weeks ( I was off of work for the holidays at the time) I left my computer only to lift weights, eat, and sleep. For the next couple of years, MTW did not budge from my hard drive, and I was nearly jumping for joy when I first heard about the upcoming sequel, Rome TW.

The fanfare behind Rome was wild, with screenshots being posted online and in magazines that at the time could cause your jaw to drop to the ground, and endless previews raved on and on about how great the game would be, better in every way than Medieval, and with a gorgeous new 3D strategy map that would revolutionize gameplay. This was during a time when computer games were still something of a seperate beast from console games, and the outright merging of development of the two had yet to occur. In hindsight, the trend to notice above was the fanfare being something like “GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS ai improvements GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS!”. Granted, at the time, I was overall pretty happy with the AI opponent in Medieval which, while not brilliant, was capable of putting up a good challenge, could hold it’s own in the tactical battles, and would jockey for position around the risk-style 2D strategy map just as you the player would, moving its forces to garrison provinces that could be threatened and attacking if it saw a good opportunity to. A big graphical upgrade with the same core gameplay would have suited me just fine, and was just what I expected Rome to be- I couldn’t wait for the game to be released. Soon afterward it was, and I ran out and bought it, installed like a kid getting a new toy at Xmas, oohh’d and ahh’d over the graphics, started up a campaign… and began to become the cynical, bitter prick that I am toward Creative Assembly and the Total War series to this day.

The first thing to see was that the faction selection screen contained a whopping 3 choices. Out of these 3 choices, ALL were different branches of the Rome faction. A quick look at the manual informed me that now, in a “New Streamlined Gameplay!” decision by Creative Assembly, you had to “unlock” other factions by conquering them before you could play as them. At first, I was bewildered as to why this console-inspired crap was ever allowed into a Total War game, but after playing an hour or so with the campaign it became clear- few of the other factions were fleshed out or exciting in the slightest, and the only really “complete” one out of the box was the Roman factions. Now, in Medieval, you had a choice from the start of which faction to play as, there were quite a few, and all managed to have something of a unique “feel” to them beyond their names and starting positions on the map. Not so in RTW. As Rome, you could train a whole horde of units, from historically correctly-named (but horrifically unhistorically portrayed) Roman soldiers, to ridiculous units such as flaming pigs, wardogs, and “Arcani”, cutesy little ninja-like Roman supermen. Dragging these units into war with the Gallic faction to the north showed a stark contrast between attention paid to Rome, and “The Gauls” of western europe as you found your armies faced with endless stacks of “barbarian warbands”, “barbarian archers”, “barbarian swordsmen”, and of course more fantasy crap such as “screaming women”.

The big popular myth is that the “barbarians”, when they weren’t too busy grunting and groveling in the dirt, attacked the Romans in huge mobs with no thought for order or tactics, using primitive weapons and losing. In turn, the super-soldier Romans won by using proper tactics against the poor dumb barbarians who never learned their lesson and didn’t bother fighting with anything but the most rudimentary weapons. This is a Roman whitewashed version of history, is obviously what CA was going for with their portrayal of any “barbarian” faction in the game, and makes for one seriously boring set of enemies to do battle with. By the unit types and stats alone, the player as the Romans simply could not lose if they had the slightest clue as to what they were doing and an army of roughly half the size of the enemy’s or larger. Added to this, it appeared that CA had forgotten to include any sort of battle AI in the game at release. Unlike Medieval, in which the AI would attempt to outmaneuver the player, skirmish with missile troops, and flank with cavalry, the AI in Rome loved to charge its entire army right up the middle, usually with it’s General in the lead, no matter what the battle situation was. The “suicidal general” phenomenon, which was already a problem in Medieval, was made much worse in this case because 9 times out of 10, the AI would have it’s general killed in the first five minutes of fighting, and then no matter how dramatically they outnumbered the player, their army would rout and haul ass off of the map. You could forget about using light cavalry to run them down like in Medieval though, as now in RTW cavalry sent after routing units would just kindly run up beside them and escort them off of the map, occasionally killing one of two of them in the process but mainly just staying peacefully back and running alongside.

