Version tested: PC
So, Napoleon finally gave me the battle I wanted from Empire.
Winter. My ragged army of sporadically barefoot Frenchmen arrive at the city of Klagenfurt after months of marching to find a cool Austrian army three times their number lying in wait. This isn't what I expected. I could panic, stop, turn my men around while drafting an apologetic letter to Paris. Mais... non. Every turn that passes in this cold will see me lose more men from frostbite and desertion. I am Napoleon, and the rest is history. Onwards!
Lined up in the snow, my soldiers seem frail and pretty in their Olympic blue. This is an illusion. Soon the sputtering of a thousand muskets joins the sick cough of my howitzers, and men start dying. Shot and shells fill the air like God's own hailstones, yet my soldiers stand firm. The fog of gunpowder smoke becomes so thick that cannonballs and charges of dragoons are now emerging from it like black holes and tidal waves, yet my men stand firm. All while my general, Napoleon himself, is racing up and down the battle lines using his aura of influence to keep his regiments from breaking as his bodyguard struggles to keep up.
My heart was pounding as my army faced down these superior numbers. I just needed my men to keep thinking: cartridge, prime, ramrod, fire. If they could do that, I might be able to get them through this icy hell alive.
Wait, I'm getting carried away (always a good sign). Napoleon: Total War is the kinda-sorta sequel to 2009's Empire: Total War, a grand strategy game which combined management of a nation in the 18th century with real-time tactical battles. Where Empire stood out is that Total War fans were for the first time either pleased or disappointed by it in just about equal measure.
Total War's stopgap releases (Barbarian Invasion, Alexander, Age of Discovery, Kingdoms etc.) have until now focused on adding a fat chunk of content to these already huge games in a kind of reverse liposuction. Napoleon's different, because there isn't much new content here at all. Rather, it plays like a very polished Empire with the spotlight turned to face Napoleon and then bolted down. As it turns out, this is a good thing.
The most significant change from Empire is probably how much better-structured your experience is. Empire gave you this enormous world to conquer yet sometimes struggled to explain the nuances of how it worked. Napoleon provides three stepped campaigns: the first in Northern Italy, a second in Egypt and the Middle East, and finally a more traditional set-up taking place across the entirety of Europe. Through all three of them, the game gradually introduces various aspects of warfare and governance (and occasionally takes them away again, with Diplomacy available in Italy but pried from your little French hands when you enter Egypt) as Napoleon enjoys his meteoric rise from student to general to Emperor.
In providing you with manageable theatres of war and attractive objectives, these campaigns really work. The reason that battle I described got me fired up was only partly because of the cosmetic improvements Napoleon adds (shell craters, muzzle flashes, thicker gunpowder smoke, sad dead cavalrymen getting dragged around the battlefield by a foot caught in a stirrup). Really, I was excited because I cared, both about the outcome of the battle and this fiction the game had created.
But the question a lot of people have been shouting rather than asking is whether the AI in Napoleon will be overhauled. Is the AI better in Napoleon? Yes! Is it fixed? No!