Can Fans Finally Admit This Divisive War Game Is A GOAT?

15 years ago, the highly anticipated war simulator impressed critics but alienated fans.

screenshot of cavalry units from Empire: Total War
Creative Assembly
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“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Victor Hugo wrote those immortal words some 200 years ago. He was referring to the politics of the French Revolution, but he could easily have been discussing gaming. Change isn’t easy for franchises. Do you stick with what works and get accused of being lazy? Or adopt fresh ideas, and get accused of being out of touch? Fifteen years ago, the team at Creative Assembly found themselves caught between the two when they launched Empire: Total War.

The Total War franchise is what it sounds like: heavy strategy. Up until 2009, Creative Assembly focused its real-time strategy series on ancient arms and armaments with titles set in feudal Japan, ancient Rome, and medieval Europe. Empire was its most ambitious title to date, focusing on the colonial era and introducing loads of new features. But with big plans come big problems.

The launch of Empire: Total War on March 3, 2009 was a critical smash. Major outlets heaped praise upon the title, earning it a 90 on Metacritic. The praise was justified. There were numerous, large-scale improvements and big ideas on display. Gunpowder was an obvious plus, but the franchise was always about more than combat.

There’s considerable research, diplomacy, and economic systems to navigate. Empire made efforts to streamline everything. For example, diplomacy no longer required players to click into individual cities to manage things and instead moved everything to one screen. The map is a thing of a beauty, and the aesthetics still hold up to this day. Spanning virtually the whole globe, players can run campaigns from the Americas to India. Oceans play a huge role thanks to an all-new naval combat system, with ports playing a crucial role in trade.

The critical success translated to robust sales at launch. It was the top-selling game that month and became the biggest hit the franchise had ever seen. Tens of thousands of fans flocked to Steam to start their adventures as one of history’s great superpowers. Unfortunately, the launch did not go as smoothly as Creative Assembly had hoped.

Hardcore players hoping for a challenge were disappointed by AI issues.

Total War Center Forum

Almost immediately, review bombs came pouring into Metacritic from disgruntled fans experiencing a litany of issues. Chief among them was the woeful state of the AI undermining the quality of some battles. Naval battles in particular were prone to abnormal lapses of judgment from the AI. In some cases, it wouldn’t build any support buildings to advance its tech alongside the player, in others, it wouldn’t launch campaigns at all. While the critics acknowledged some bugs, the assumption was they’d be temporary. Still, a lot of fans felt cheated and decided to make their resentment known.

It’s worth acknowledging some context here. Remember, this was 15 years ago. In 2009, review bombing was a relatively new phenomenon. Users had left plenty of bad reviews on sites like Metacritic and IGN in the past, but this marked a shift in fandom towards something more organized and toxic. It became an extension of the “vote with your dollars” mentality. If you want these companies to listen, you need to hit the bottom line. However, the bottom line rarely hits the people at the top.

The developers at Creative Assembly, like many others, had a hodgepodge of metrics dictated by their publisher that were tied to their compensation and budgets (a common practice in the gaming industry). Among these, review scores played a significant role. The fan backlash was beyond bad press. For Mike Simpson, game director on Empire, it represented an existential threat to the franchise.

Pitched battles can happen anywhere in Total War. Even fan forums.

Creative Assembly

In a blog post later that year, Simpson opened up about the climate in the community and began to use the blog to pull back the curtain to reveal the consequences and circumstances for everyone involved. He explained how budgets and review scores are linked, reminding disgruntled fans that the devs are caught between fan demands and publisher deadlines. In a subsequent post, he admits that Empire “had to be in a box in Feb 09” and that no one was happy with the state of the game at that time. Fortunately, help was on the way.

While Simpson’s team at Creative Assembly worked diligently to improve Empire, they also had to launch the game’s first expansion. Total War: Napoleon added loads of content centered around the legendary French emperor and his many campaigns. Meanwhile, the mod community was hard at work, too. In February 2010, DarthMod was released. It is widely regarded as a game-saving mod for Empire that overhauled its AI, among other things.

Thanks to years of work and fan mods, the current state of the game is pristine, and today’s players can see the big picture without technical shortcomings getting in the way. Widespread praise for the title has even caused a groundswell in support of a proper follow-up. Let’s hope so. To paraphrase Hugo, nothing is as powerful as a game whose sequel has come.

Empire: Total War is available on PC.

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