Unfortunately, the Strategic AI didn’t fare so well either. Remember the gushing previews about the great new 3D map that would revolutionize and improve gameplay? The AI was just too inadequate to use such a map properly, and this became obvious as soon as you went to war with them. Let’s rewind a bit here, and recall the MTW strategic AI: It wasn’t brilliant by any means, and there really wasn’t much to it- diplomacy was nearly nonexistant, allying (by diplomats or by marriages) and declaring war (by invading a faction) being your only options, with allies only being much less inclined to attack you and not good for much else. What it DID do well though, was to move it’s forces into threatend provinces as needed, and attack the player at any weak point it could find. With Rome, the strategic AI went berzerk. No matter what you did, how long you’d been allied, or how much it liked you, if you shared a border, it would attack you relentlessly. The AI had no fear at all when it came to gathering up an “army” of a few skirmishers and spearmen to besiege a fully garrisoned city of your own, and which the player could happily just sally out and destroy. In the case of a scary looking AI army besieging and then assault one of your settlements, any trepidation about the battle would quickly dissolve when you realized that, no matter what, the AI would first park its army at your walls in range of arrow towers and archers, and then happily lead its charge through your gates with its General, suiciding him and routing it’s own army before most of them could even make it into your walls. Garrisons of skirmishers and a spear unit could defeat an entire enemy army in this fashion, ensuring that no challenge whatsoever would come from defending your cities against even the most fearsome enemy armies.

The really awful thing was, after destroying a few enemy armies in the above fashion and then leading one or two of your own into their territory, the player quickly realizes that many times, the AI would rather just stand it’s armies around threatend cities to watch them be sacked than actually try to defend them in any fashion. Not only did the AI not bother to garrison it’s threatened cities any longer, many times it wouldn’t even bother to attack an invading player’s army! Unlike the 2D MTW map which simply used any units stationed in a province to defend it, the new 3D map only allowed armies to fight which came into direct contact with each other, and apparently no one bothered to program the AI to give a damn about it’s own cities. It also had no idea how to use the new special features such as building forts or laying ambushes, and loved to create 3 or 4 “armies” of a handful of units each, and never combine them into any sort of real force. Then, after all of this, if you had backed the AI into its last city, overpowering it completely in troops and money with an inevitable, bloody defeat looming for said AI faction, it would absolutely refuse any sort of ceasefire treaty, many times turning around and demanding tribute or land from the player about to annhiliate it, and follow with an “Accept or we will attack!”. Basically, the 3D map succeeded in taking all of the challenge out of the strategic game.

The most disturbing thing of all, though, was that most people seemed to be too busy orgasming over the graphics to even notice any flaws in the gameplay. Mainstream game magazines and review sites gave RTW near perfect scores, just as high as Medieval’s ratings, with NO mention at all of any of the flaws in the game. Worse still, anyone (and there were quite a few) who dared to criticize any aspect of the game on forums online would usually end up getting their asses flamed off for disagreeing with the idea that RTW was the best, most flawless strategy game to date. I was disappointed, felt ripped off, and figured CA was just following the almighty dollar in doing all they could to make the game prettier and easier for the masses out there.

No real challenge on the strategic map, and pathetically easy to win battles made for one boring game to me, and I quickly went back to Medieval instead, 2D pixel graphics and all. I became hooked on MTW again, and started losing sleep over the game, while it’s ugly bastard little brother Rome sat collecting dust in my CD rack. RTW finally got some attention from me when a new mod called Europa Barbarorum surfaced, far from complete at the time but giving the game an immense historical overhaul and already adding some actual challenge back to it. I became a big fan of EB and looked forward to every update, while still mainly playing MTW as my favorite game of it’s type. Around the time that EB started to really come together and begin to be completed, news of a new TW game, Medieval 2, started hitting the internet and magazines.

