Last year’s real-time grand strategy title, Empire: Total War, proved to be an interesting experiment in balancing ambition and implementation. The fifth full installation in the Total War series was a radical departure from the franchise's tried and tested “swords and bows” format. Spanning three continents and introducing the widespread use of gunpowder, naval combat also made its much-needed debut.

So vision Empire had in spades, but peaking beneath the game’s lace-trimmed bodice induced indignant flabbergastery in some of the most hardened of brandy-swilling armchair generals. Pre-release, the title suffered frequent delays as the Creative Assembly tinkered with online campaign play before finally going live without any such multiplayer functionality.

Almost a year on we still live in hope. Passivity in enemy units was also too common – some sieges felt like 18th century renditions of the National Guard storming a hippy “sit in” in the late sixties. Indeed, Empire’s siege warfare was largely a step backwards for the series. Moreover, enemy AI prioritisation was largely skewed. And naval combat, while visually stunning, was occasionally pernickety.

In February, the Creative Assembly will be releasing Napoleon: Total War, a standalone successor to the above. We’ve been playing with a pre-Beta version the game, and chatting with Kieran Brigden, the studio’s communications manager, to see how the new title is progressing.

Clearly, the game concerns itself with the conquests of the titular character, following his rise from the backwater island state of Corsica to becoming the preeminent Emperor of Western Europe, before his final defeat on the sodden fields of Waterloo.

Napoleon has a strong narrative design focus. The game is divided into four distinct historical campaigns, each incrementally introducing Napoleon: Total War’s reworked gameplay mechanics and describing the general’s military exploits. Players begin by assuming an unproven Napoleon as he commands the French republic’s Italian campaign and his march toward Vienna, Austria. Second is Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, wherein he seeks to harass British trade routes with India and confronts the Mamluk Empire. Finally, players assume control of Napoleon’s grand campaign spanning continental Europe.

The smaller campaign map has been significantly altered. First and foremost, it’s much closer and more detailed than Empire’s: Mountains have various passages and thick fogs blanket valleys. Turns have been reduced from Empire’s six months right down to two weeks and indeed the campaign map reflects the incremental changes in the seasons. As autumn settles in the trees become a deep auburn - occasionally an early snow flecks the ground.

Visually satisfying, yes, but more importantly each of Napoleon’s weather conditions impact on gameplay. Where marching in the depths of winter simply induced a penalty to movement in Empire, a Napoleonic army caught in the Alps in winter will suffer from attrition as the rank and file struggle in the blistering cold. Armies marching across the sands of Africa in the height of summer should expect the same. Elite units, selfish gentry that they are, do not.

Creating and maintaining supply lines is therefore essential. Napoleon: Total War’s campaign strategy might best be described as ink spot. Players must create a chain of supply depots as they march their armies across the map. These depots perform an essential automated function, resupplying and replenishing armies that are far beyond the pale with fresh recruits. Additionally, Empire’s bawdy rakes are out, to be replaced by spies. Unlike rakes, spies have an area effect, gathering information about all units within their radius. Moreover, spies can now sabotage an army and stall their movement. In conjunction with extreme weather attrition, they’re a much more dangerous and flexible unit than their forerunners.

Spies are recruited from a new building type, Masonic lodges. As you’d rightly expect, the game features many new and reskinned buildings, but perhaps of most interest is a new function, “change building type.” For example, trading ports can be repurposed as dockyards for less cost and time than Total War’s old “demolish and build anew” system.

The new system makes building a less fraught process. Traditionally, players would build their unit production buildings closer to the front to better reinforce their military campaigns, but expansion might see these military-industrial towns gathering dust as the war moved on. No more.

Diplomacy has also been enriched to bring it in line with the more nuanced options of previous Total War games. Still conducted at any time via Empire’s menu system, players can now also request that other factions break alliances, halt trade or attack another faction.

Speaking of previous functions making a return, looting towns is also back. Upon the conclusion of a successful siege, players are able to pillage or occupy the hub. A menu detailing the immediate profit, the long term profit or loss and the penalty or bonus to public order is also a welcome addition.

Finally, generals are no longer randomly generated upon recruitment. Instead, each is based on a true historical figure. To put a fine point on it, each general’s unit portrait is in fact a historical painting of the man in question. Each faction has forty generals and each ranks up in traditional Total War style. But of course, once they’re lost, they cannot be used again. Should Napoleon die, he’ll retire to Paris for the rest of the campaign only to be unlocked again in the next.

All of which would be merely a nice touch were it not for the improved functionality of generals on the battlefield. Higher ranking generals have the advantage of deploying second, after surveying their counterpart’s disposition.

Once battle is engaged, generals also serve two additional purposes – rallying and inspiring units within their blue sphere of influence. These new abilities simultaneously make generals the game’s most valuable and vulnerable units. You’ll find yourself fretting as to whether you should move your general towards a crumbling flank: perhaps he’ll steady the boys, or perhaps he’ll be swallowed up?

In battle, you’re advised by your aide de camp, an enthusiastic character who’ll offer biased advice and the odd brown nosing comment. Incidentally, the aide de camp is voiced by English actor Jason Isaacs who plays Dragoon colonel William Tavington in Mel Gibson movie The Patriot.

Each of the aide de camp’s comments is accompanied by an inset cinematic depicting his cause for jubilation or concern. The battle interface has received a dramatic overhaul. Much of the text reading of previous Total War games has been replaced with visual cues. Bars accompanying each flag describe the unit’s morale and the course of the engagement. Units also rank up in real time to better let players know when to salvage some grizzled veterans-to-be.

The load time for battles is longer. Napoleon: Total War both applies an art filter prior to battle to ensure that each setting is suitably grand, and reads the terrain AI for the benefit of computer controlled units. Particle lighting and graphic rendering has also been touched up. Shells explode to leave brown pock marks all over the green fields of Europe, large sulphurous banks of gun smoke occlude visibility, to be occasionally punctuated by an orange flash of muzzle fire. A cavalry charge kicks up a cloud of dust and a cavalryman shot from the saddle is dragged in the stirrup.

The game’s battle AI has also been reconsidered. It now has a better understanding the benefits and dangers of flanking and correctly ranks the importance of information being received by each unit. When it comes to siege warfare, the computer now knows how to breach correctly and shows a much greater understanding of tactical strengths and weaknesses.

There are more than 355 new units to choose from (so we’re told, others report 322). Each unit type also has statistical differences across factions: Russian line infantry might have greater morale; better drilled Austrian infantry might reload faster.

Naval combat is also set to receive an overhaul. We're told that grouping has been cleaned up and simplified. Ships can now disengage to repair themselves on the battle map.

Napoleon: Total War also seeks to improve its Steam functionality. History students will be pleased to hear there are achievements for mimicking Napoleon’s campaigns correctly, others will be more interested in the drop-in battle system. This optional function invites real players or friends to control the opposing force in your campaign’s battles. All historical battles are available to play over multiplayer and each battle is scalable, meaning that more than two players aren’t restricted in their options.

As a pre-Beta build, the game we played has its share of curiosities, missing assets and known issues – but that’s to be expected. What’s important is the superior gameplay and polish that Napoleon is exhibiting. Already, Napoleon looks set to be the game that Empire could have been.