There’s something reassuring about the predictability of the Creative Assembly’s production strategy. As a rule, the studio takes a panoramic view of period warfare, treating both turn-based campaign strategy and spectacular real-time battles, before following that title with an expansion that focuses the lens on the exploits of a particular country, campaign or character.
By and large, Napoleon: Total War is no exception but for two further details: First, that it follows on from Empire: Total War, an ambitious title, but one that was in many ways flawed. Secondly, that Napoleon is such a dramatic overhaul of Empire, it ships as a stand-alone sequel.
The most notable departure from Total War’s traditions is Napoleon’s linear narrative focus. Previous iterations of the series presented a canvas, defining the parameters of technology and tactics before stepping back to allow the player and the AI to shape the course of history in a single grand campaign.
Napoleon spans three campaigns. Each is more limited in its scope than its predecessor, and each recounts the compounding exploits of the titular general – from his command of the Republic’s armies in Italy and Austria, his Egyptian campaign to crimp British trade to the subcontinent and finally, his conquest of Europe.
With this tighter focus comes much smaller and intricate campaign maps. Initially, they beg comparisons to Empire: Total War’s Road to Independence mini-campaign, itself a rough blueprint for Napoleon. But Napoleon’s campaign maps soon distinguish themselves and peg Independence for the prototype it was.
Turns are now composed of two weeks instead of Empire’s six months. Immediately, it adds credibility to the passage of time spent on campaign, but it also increases the rotation of variable conditions that players will have to deal with. Unlike previous Total War games, weather has a direct impact on armies on the campaign map, adding a new layer of strategic depth. Previously, moving in snow or across a desert incurred a penalty to speed – a simple trade-off one turn to the next. Now, armies suffer from attrition as the rank and file desert the corps or succumb to sickness. As winter and summer each run on for six consecutive turns, to say nothing of the intemperate changing seasons, campaigns must be more thoroughly planned.
Strategists will find more to recommend Napoleon to them than previous titles in the series. The micromanagement required is thin next to titles such as Hearts of Iron, but players who consider the campaign map little more than a lengthy pause between battles will endure a small learning curve. Armies are moving towns that must be supported by supply lines and depots. These depots act as a counterweight to attrition, reinforcing depleted regiments as long as that region can recruit that unit type – but they also must be garrisoned against enemy harassment.
Empire’s espionage units have been reconsidered. Rakes are out, to be replaced by a more functional unit type, spies. The judicious application of spies can be crippling: Used to infiltrate and sabotage, spies can hamstring an army’s march, leaving them stranded in a mountain pass as winter closes in, for example. Gentlemen, previously constrained to research and duelling, can now increase a populace’s happiness, or incite rebellion abroad. Both spies and gentlemen have a radius effect, and gather information on units within their line of sight, though as you’d expect, spies are much more proficient at this.
Empire’s diplomatic menu returns, with some much needed enhancements. In addition to their previous functions, such as making and tracking alliances and trade, players can now request other factions actively engage in a campaign, halt trade or break alliances.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because many of those functions have been available in much earlier Total War games. Quite why they were removed is anyone’s guess. Happily, pillaging towns after a successful conquest also returns. Accompanying this option is a menu detailing the relative benefits and dangers of looting – usually an exchange between immediate financial gain and long term income and population depression.
Buildings available to players once again fall into one of three archetypes: industrial, military and municipal. Napoleon: Total War adds further functionality here by introducing a “change building type” button, which allows players to repurpose one archetype for another. For a smaller fee and in fewer turns, dockyards become trading ports and vice versa, allowing players to better manage their resources as campaigns ebb and flow across the map.
The impression we have is that Napoleon is leagues ahead of its predecessors when it comes to campaign detail: The range of options and, therefore, the flexibility of strategies is vastly improved. A linear narrative focus, we said earlier. That’s true: Objectives are predefined and usually lie on the far side of the map. What’s different is the greater number of conditions players must juggle and the methods available to players to achieve their goals before battle lines are drawn.
Perhaps more so than previous Total War titles, the commanders of the Napoleonic era are well-known and well documented characters. The Duke of Wellington, for whom our capital is named, Admiral Lord Nelson (another), Tsar Alexander, and the doughty French Emperor himself. To highlight the game’s historical narrative focus, all generals are recruited from a pool of such contemporaries. These commanders level up as generals have in earlier Total War games, and are irreplaceable. Their usefulness has been greatly enhanced. On the campaign map generals act as mobile depots, replenishing units under their command in friendly territories. On the battlefield, they afford a range of benefits.
The most immediate is the deployment order. Higher ranking generals have the luxury of deploying after their enemies, greatly increasing tactical advantage. Knowing the disposition of enemy artillery and where the enemy general is can result in an unsporting coup de tête in the opening artillery exchange, but one that dramatically increases the odds of an otherwise one-sided encounter.
This will become particularly apparent as players come to terms with their generals' two further battlefield functions, rallying and inspiring units within their sphere of influence. Moving a general to the rear of a bloody engagement can tip the scales in your favour, especially if that general is particularly admired among his men. It also exposes him to stray bullets. Generals are very much a force in themselves in Napoleon, china tigers.
The battlefield user interface has undergone significant improvements. The Creative Assembly have removed much of the mouse-over text relating to units and replaced it with permanent visual prompts relaying the same information in real-time. Instead of mousing over a chaotic melee to read “wavering” or “winning slightly”, unobtrusive bars sit above each unit's flag displaying the same. Units also rank up in real time, allowing you to better rotate veteran units and reinforcements.
Graphically, the battles leave Empire in the dust, featuring five times more particles per effect . Napoleon supports multi-core systems and each battlefield is run through an art filter prior to deployment. Napoleon also compromises some small realism for minor stylisations. A dragoon is flung from the saddle as his horse is shot out from underneath him; shells explode overhead, shredding foliage and scarring paddocks.
The game features over 300 new unit types, many of which are faction-specific, and all of which have unique benefits and short fallings per faction. On the battlefield, each regiment has a minimum of four different models and a maximum of 64, finally making each appear to be composed of individuals.
The enemy AI is also an improvement on Empire’s passivity. All units on the field correctly rank the importance of all information they receive and have a better understanding of tactics. In large part this is because the game analyses battlefields before deployment (much like the art filter) so that it can take more realistic advantage of its position. For all of that, however, we’re already noticing a small lack of ruthlessness in opposing armies – more than once we’ve found ourselves significantly compromised but have managed to plug the gap.
While it’s important for the Creative Assembly to get it right, the new online multiplayer campaigns make it a less pressing concern. First touted for Empire, Napoleon allows two players to go head to head in a campaign. Turn times can either be set to a timer, or left until the second player has hit end turn. Napoleon also features drop in battles that allow an online opponent to control any otherwise-AI enemies in your campaign.
Aside from benefitting from the same graphical and AI improvements as land units, naval combat has also had a real-time repair function added. Ships can now disengage and repair themselves, but doing so leaves them exposed. Perhaps we’re suffering from an ‘auto-resolve’ hang-over from our Empire days, but naval combat still feels foreign to us.
Where Empire broke new ground roughshod, Napoleon paves it. Empire was a game with unbridled potential and ambition, Napoleon picks up where it left off, rounding out its predecessor’s rougher edges and delivering a gameplay experience that will set the course for future titles in the series. In addition to the fact that the Creative Assembly has now tapped most of Western military history’s richest veins, the trend is clear: Less campaign scale, fewer factions, more detail, more dynamic battlefield action.
Total Civil War? More than possible.