Napoleon takes the global focus of the Empire Total War game and shrinks it down to the size of three campaigns and a dozen battles. The concept of a follow up game always seems to happen with Creative Assembly’s releases. The initial games are always vast and unstructured, almost too ambitious. Napoleon’s more structured campaigns and tighter turn limits give more urgency in the gameplay and I left it feeling with more sense of accomplishment. The time scale has also been reduced. Instead of dealing with decades of warfare, the turns are now in months, giving you more flexibility. In short, Napoleon is a more refined game than Empire was. It focuses on the best parts of Total War and showcases those. Napoleon Bonaparte just happens to be the vehicle to do so and luckily for us, Monsieur Bonaparte led an interesting and varied life.
For those unfamiliar with Total War, Napoleon is based on the same engine as Empire and so doesn’t veer far from the model. It is one half real-time strategy and one half turn-based strategy. The real-time strategy is not in the vein of Command and Conquer where you throw hundreds of units at one another in a battle of attrition. It’s more tactical and based on a system of morale. You can inflict major victories using terrain, experienced troops and a high rate of fire without reducing the opponent’s numbers to zero. Once your enemies reach a breaking point, they’ll automatically flee the field.
The turn-based portion of Napoleon can be best described as a light version of Civilization. Each of the territories comes with a set of buildings that help with either troop production or wealth creation. Concentrating on military enhancements will drive a population’s morale down and cause tensions. You might have to keep an active garrison to keep the rowdiness down. On the other hand, domestic buildings will make the region prosperous but the territory will be slow to produce any troops and won’t have access to anything beyond basic militia. For the most part, the taxation and national policies run automatically. From time to time, you can visit the diplomacy screen. I came here mostly to gain military access through neighbours to shortcut to my objectives. Research is also something you may touch although in the earlier Napoleon campaigns it’s too short to have any effect. Research enables you to build more advanced type buildings and more importantly, let you focus on military technologies. New formations and special capabilities for troops come with researched technologies.
Total War has always been best at land battles. Napoleon puts the emphasis back on this part of the game. You’re not dealing with the New World. You’re not playing as a naval power like the British. You’re not fighting royalty in the Indian subcontinent. Napoleon is about making land conquests in continental Europe. The naval battles are secondary. Yes, there’s the Battle of Trafalgar but that didn’t work out well for Napoleon and for the rest of his years, he spent it fighting where the Royal Navy wasn’t. I still didn’t think the naval battle has the same level of depth as the land ones. The naval ships aren’t as responsive as the troops on the ground. Sometimes, I think it’s more up to chance with winning a battle. And with fewer ships in play, the wrong move can be difficult to recover from.
Each campaign boils down to grabbing key territories plus a set number of territories to achieve victory. The key territories are usually either fortresses or capitals of other nations so while you can make a straight beeline for Moscow, you’ll have to contend with the harassment of resources and armies that come with all the territories and cities that you leave untouched. In other words, one has to balance the sandbox conquer the whole world play of Total War against Napoleon’s campaign objectives. This might sound like fun if you think a winter death march from Paris to Moscow is fun, but it actually gives a new perspective to the game. You can’t play the game perfectly. For a perfectionist like myself who spends time bringing each province up to a sterling sharp domestic order, you have to sacrifice those in order to get to winning the campaign on time. That means a lot of territories with subpar infrastructure and possibilities for rebellious uprisings in newly conquered territories. You also can’t go around reducing a nation to ruins either. Going down south to take out Greece from the Ottoman Empire while you’re cutting a swath through the Eastern European landscape becomes more of a tourist diversion than anything else. You’ll spend too many turns getting there and tie up a stack of significant manpower that could be applied better against the main offensive. This adds to the overall challenge.
Gone is also the focus on multiple agent characters. Gentlemen and spies are the only ones remaining. Truth be told, you can do without most of them but gentlemen can incite/reduce riots as well as speed up research. Since the introduction of the cannon, though, spies sabotaging walls and opening up fort walls are a moot point in sieges. In addition to sabotage, spies can be embedded in territories and armies to give intelligence. That’s probably the best use I found out of them.
Some of the diplomatic options that were window dressing before are legitimate options now. Protectorates never seemed to work before but are now a part of Napoleon’s arsenal. Protectorates help delegate the domestic management of a territory to the AI – you get a one time payment of troops, which comes in handy because you just liberated that territory with the blood of your own army and it acts as a buffer against the greater power you’re up against.
One of the things about all Total War games is its ability to suck away at your time. Napoleon is no different and I found myself spending 4 or 5 hour sittings without much thought or care that the time passed by. The early Italian and Egyptian campaigns are focused on small geographical areas. They won’t take more than a few sittings to complete if you’re focused on the victory conditions.
A byproduct of the tighter focus of the game is improved performance. Empire had you waiting for turns to be completed across the globe by obscure tribes. When it came to turn 400, you’ll find yourself waiting a good five minutes to process a turn. Napoleon only has a few actors in the game. But I found Napoleon still hitting a performance wall late in long campaigns. The game gave me a blue screen of death twice when exiting a battle, although in truth that could be due to graphics drivers. There were, however, other instances where the game drops out to the desktop with a serious error and I would have to reload the game. One unfortunate incident had me winning a truly epic victory and having to forsake that due to the error.
Speaking of better capabilities, Napoleon develops the multiplayer model further. There is finally support for full online campaigns out of the box. Empire had promised it but it didn’t come out until after, through a series of patches. The multiplayer can only be played on the Internet so no LAN party play, and I found it’s best to find a dedicated partner to play it. Turn time limits can be set but with the durations of these games but it’s hard to imagine finding someone to dedicate tens of hours to finishing a campaign. That could be why there is another way to involve someone in playing your game with you – the concept of drop in battles lets someone drop in to play the AI character in any of your single player campaign battles. Each generic encounter you get in your campaign, you can request someone from the Total War community to come in and fight. You have the option to toggle this, of course, before every battle. After all, what’s the fun in getting someone to play 100 peasants versus your elite forces. This is a good compromise and puts more spontaneity into the game versus setting up pitched battles.
Napoleon is a game of land battles, continental conquests and European power struggles. This was an incredibly rich backdrop that inspired numerous writers and composers, one of whom is Beethoven and is featured in game’s phenomenal soundtrack. That I happen to sink a minimum of three or four hours every time I click on the icon is another reason why it’s an enjoyable game.