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!
In my very first battle I noticed a pillar of smoke emerging from a building in a nearby town. Imagine my dismay when I slid the camera over to find the AI had positioned one of its cannons maybe 10 yards behind a town house and was launching cannonball after cannonball into it in a mad attempt to get to me. It was like watching a zombie pawing at a pane of glass.
A more creepy side to the AI revealed itself as I engaged it on any map where it had access to some form of cover, a fence or low stone wall. It didn't matter where the AI and I drew battle lines, it would always take one regiment and have them squatting by that piece of cover, way out in the middle of nowhere. What were those soldiers doing?
For all these quirks, the AI will still hold its own and provides you with a challenge that suits the difficulty you select. But from a more demanding perspective, it's all very well the game telling you to arrange your army with the skirmishers in front and to overlap fields of fire and the like, but it's not something you ever see the AI doing.
The strategic AI on the world map isn't half as eccentric, but it might still disappoint. You'll see sizeable enemy armies lounging around your near-undefended cities, find lone, pathetic regiments sat dug-in by themselves, and conquer capital cities after overwhelming bizarrely weak defence forces. Again, you will get a challenge in accordance to the difficulty you select, but not once will you feel you're matching wits with an enemy general. It's as if, in trying to provide an accurate simulation of being Napoleon, Creative Assembly replaced all the other world leaders with potato clocks.
Napoleon does boast a feature which counteracts this, in a sense. The multiplayer options here are more robust than any Total War game to date. As well as the usual online battles, there's now the option to enable Drop-In Battles when you're playing a single-player campaign. This means that in every battle you fight, the game will put some online feelers out and see if it can pull in a real human to replace the AI for you. Likewise, you'll occasionally get an offer to leave your campaign to quickly take control of a huge English navy, Italian rebels, an Ottoman strike force or anything else in between.
Also, at last, at long last, Napoleon: Total War boasts campaign multiplayer out of the box (albeit limited to a maximum of two players). I couldn't try it because the European servers aren't getting turned on until the day of the game's release, but I'm convinced that playing one of the smaller campaign maps of Italy or Egypt with a friend could be as much fun as two strategy nerds can have with their tweed jackets on. However, I'm also worried that Creative Assembly is using the same frail netcode that you can currently experience in beta form in Empire: Total War.
Multiplayer mysteries aside, Napoleon represents a healthy step forward for the Total War series. The visual improvements, more pleasant interface, neater structure and smooth learning curve easily justify the low asking price of £20. That the AI still leaves a lot to be desired and the naval battles are still boring is a shame, and the former is something Creative Assembly sorely need to remedy for the series' next reboot.
Unless these confused, enigmatic opponents in Napoleon secretly represent CA working up to Neanderthal: Total War, or something. Which, now I think about it, would be awesome.
8 / 10