Empire: Total War is a Strategy Fan's Wet Dream

Let me give you an idea of how absurdly detailed Empire: Total War is: the game accurately models buoyancy. Every musket ball is accurately modeled using the game's physics engine. The land battle maps are generated from NASA satellite imagery.

Empire: Total War is a model kit of a game. Based on my time with the game, I can say that naval combat has been brilliantly realized, with a level of polish that honestly left me stunned.

I got a look at a lengthy naval battle, the Americans facing down the British. The game features dozens of ships, and all sorts were on display. Small sloops, larger frigates, ships of the line--even rudimentary rocket-armed ships and early steam-powered behemoths.

It is difficult to stress how fantastic the game looks in motion. Cannon fire is a sight to see: billowy smoke thundering from each broadside, masts accurately snapping and crashing onto the rolling waves. Crew effects have been added since last we saw a build, and now an impressive number of sailors can be seen running about the decks, loading cannon and climbing the crow's nest.

During a boarding action, the little men used grappling hooks to pull an enemy ship closer. When the two had joined, they threw down planks and boarded, engaging in hand-to-hand combat and quick musket fire. Combat in Empire is now rendered on a soldier-by-soldier basis, more in the tradition of Shogun's duel-focused combat than Rome's hordes. Men were seen aggressively locking muskets and battling eachother to the death, even fighting up in the crow's nest.

Control of ships looks easy enough to learn, but naval strategy will be difficult to master. Simple flag icons mark friendly and enemy ships, and a compass surrounds the hull of each ship, showing the available arc of fire and the wind direction. Various forms of cannon shot can be loaded, and specific areas of enemy ships.

And while Rome may have moved the series into 3D, Empire will bring it into the physical world. On land, a cover system will make trees and ridges all important. At sea, cannon fire can pass through one ship and strike another depending on the situation.

This kind of physics modeling was no more evident when, after the boarding attempt, a fire started on one ship unexpectedly spread to another due to a shift in the wind. Moments later, the fire spread to the ship's magazine, sending splinters and men flying. Later, when another ship caught fire, men jumped from the decks to save themselves as the sails burned away. The animations were perfectly done.

As is the tradition with Total War, the scale of Empire is staggering. Starting at 1700 and moving onward through history, Empire will cover 50 factions across Europe, North and South America, and the Indies. Research trees will allow for dozens of ships and technological upgrades.

And yes, NASA satellite imagery was used for the campaign map, and will now automatically generate terrain for the in-game land battles. Rain, mud, trees and visibility will all now factor into the strategy. Though land combat was not shown in motion, a handful of screenshots were, and they looked suitably Napoleonic.

Perhaps the most exciting news from my short session came in the form of improvements to the AI and user interface. The campaign AI will now essentially tell the battle AI how important a battle is, leading to more realistic decisions when it comes to retreating. Rather than always fighting to the death, your foe will know when to cut his losses.

On the campaign front, colonies can now be taxed as a whole. Building management has been streamlined, with generals now having the ability to automatically recruit troops from nearby provinces. An American-themed story mode will take players from the founding of Jamestown all the way to Washington's victory.

While I haven't had a chance to get my hands on the game, just from what I've seen and heard, the game is looking like a significant leap forward in the context of the series.

Empire: Total War is set for release on PC in early February.