The previews, once again, went something like this: “Amazing new graphics!” “Major Graphical Upgrades from Rome!” “Beautiful Units and Buildings”, and etc. This time, however, there were some honest to goodness comments from the developers about major improvements in the game AI, both on the strategic and tactical maps. I actually started to get excited for the game when hearing interviews with the game developers stating that “the strategic AI will now act more like a player would in it’s decisions”, and that the battle AI would be dramatically improved, including a quote saying something about how playing battles on “very hard” against an equal AI force would now be very difficult to win. I really thought they were serious, finally addressing the criticisms of Rome’s AI being tremendously inferior to that of Medieval, and started to really get excited about the new game.

When the Medieval 2 demo was released, made up of a couple of historic battles, I tried it out and actually had some fun with it. The battles were fun to play, the AI actually seemed competent enough to hold it’s own (apparently the historical battle AI was scripted), and the game looked really nice on top of it all. M2 was released, and once again, I went out and bought it.

The first thing I truly disliked was that the “unlockable” faction BS was back. I have no idea why game developers think this is a good decision, but knew beforehand that it was there and that one could easily edit the game’s ini file and allow all factions to be selected from the start. This time at least, the other factions hadn’t been just blatantly ignored and weren’t of the same generic, boring nature that many of Rome’s were. I started up a campaign as England, started building some improvements, ended my turn, recruited some units, ended a few more turns, and started looking around on the screen to figure out what the campaign date was. It was nowhere in sight. The only thing showing was a counter displaying the turn number, doing it’s best to destroy any sense of the passage of time, so I jumped online and figured out that, to switch this over to the game date instead, one again had to edit the ini file. At first, I was thinking CA did this solely to annoy previous TW players, but once I’d enabled the date over turns command, something else strange began to happen. The date after each turn seemed to be glitched, like it would go from 1 year per turn to 2, back to 1, on and on. Another look online showed that game turns now consisted of 1.5 years each, instead of the standard 1 yr/turn of the previous games. No one bothered to correct the character’s age however, so faction leaders, governors and generals now regularly lived to be well over 100 yrs old and still fighting battles.

Annoying as this was, I could put up with it and not notice if the game was good otherwise, so I kept at my campaign. I was impressed to see my rivals, Scotland and France, actually form an alliance together, and a turn or so later, France attacked! This seemed like a big change from the randomly aggressive AI of Rome, and the apparent action of France allying with my neighbor before attacking was neat as well, so I ignored the fact that the French army which led the war declaration was a handful of archers and spearmen attacking one of my heavily garrisoned castles. I gave the game a couple of turns to see if the AI France would then bring in the larger army sitting on my border to combine with it’s pathetic besieging army, but alas, the larger army didn’t seem to care. Distracting me however was the declaration of war against me from Scotland, as a larger Scot army began attacking my settlement of York! I was really getting excited now, thinking that maybe the strategic AI had really been souped up and would provide a challenge yet again. A couple of turns later, the besieging Scots assaulted my city….

I took great care in positioning my defenders, with archers on the walls, spearmen guarding the gate, and a “bodyguard” of spearmen mercs in the castle center with my general. Watching the AI move up, I was hoping for a real bloodbath, as they outnumbered me by a large margin and any halfway competent player would be able to win by numbers alone. The AI moved it’s ram to my gate… then proceeded, RTW-style, to go ahead and park it’s ENTIRE ARMY, general and all, right behind the ram just in front of my wall defenses. The men manning my wall towers and archers I’d positioned along the battlement must have felt like they were witnessing a miracle as they proceeded to loose arrows and mow down half of the Scot army before my gate even fell. I’m already becoming angry at this blatant act of AI stupidity as they smash down my gate, and then- well you guessed it, in charges the suicide general, right into a wall of spears, killing himself and causing the whole army to rout a few minutes later. In all, I lost a handful of spearmen and archers, while the Scot army, both larger than mine and with better troops, suffered horrible casualites, mainly from deciding to stand within point-blank range of my archers and towers for the majority of the battle. I quit the campaign and, trying to maintain hope, launched a custom battle instead, England vs France, with the exact same army composition of general, cavalry, spearmen, archers, and a foot knight unit for each side…

