Vying for power in the 18th century isn't easy. Neighboring European nations are sending skirmishers across my border, spoiling for all-out war. Pirates are hijacking trade routes, disrupting the fragile economy funding my colonial war in the New World. To top it all off, my monarchy is under fire at home from a populace embracing Voltaire's teachings on civil liberties. What's an armchair monarch to do?

To say Empire: Total War is a deep experience is an understatement. The latest game in the famed strategy series combines thrilling real-time battles with turn-based 4X empire building and outshines its predecessors in every possible way. The studious attention to historical detail, ambitious web of political intrigue, and spectacular battles place this game in the pantheon of strategy greats alongside Civilization and Age of Empires.

Empire features an expanded world map that extends from the European mainland to North America, the Caribbean, and India. Trade routes also incorporate ports in Africa, South America, and the East Indies, giving players an entire globe to conquer. With three theaters of war and five continents at play, your master strategy is put to the test as you manage wars on multiple fronts, protect precious trade routes from seafaring pirates, forge alliances, and improve your nation with new technologies.

This game throws more at the player than any previous title in the series, but the impressive streamlined management system keeps Empire from becoming an overbearing mess. All diplomacy and building management is handled in easy-to-use centralized menus, players can recruit new soldiers directly from generals, and the game wisely separates money-generating buildings from hub cities so players have a visual clue to how their economies are growing. Even the agent classes are simplified; rakes handle all sabotage, assassinations, and spying missions, while gentlemen give research bonuses to universities and can impair rival nations apolitically by challenging their leading thinkers to duels.

Total War veterans can jump right into the fantastic empire building, but newcomers should start with the new story-driven Road To Independence campaign. This four-chapter experience, which chronicles the United States' struggle for sovereignty, deftly reveals the many sophisticated layers of gameplay incrementally so noobs can wrap their heads around the grand concepts at play.

On the battlefield, the tactics shift drastically with the introduction of muskets and cannons. Players must consider friendly fire and cover positions as they orchestrate their symphonies of destruction. By decentralizing cities, the game thankfully avoids becoming a repetitive siege sim like in Medieval and Rome -- battles more frequently take place on farmlands, prairies, and forests. Squadrons take directions competently, but their pathfinding and formations frequently break down around cover positions, leaving many soldiers inexplicably open to fire.

Empire also introduces naval battles for the first time. Watching your deckhands prep their ships for battle is awesome, but as the frigates and sloops move in for the kill they often engage in an awkward tango of shifting sails over which players have minimal control. Since every real-time battle is an opt-in affair, not even these battle deficiencies can take away from the fantastic Empire experience. This is one of the most sophisticated, entertaining, and historically accurate strategy games ever made.