In many ways, Napoleon Bonaparte is the perfect subject for a Total War game. He lived during a time of revolutionary technological advancement during which a number of powerful nations were in direct conflict with each other. The spectacle of war was at a particularly high point and Napoleon dominated the era with a forceful personality and ambitions that rivaled those of history’s other great conquerors. And since Alexander and Caesar already have their own Total War games, it only made sense that Napoleon would be next.
In telling the story of Napoleon, Creative Assembly created a narrower, more tightly scripted series of three campaigns, four if you count the tutorial. You have to take the scripted nature of the campaign for granted, if only for the sake of the story telling. It certainly allows the team the chance to let players take on some of the specific challenges and situations faced by Napoleon himself. Whether you find yourself drawn into the rivalries of Italian city-states on your march to Vienna, or watch as your corps wither away in the harsh Russian winter, Napoleon is fairly faithful to the historical situation. Even the small minor missions and peripheral generals lend an air of authenticity.
The downside, of course, is that the campaigns tend to focus the action in the same direction each time you play them. There are small opportunities here and there to diverge from the main avenue of advance but for the most part, if a campaign begins at A and ends at C, you can be sure you’ll have to go through B to get there. And since the three campaigns are only linked by historical context, your successes or failures in one won’t affect the others. Fans of the open-ended, expanding consequences of previous Total War games may feel a bit constrained by this approach but the content overall is still enjoyable, even if it’s a bit less flexible.
There’s a bit more room to stretch out in the Coalition’s Grand Campaign, which lets players pick from one of four (only four?) powers in opposition to Napoleon. The world is a bit more open here, so things are more likely to develop in unexpected ways. It’s true that the overall conflict and alliances are a bit stiff, but there’s definitely more replayability here than there is in the other three campaigns. Even more replay appeal is sure to be unlocked once the modders start to open up the minor nations. Our only real complaint about the design here is that the victory conditions can sometimes bring the Coalition members into direct conflict with each other, which seems to go against the spirit of the game somewhat. I don’t want to have to turn on an ally just because they happen to have captured an objective I needed in order to win.
As you expand, you’ll find that the campaign AI is still a bit passive in some areas. The main obstacles to your expansion aren’t the armies and generals of your enemy, but rather by the increasing upkeep costs of fielding large enough armies to maintain your momentum and by the need to keep garrisons in your rear to subdue unrest in recently conquered regions. These are important matters to be sure, and Napoleon himself was enthusiastically dedicated to matters of logistics, so it suits the game historically. Developing a sufficient support system for your armies and keeping what you’ve won is every bit as important as battlefield heroism, but it still makes for a less thrilling game when your municipal concerns begin to outweigh the military. Though they heighten the realism somewhat, the attrition and supply rules are another small drain on your forces but most players won’t find them to be too distracting.
The tactical battles are still freaking gorgeous.The full campaign options from Empire have been preserved in the Grand Campain, so players will still be improving settlements, researching technology and conducting diplomacy under the same guidelines as before. Though there are a few new tricks here, like the return of the little movies that help put the campaigns into context, the biggest improvement to the campaign is the option play in multiplayer.
One of the obstacles to multiplayer in empire building games is the time it takes while waiting for another player to finish their turn. Civilization IV made some great strides in this area by giving players something to do between the end of one turn and the beginning of the next and Napoleon follows suit by allowing you to make policy changes and issue build orders even after you’ve clicked the end turn button. When empires get a bit large, it can still take a while for players to get everything squared away but it’s still a small price to pay for the challenge of playing a human opponent.
Since waiting out during another player’s tactical battles would be particularly obnoxious, Napoleon gives players the chance to take control of the enemy in the other player’s battle. It can create a bit of a moral crisis if you’re trying to play cooperatively, but it’s a wonderful way to stick it to your opponent every chance you get. The whole scheme plays out very well but we were a bit distressed to find that the game simply ends if a player drops out. We’d much rather have had the option to continue, or at least save the game.
The tactical battles are still some of the most amazing we’ve ever seen in any game. The cavalry charges, cannon strikes and wheeling formations just look brilliant. The range of environments and atmospheric effects add a lot of variety to the experience, which is good because the actual range of units you’ll be using is thinner than most other games in the series. The subtly stylized graphics create a much more powerful impression this time around but may not be to everyone’s tastes. Napoleon seems to run quite a bit better than Empire, but then again, I’ve also upgraded to a better computer. Framerate can still be a problem in the driving snow with cannon fire bursting all around, but the visuals run fairly well when you consider the quality of the image.
The campaign has stronger ties to history, which is both good and bad.In terms of AI, the tactical battles are challenging but still exhibit a few of the pathfinding and judgment problems seen in Empire. Trying to lead large groups of units in a coherent formation is still sometimes a bit awkward. Units still try to cross from one flank to the other if you try to resize or reface the line. It’s only a minor frustration in single player, where you can pause the game to get things repositioned, but it can be very aggravating in multiplayer. On the plus side, units don’t seem to go into melee mode on their own as often anymore.
Napoleon is an enjoyable addition to the Total War franchise but it’s not as a big a game changer as previous sequels. While Napoleon and his armies were probably every bit as terrifying as Mongols, Vikings or Barbarians, the scope of this sequel is a bit more limited. On the plus side, it allows gamers to experience a historically inspired version of one of history’s greatest military careers. On the downside, there’s not quite as much variety here. Campaign multiplayer is a welcome addition that neatly sidesteps the sometimes passive AI and works to reduce, if not exactly eliminate, the potential downtime inherent in the format.