Empire: Total War was sloppy. Can we reach a consensus here? Even anyone who loved it - and for all its flaws we loved it enough to give it 9/10 - would admit its bugs were "a shame", the combat pathfinding "temperamental", the AI "distracted", the tutorials "lightweight" and its manual "environmentally considerate". It wasn't quite all style and no substance, but perhaps all style and a gelatinous, gloopy substance that you have to cut out if it gets in your hair.
Worse, a lot of people who bought Empire ended up waiting for a heroic patching that took seven months to arrive, though Creative Assembly did manage to release their Elite Units of the West paid DLC in the interim. Anything else? Well, CA originally blamed the delay in Empire's release on implementing the framework for full campaign multiplayer, something that's only recently taken the form of a one-versus-one beta release.
At this point, the developer has three options: to pretend nothing's wrong and carry on making Total War games, gradually grinding its series into the ground (c.f. Tony Hawk); to pretend Empire never happened and reboot the licence, this time with more of a mind to quality assurance (c.f. Final Fantasy VIII); or to not pretend anything, but take a good, hard look at what's broke, man up and fix it (c.f. the Halo 2 180).
Napoleon: Total War is option three. Befitting the terrifying Frenchman of its name, it's organised, slick and in control. The engine's not just prettier, but smoother. The tutorials flow nicely and leave you more confident and informed. And while there are missing assets in the preview code, I couldn't find a bug. Right now Napoleon plays like the game Empire should have been, and the manic polishing doesn't end at simply fixing Empire's problems.
Aside from a tutorial that inexplicably sees a young Napoleon constructing cannon foundries on his way to school, Napoleon: Total War boasts three campaigns. The first has you slipping into the shiny shoes of Napoleon on his first major posting, commanding the French Armée d'Italie in Northern Italy. Though none of your superiors is expecting anything of you, your objective is Napoleon's own: to conquer a 'road' of provinces that will allow the French to invade straight into the heart of hated Austria.
The second campaign, which pulls the scale of the map back a bit, follows Napoleon's quest to conquer Egypt in 1798. Then finally you have The Mastery of Europe campaign, where as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte you get the chance to swing the massive resources of France around Europe like a ball and chain, or you can take the role of a smaller power trying to bring Napoleon down.
All this is in addition to 355 new Napoleonic-era units, new buildings and technologies, a selection of scenarios recreating the Emperor's most famous battles and an unspecified range of multiplayer modes, though judging by Creative Assembly's smiling silence it seems online campaigns won't be one of them. (Update: Wrong! Creative Assembly has been in touch to say that online campaigns will be included, with an announcement due soon.)
It's a nicer structure than Empire ever had. The Italian campaign informs you about land battles and region management without overwhelming you, the Egyptian campaign (presumably) introduces naval battles and blockades, and once you've mastered all of this you get the trade and complex politics of a full European theatre.
Progressing through each campaign in turn should put an end to that nagging feeling in Empire: Total War that what you're experiencing is less a game than a collection of features of which you can't grasp the subtleties.
Changes to the game itself are just as smart. Each turn now represents two weeks instead of the series' more traditional six months, which has a couple of nice repercussions. First, it brings the speed of technological advancement in line with previous Total War games, allowing you to get to grips with the era's warfare.
Second, it means scorching hot summers or frosty winters now drag on over many, many turns, which is important as Napoleon takes a keen interest in weather conditions. As well as the series' usual eye for the effects of hills, sand and snow, Napoleon models attrition. Armies crossing mountains or camping out in deserts or snow now steadily lose men, balanced by a second feature whereby armies will automatically receive reinforcements from home if stationed in a friendly province with a Supply Post.
Even more attention has been paid to the battles themselves. Generals now confer more of a morale bonus to troops close to them, and the range of this bonus is shown by a large circle around their regiment. This transforms your general into the busiest unit on the map, since you'll be sending him racing off to support big pushes or protect flanks which are about to crumble.
The sand and heat of the Egyptian theatre should be a testing ground of the new attrition modelling, although it's a shame that the murderous winters of Russia are restricted to the Mastery of Europe campaign.
As well as the top brass, smoke and mud are also receiving some love. The engine now causes clouds of gunsmoke or dirt kicked up by cavalry charges to hang around longer, turning them into genuine visibility-reducing factors.
There are plenty of cosmetic changes, too. Time's been spent creating tiny differences between each of your soldiers to reduce that unsettling toy-army effect that's cropped up as the series has become more detailed, and in what must be a slight deviation from reality muzzle flashes are now far more fiery and dramatic.
While naval battles weren't available to play in the preview code, Creative Assembly say they're getting some TLC too. For now, we're promised a single new feature of ship crews being able to temporarily forget that cannon business in order to go scrambling around repairing their vessel - patching up holes, bailing water and keeping the ship in the fight. A bit like what CA is doing to Empire, really.
I'm being hugely cynical, but the positive side to all this is that Creative Assembly seems to be in the final stages of tweaking a game with enough new features to demand a purchase from Empire's fans, yet one that also addresses each of Empire's assorted problems. The last word will probably come down to the quality of Napoleon's full-scale Mastery of Europe campaign, but for the moment this is a really, really good sign. Strategy fans? Fix your bayonets. This time the game might tell you what they actually do.
Napoleon: Total War is due out for PC in February.