The first battle saw the AI only standing there. They just never bothered to move, even when I sent my archers up to pepper them with arrows, with the enemy archers responding only if my own walked into their range. My two archer units effectively thinned out the enemy ranks in the first five minutes without any of them moving a muscle. Of course, this turned out to be an easy victory. Custom battle number 2, same factions and unit setups, saw the AI actually fight similarly to MTW. I started to cheer up as it moved up in formation, began firing arrows while moving it’s cavalry around on my flanks. I won, but this one required me to actually TRY to win, and I was becoming happy. Custom battle 3, again with the exact same setup, resulted in the AI using the Rome: Total War “EVERYONE CHARGE!!!!!!” tactic, sending even its archers in an unintentionally funny berzerk rush to my center, and of course leading the charge with it’s general, straight into a spear wall resulting in said general’s suicidal death, and the AI army routed as I flanked them. This, and the stoicisim maneuever listed above, would end up being the primary tactics for the AI in campaign field battles. Occasionally, the schizophrenic AI would launch into MTW mode and actually provide a challenge in a battle here and there, and then go right back to it’s usual spearwall charging with kamikaze general way.

The strategic AI went nuts as well. Apparently, some genius at CA decided that on the harder campaign difficulty settings, the player should just become more and more hated by the AI with each turn. I guess this was to keep the graphics and action crowd, who must have really boosted their RTW and M2TW sales, from having to do something boring like thinking and planning, and ensures that after a set amount of turns, even your happiest allies will hate and backstab you when they get the chance. The AI, now even more homicidal than that of Rome, would happily attack the player even when it stood no chance at all, even with wimpy “rebel” settlements still around it to be captured, and once again would staunchly refuse ceasefire offers no matter how badly it was losing. In a really amusing twist, I had an idea to gain favor with the pope by ceding some land to him in France. The pope took it, boosting my relations with the Papal states to “Perfect”… then proceeded to attack me a few turns later. Not only this, but the papal states went completely berzerk in Rome as well, and started attacking other Catholic factions that it had been in good favor with a turn before like a rabid animal on PCP. Needless to say, the strategic AI wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and still hadn’t learned to use the 3D map, which makes graphics-whoring the only explainable reason as to why such as map was even developed.

To add insult to injury, the game at released had many major bugs, two of which were especially galling.

#1- Shield armor values were bugged and actually counted AGAINST a unit’s armor rating, as in a shiled rating of 6 actually detracted 6 points from the unit’s armor rating instead of adding them as it should.

And #2- the animation for many two-handed weapons was bugged, making them next to useless in battle, and ensuring that billmen could not kill even the lightest cavalry at all after their initial charge.

Animation bugs… once again, someone had the genius idea that this time around, instead of units on the battle map appearing to hit each other while all of the killing going on was actually numbers being crunched in the background, in M2 the actual battlefield animations of attacking and defending should determine who lives or dies. This could be wonderfully exciting if done correctly- however, it wasn’t. Battlefield animations look neat at first, but honestly aren’t much more exciting than RTW’s hacking and slashing, and units certainly don’t fight with anything close to the ferocity and technique that real swordsmen or axmen would have. The “Battlefield Animations!” gimmick only provided more advertising fodder, and also ensured that peasants and militia archers armed with knives and pitchforks would have the fastest animated attacks, and therefore be able to hold their own against armored foot knights due to the knights not being able to get in as many attacks of their own thanks to slower animation speeds. Note my accusation of “Graphics Whoring” above if there’s any confusion to how I feel about this sort of thing.

