Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Empire: Total War
Once upon a time, it must be around 20 years ago now, I played my only ever World War II board war game, I think it was one of the Axis & Allies games. I had met this American guy at university, and he had spent hours explaining the rules to me and setting up this huge number of playing pieces on the large board. But I hadn't quite understood the concept of a game as historical simulation, and did something completely unhistorical: Playing the Allies I spotted something I perceived as a weak spot in the defences of the Axis, and attempted a landing in Bremen, Germany, many years before D-Day. It turned out I had understood or heard only half the rules, and the odds were stacked heavily against me, but a lucky roll by me and an unlucky roll for a counterattack later, I had established a bridge head in Germany. We never finished that game, but my opponent told me that I had basically won the game, as the troops he would need to contain or expulse me in Germany would be missing from the finely balanced situation at the eastern front or elsewhere.
I had to think of that memory of the past when I started my first "grand campaign" in Empire: Total War (ETW) as the British, and instead of following the game's obvious intention of making this a game of empire building in the colonies, simply took Paris in 1702, and completely unbalanced the game. With France out, taking the colonies will be so much easier, and having his starting provinces hugely increases my resources. I guess historical games still don't deal very well with people who refuse to follow history.
Empire: Total War manages at the same time to be a great game, and a huge disappointment. ETW has tons of interesting new features compared to previous Total War games, fantastic graphics, and great battles. It also repeatedly crashes to desktop, not only on my Vista-64 machine, but on many player's computers, even after following advice like running in Windows XP SP2 compatibility mode. It is loaded with various annoying bugs. And it's AI is dumb as a rock.
I have some hope that the bugs and crashes will be fixed with further patches, the first patch already came out just after release. But the bad AI is bothering me far more, especially on the campaign map. After reading up on it, it turns out that it is technically impossible for me to lose the game as Britain: 5 of my 6 starting provinces are on islands, and the AI is too stupid to load an army on a ship and invade islands. And while I simply bundle up my troops into few large armies that are able to take out defended capitals, my enemies are wasting theirs only ineffectively burning my farms with small armies, which are then easily picked off. In the battles the AI isn't as stupid, at least not in the larger battles. I did have a very small battle, with me just having one troop of very bad militia infantry, and the enemy had much better cavalry, which I won easily by putting my infantry into a house, and shooting at the cavalry which was unable to attack me in there and continued to circle the house until they were dead.
I could turn up the difficulty level, but that wouldn't make the AI act any more clever, it would just cheat and give them more troops. So my story returns to that time 20 years ago, when me and my friends were playing a computer game on the Amiga, also called Empire: Why is it that in those 20 years the graphics even of strategy games have become better by such a huge margin, but the AI today is still exactly as dumb as 20 years ago? Why does my computer have a $200 graphics card, but no AI card at all? I'm not asking for human-like intelligence, all I want is a strategy game in which the computer is playing reasonably competent.