Napoleon Total War

Napoleon Total War

Make no mistake -- even at their most average, the Total War games are thrilling experiences. Though the move to the musket age in Empire was accompanied by some unfortunate AI glitches, it still won me over with the simple crack of cannons and flash of steel as my lancers rode down hapless conscripts. And welcome changes to the diplomatic and economic models overshadowed my own misgivings at the time.
But in a huge pseudo-sequel like Napoleon: Total War, you can't just give Creative Assembly credit for maintaining the thrilling sights you're already familiar with. This isn't really a new setting; most of the game is the same, and some things that were so important to Empire have been pushed aside. For example, as important as control of the seas was in the Napoleonic Wars and in Empire, Napoleon is all about big land battles -- on some of the campaign maps, naval engagement is frankly impossible. So the elaborate overseas trade system from Empire is less important, and all those pretty (if unwieldy) sea battles are more irrelevant to the final outcome.

Click the image above to check out all Napoleon: Total War screens.
But there are interesting additions as well; Napoleon has changed some core mechanics to better reflect the course of the historic wars. Armies stuck in deserts or snow may suffer attrition, losing men to the harsh environments. And instead of buying replacements for weakened units, your forces gradually replenish as long as they stay in friendly territory. These changes mean that you'll often use only partial complements of men, so you might have to strategically withdraw at times to preserve a worn and diminished army. Undefended cities can surrender instead of submitting to a siege (though this tactic is prone to exploitation since the departing defenders can be easily annihilated after they exit the town). And on the battlefield, you can tell at a glance which troops are ready to run, allowing you to time your cavalry charge with greater precision.
There are two single-player campaigns. The tutorial campaign follows Napoleon's career; you start with the basics as a Corsican general and then work your way through turn-limited campaigns of increasing difficulty. You can also play a campaign as a Coalition member (Britain, Austria, Prussia, or Russia) and try to meet your own national objectives in the face of French aggression. Most of the campaign changes are cosmetic -- towns don't pop-up the way they did in Empire because the time frame is much shorter -- but there is greater variety in the maps.

You are locked out of a lot of desirable content at the start, however. You finally have a bunch of historical battles, but you have to unlock them one by one. You can't just start as France in a grand campaign, something that most of the audience for Napoleon probably wants to do. So, though still a visual treat, opening all the best content is a lockstep process of trial and error (or hours of playing on easy). I want to be able to play Waterloo as soon as I put in the game, not two days of game time later.
Continual patches, updates, and improvements have finally resulted in a more aggressive AI opponent on the campaign map, but it's still not very smart. It will carefully protect a river crossing, but vacate a strongly defended city to chase a tiny army. Britain's only chance at victory is through landing troops on the continent, but the computer opponent is still unwilling to take advantage of its naval superiority to move armies across the channel.
On the battlefield, the AI is hastier than it was in Empire, rarely forcing you to take the initiative since it will happily charge right into your cannons. But the battles are, of course, beautiful and the historic encounters each present wonderful challenges to the armchair tactician -- Borodino is always a welcome sight to old grognards like me.

Unfortunately, Napoleon's biggest addition, a two-player campaign, is a small disappointment. You'll run into a few bugs with battle deployment if your human opponent comes to help an AI ally under attack, but the more pressing problem is that the campaigns just devolve into boring, capture-the-flag affairs. Take your opponent's major regions before they takes yours; all the diplomatic and economic features are still included, but when the mission objective is to decapitate your enemy, there are few incentives for playing the game as it's meant to be played. And why are you limited to only two players?
Napoleon: Total War is good enough. The stronger AI is nice, though the absence of overseas trade, national evolution, and the naval aspects are noticeable. Perhaps this is the streamlined game that Empire should have been, but 40 dollars and one year later, Napoleon should be more generous than it is. As it stands, the game is a decent addition to the series, but not essential.


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