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As the release date fast approaches,  a demo for Creative Assembly’s strategy behemoth has appeared on Steam. It’s a weighty download at two gigs, and gives you two tutorials and two set battles to muck about with. Sadly, the campaign map isn’t featured, but one half of the demo is devoted to the new naval battles.

The land battle tutorial will be instantly familiar to slaves to the series (myself included). The battlefield UI is roughly the same, but decorated to fit in with the period. The unit and camera controls are similar. Business as usual. Then you’re given control of some basic infantry, and it’s clear that the warfare of this era is quite different.

Rather than commanding seas of swordsmen into the melee, riflemen are your standard troops in Empire, and using them effectively is all about positioning and making sure their firing arcs are covering the right areas.  Setting up killzones with muskets and cannons is one of the keys to victory.  Getting stuck in with bayonets appears to be more of a way to rush defensive positions, such as the buildings that can now be occupied as cover, although if that won’t work a few cannon volleys will take care of it.

The set land battle puts you in charge of the Brits, again, as they try to take on an entrenched American army. A direct approach towards the American lines will see you caught in a vicious crossfire from the three artillery units overlooking the river.

Artillery is much more than the rudimentary contraptions we played with in Medieval; gunpowder is utterly dominant in this era. Horse-drawn artillery is wonderfully mobile, but despite being incredible powerful they are also utterly fragile and will be dispersed by any enemy units that get the drop on them.

Being aware of the terrain elevation is essential. I was able to use a steep hill to shield my horse drawn artillery as they launched a counter strike on the American guns sat out on the open riverbank. It’s important for all gunnery units; I failed to notice that one of my units engaging the enemy on the left flank was sat behind an incline that was just high enough to stop all of their shots. In the end I drew their infantry away and then rushed the guns with my general and a unit of dragoons, which raises some questions about the AI. Despite having horse-drawn artillery, they still seemed content to just have them sit in the same positions for the entire battle, even when the infantry protecting them had buggered off to the other side of the map. On another note; the absence of a restart battle option is an annoyance, especially with the fairly epic load times.

Now, on to the long awaited addition: naval battles. The first thing that struck me was the water; it looks absolutely gorgeous. Zoom down to the ship and you can view the various crewmembers going about their business on deck. The battles controls are, unsurprisingly, the same as the land battles, but ships do have some unique options that allow you to alter the speed, heading, and even controlling when to fire the broadsides. This is fine, when you only have a few ships, but trying to manage half a dozen vessels that are fighting across the map can be more than a little chaotic.

Perhaps there is too much micromanagement for precise control in big fleet battles, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe the AI in the demo is aggressive and passive in the wrong places. Any concerns I have about Empire: Total War are minor. Over the years Creative Assembly has been building on the solid core mechanics that they nailed with Shogun, and it would take a monumental screw up to some make this game average, let alone bad.

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