So Medieval 2 went back to the CD rack while Europa Barbarorum for Rome, finally making Rome into a game worth playing, took up my Total War game time. Some fun mods for M2 came out after the patch that took nearly 6 months to be released to get the game fully playable, and mods such as “The Long Road”, “Deus lo Vult”, and “Stainless Steel” actually made the game fun again to a point, although I only stuck with Deus lo Vult since it adds in a “Garrison script”, as CA didn’t bother to get the AI up to par on garrisoning it’s cities. The nice thing is that M2’s AI is much more “moddable” than Rome, and some very impressive work has been done on it, with the strategic AI finally being turned into a sane opponent, and battle AI being improved as well, though still unable to match that of the original Medieval. The saddest part is that now, it’s the excellent modding community that makes these games worth playing 6 months or so after their release, both by drastically improving the gameplay and challenge, and also fixing many bugs that the developers either didn’t bother to get right in the first place, or took their sweet time patching- many Medieval 2 bugs were fixed by modders well, and by well I mean MONTHS, before the first official patch was out addressing any of them.

Also, the trend of flaming anyone who criticizes the game series on forums still continues. Flaming, personal attacks, and accusations of “trolling” have been thrown my way for criticizing the same aspects as above in the hopes that, if enough people complain, just maybe CA will make the next game on par with the original Medieval. I don’t see saying “I like the game series, but think they have major problems and want to see them made better” to be on par with trolling such as saying “Haha these games suck and everyone who plays them iz stupid! LOLZ!”, but I guess you might as well just get ready to hear something like “Just shut up you whiny hater, the games are fun and the graphics rock!” if you aren’t willing to jump in line, ogle the graphics, and ignore the otherwise downgraded quality of the game series. The “fanboyism” surrounding these games is depressing, and valid criticisms being met with personal attacks and cries of “shut up!” IMO doesn’t bode well for the series’ future.

With the recent previews of Empire TW, it’s been the same old thing: “GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS some ai improvements GRAPHICS GRAPHICS GRAPHICS” with an added emphasis on Naval battles. I see no point in naval battles if they play out the same as land battles currently do: “massive enemy navy attacks, enemy flagship sails out ahead and directly into player’s guns, enemy flagship sunk, outnumbered player watches entire enemy navy rout”. I hope they fix the AI and make the game challenging, I really do, because I really want this one to be good! I cannot stress that enough, the reason I am so hard on these games is because the original was great, and the developers could make the newer ones at the same level of greatness if they just damn well tried, and put some actual effort into fixing the AI and complaints, such as suicidal generals, that have been problems since the original MTW that still haven’t ever been addressed. I just don’t care about prettier graphics at the expense of challenge, and can’t find a game with an AI opponent that exists only to be stomped all over (and without multiplayer support for campaigns) to be any fun at all. Anticlimatic does not equal a good time to me. Hearing the developers mention AI improvements should be exciting, but they’ve claimed “AI Improvements” in Medieval 2 interviews as well and didn’t actually bother to implement much of them, so I’m not getting my hopes up now.

Here’s to hoping that CA finally does address such flaws and make ETW a classic on the level of Medieval 1 (and Shogun, which I haven’t forgotten but never really played). I’m not counting on it though, and have learned my $100 lesson with the past two TW releases. If ETW is anything like Rome or M2 out of the box, I won’t be buying it until it’s been patched a couple of times, and the modders have fixed everything that CA won’t bother to with it. Thank goodness for the excellent modding community out there.

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One Response to “Why I’m Not Excited About Empire: Total War”

  1. Richard Says:

    I agree with you on most things, but imo the RTW AI was better than the MTW2 AI. I’ve never played the orignial medival or Shogun, but i’ve played every game and expansion(except alexander.) But when i played MTW2 alliances were worth nothing, most of the time i dont get hlpe from my allies. Although i have ETW and the AI is improved,ish. But its way better than MTW2’s and RTW


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