Empire: Total War, the newly-released real-time strategy (RTS) epic game from SEGA and Creative Assembly, shows great promise and boasts great potential, but falls short in the most important facet of gaming - the "Fun Factor."
Saying Empire: Total War falls short in the area of "fun" is actually an understatement. Playing Empire: Total War may be one of the most frustrating and maddening experiences you will ever have.
Let me be clear. I'm a huge fan of the Total War series. I've invested numerous hours of my life playing Medieval: Total War, Rome: Total War, and Medieval II: Total War. Great games - all of them!
And I have been salivating at the possibility of getting my hands on Empire: Total War. I mean, here at last, was a game dedicated to the era of the American Revolution! Not only does Empire: Total War come with a Revolutionary War campaign, but the "Special Forces" edition of Empire: Total War comes with The History Channel Revolution on DVD. To say that I've been excited about this game would be a colossal understatement.
But, alas.....my troubles began as soon as I opened the case.
I went to Gamestop in Wilmington, Ohio, slapped down my card from Uncle Visa and paid $74 and some change for the "Special Forces" edition. I get back home, and lo and behold, Volume II of The Revolution is missing. That's right, the box only has Volume I of The History Channel series on the American Revolution! That program is the main reason I paid for the premium edition. (Turns out that all the "Special Forces" editions only ship with Volume I. So, buyer beware, the box cover makes it sound like you're getting the whole series of The Revolution. You're not. You're only getting Volume I, which has the first four episodes).
Then, I start the install process. Apparently, to cut down on piracy or to collect customer information or just to torture their customers, Creative Assembly and SEGA make you register with Steam (which is some kind of online game hosting company). This isn't optional. In order to play the game that you bought, you have to register and play through your new Steam account!
Several times, I got an "error" message that the game was unavailable and that I would have to try again later. Say what!? I paid $75 for the game. It's my game. I own it, and I expect to play it. The fact that I have to go through some online platform to play the game that I just bought is ludicrous.
After opening and closing Steam a few times, and talking to my computer a little (you know, some "encouragement"), I finally made it through that process - only to have the game keep jumping and jittering and freezing in the intro movie and the launch process.
I dialed down the graphics to "low" hoping that would work. Of course, by this time, I've invested over an hour just to get the blasted thing to work! I'm frustrated and frazzled. The word "fun" isn't even in my vocabulary, and isn't that why we play games to begin with!?
Okay, so I finally - and I mean "finally" - get to the game menu screen. I decide to go with the "War on Land" tutorial. I hit "play." Game freezes and locks up. I have to shut the whole computer down, reboot it, and try again. Now, I'm a pastor, so I don't make it a habit to curse, but I must confess that some of my old Army vocabulary came bubbling up into my mind at this point.
So, we're now at Take 2 - the second attempt. It's now been close to 90 minutes that I've invested just to get STARTED with this game. A game that's supposed to be fun. After selecting once again the "War on Land" tutorial, it slowly loads...slowly... slowly...slowly...and hangs there. Almost loaded, but not quite. That gold bar is about 90% full, but it refuses to budge the remaining 10%. It just hangs there.
Minutes pass. The bar doesn't budge. My Army vocabulary starts to come to my mind again, and then....I hear "Welcome to the battle tutorial...." The problem is that the screen isn't matching the words. The narrator is telling me how to fight battles and I hear the sound effects of my army setting up to battle, but the screen still shows that blasted gold bar at 90%. I haven't made it to the play screen yet. I'm still on the loading screen.
The narrator stops speaking. He's obviously waiting for me to do what he told me to do, but I can't. I'm still staring at a 90% complete gold load bar. Still haven't made it to the actual game yet. Once again, Army vocabulary comes into my mind.
It becomes apparent that this second attempt isn't going to fare much better than the first. I hit the windows button and the escape button. Nothing. So, I do the control-alt-delete. Nothing. Once again, I'm faced with shutting the computer down cold. And that's what I do.
I decide that maybe the third time's the charm. However, this time, I'll go back to the desktop. I loaded it on both my laptop and desktop. My laptop has Vista and more power, actually. But perhaps my desktop will fare better. Can't hurt to try.
So, here we go again...this time, I make it all the way to the game, but Empire: Total War runs rough from that point forward. At least, however, it runs.
Does the game show promise? Absolutely. Does it tease you with great potential? Definitely. Does it deliver? Unfortunately, no. Perhaps if you have a top-of-the-line computer system, you'll have fewer problems.
Either way, I have found Empire: Total War to be totally frustrating. Hopefully, SEGA and Creative Assembly will see the error of their ways, and do what needs to be done to make the game more playable and enjoyable.
Addendum (March 13, 2009): I have been able to get this game to work on my desktop at the lowest graphics settings. However, the game is still sluggish. The game's campaign videos will not play properly, and there are game play issues as well. Perhaps upgrading my desktop computer's RAM and graphics card will help, but I don't have the money for that right now.
Addendum (March 15, 2009): It's confirmed -- The special edition ships with only Volume ONE of The Revolution, the DVD series on the American Revolution. This is false advertising, in my opinion, as the box cover says NOTHING about Volume I. It indicates you'll get the full series. So, buyer beware!
Addendum (March 24, 2009): To be fair, while Empire: Total War demands a pretty high-performing computer and graphics card, the game is very fun, once you get into it. I've enjoyed several hours of the game, since my initial review post. I don't retract anything. Installing and getting used to the game was very frustrating, especially with the whole "install through Steam" arrangement. Why can't the game just play like Medieval II: Total War? Just install and go! Why do they need Steam? Aside from that, though, and the fact that the game will be sluggish and problematic on older computers (if it plays at all), it IS a fun game, once you get into it.