The smells of salty air and gunpowder ooze (virtually, of course) from Empire: Total War, the latest game in Sega's Total War series.
The Napoleonic era comes into clear focus as players assume a role in the great land and sea conflicts of the 18th century. This new title advances the Total War timeline from the pointy sticks and hard-edged blades of the Roman and Medieval eras into the early modern age of the man-of-war goliaths.
Using both a game-board-like campaign map and a bird's-eye view of the real-time battlefield, Empire offers a grand example of how war was managed and fought in the ages before modern communications. Four major theaters of operations allow players to choose multiple real-world factions in a bid for expansion and conquest, acquisition and absorption.
Politics, geography, resources and religion all play key roles in determining the results of a player's choices, but once the generals and emperors move their pawns on the board, it's the player who assumes the role of field commander or fleet admiral to determine the outcome.
Empire expands from traditional battlefield-commander trappings to introduce warfare on the high seas, as well. The maritime addition almost feels like a second complete wargame - one focused on fighting to control shipping, exterminating privateers and even facing the grand armadas of European adversaries. Both the ground and sea engagements work together as the game's core campaign progresses through the American Revolution and the birth of the United States.
Graphically, this game is a huge improvement over the last, Medieval II. Players with powerful computers can even zoom in to the midst of a gun battle to watch the individual units react and fight distinctly. The game also supports real-world physics to the extent that it's possible during a sea battle to fire a cannon through a holed enemy ship to strike another close target on the other side.
Just be cautious - to get the whole Empire experience requires some pretty beefy PC hardware. Even at lower detail levels, though, the game impresses.
The Total War series has long been regarded as one of the best war-simulation series on the market, and Empire pushes that bar a little higher by advancing to the modern era.
Skirmish/multiplayer modes (and a promised future campaign multiplayer mode) will keep this game on many armchair generals' playlists for awhile.
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