by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Watching the Gamescom presentation of Oriental Empires, I was initially torn between thinking I was watching a simplified version of Total War: Shogun and a real time version of Civilization. When we got a little deeper into the game though, it was clear that Oriental Empires is a bit of both, and neither at the same time.
If I had done my homework prior to visiting publisher Iceberg Interactive’s Gamescom booth, I would not have been so split about what I was watching. Created by Total War veteran developers R.T. Smith - our host for the presentation - and John Carline, Oriental Empires is very much inspired by Creative Assembly’s intrepid series, but there are differences.
First off, Oriental Empires is set in ancient China, a setting that has yet to be explored by a Total War series. Secondly, the game puts everything that happens in the game on the same timeline and on the same map. Managing your cities? Done on the map. Combat? Done on the map. Wait, what?
Yep, that’s right. All of Oriental Empires’ large scale battles play out on the campaign map. There’s no loading, there are no battle maps that you have seen a hundred times before, there is not even a button to quickly resolve battles. But! There is a downside for those diehard Total War fans who prefer humiliating their foes manually and in person even for those easy battles: you don’t.
When two armies meet on the battlefield you pause time and have an opportunity to set up. You arrange formations, give some basic move orders and then see how they play out. The AI player does exactly the same so how things progress when you start time again is as surprising to them as it is for you. You can watch up close how the two armies duke it out, and it’s not boring either.
One siege, for instance, lasted long enough that we ended up seeing the season change from Autumn to Winter. The entire landscape turned white. During that same siege, we saw men manoeuvre a Chinese version of a trebuchet into place and pull ropes to hurl rocks at the walls of the enemy city, crumbling them as a result.
The game’s vast map of China reaches from the Gobi desert all the way down to the South China Sea and is beautifully put together. The level of detail of units and objects on the map sits somewhere between what you would normally expect from Total War’s campaign map and what its graphics engine churns out in battle. It’s fun and kind of refreshing to be able to zoom in to see armies march by against a backdrop of farmers working the lands surrounding a nearby city.
There are some other refreshing ideas as well. Units are immediately conscripted, there’s no waiting for them to arrive - as long as you have men available in your pool of potentials they will show up when requested. You can also allocate labour to various industries and tasks to speed things up. Defeated factions become vassals that give small bonuses to your own faction, and lots, lots more.
I left the presentation thinking that this game may well prove to be a litmus test for the Total War franchise itself. Whereas Total War has grown stale over the last few years, Oriental Empires is mixing everything up. More importantly, it daringly innovates in areas where an adventurous mind could see Total War innovate in future iterations as well. Will Total War fans flock to Oriental Empires, or will the game prove Creative Assembly right that their fans don’t want change as much as they think they do? Intriguing.