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The PC meets the musket

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

EMPIRE: TOTAL WAR

PUBLISHER: Sega

SYSTEM: PC

PRICE: $49.99

AGE RATING: Teen

"Empire: Total War" moves the time frame of the series from the medieval to the colonial era and introduces a host of changes.

"Empire" carries on the "Total War" series' tradition of mixing grand strategy and battlefield tactics. The big-picture strategy portion of the game is nearly as layered as "Civilization IV," and that game has none of the tactical considerations of "Empire's" real-time battles.

This is a dense, complicated game, and it takes hours to complete even a relatively short campaign. Its depth and attention to detail are incredible.

The 18th century is a much different time than the era of "Medieval II: Total War": Muskets and cannons, not men in armor, rule the battlefield. Great fleets of ships clash at sea, and for the first time in the "Total War" games, players directly control the naval battles.

New technologies can be researched and traded with other nations. Religion remains an important factor in managing alliances and converting new territories, but it no longer has the overriding influence it did in "Medieval II."

There are two main modes to the game. The Road to Independence mode is a set of missions that charts the creation of the United States. The Grand Campaign is the meat of "Empire." In this mode, players choose a starting nation and take control of its lands and forces as of 1700, and play until a set year is reached.

The map is enormous; players vie for influence in Europe, the Americas and India. Regions can be managed individually or automatically, everything from the tax rate to what new structures are built in local towns, mines, farms, vineyards and more.

Managing the happiness of the people is important; events such as the American or French revolutions can occur if the right conditions are met.

Ground battles play out much as they have in several "Total War" games. There's a greater emphasis on muskets, cannons and other gunpowder weaponry, of course, and there's no need to create specialized siege weapons to attack fortified cities when cannons are in the mix.

The naval battles, which require careful maneuvering to keep enemy ships in the line of fire and the player's ships out of it, are an important new element in the fighting, and ably show off the game's attention to detail, from the realistic water to the way ships splinter and crumble as they open up with devastating broadsides.

Players without a taste for the big picture can play skirmishes with armies only. Those who'd rather not manually control their forces can always auto-resolve a battle, though the results may not be favorable if the two forces are nearly equal.

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