As the previous Total War title, Empire, brought the series to the 18th century, and along with it the wonders of gunpowder, Napoleon feels like the next logical step for a title utilising the same engine as a basis. After all, apart from a hilarious turn in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Napoleon is most famous for being one of the key military strategists and minds of the pre-modern era.
With Empire: Total War, developer Creative Assembly introduced a more cinematic and story-driven campaign mode in addition to the 'world domination' gameplay fans of the series have known for many years. Napoleon: Total War moves this forward by introducing a more character
-driven campaign that follows the French nationalist and military leader through campaigns in Northern Italy, the Middle-East, and Europe, culminating in the famous Battle of Waterloo.
Historically, Napoleon lost this battle and was exiled to an island resort to live out his days in a large mansion full of mansion-ey things to see and do. Things like reading leather bound books, trying on different top hats, and drinking wine from fine crystal. Or so say the history books. Not a bad way to end up for someone who pretty much pissed off the entire European continent. But of course, as expected, players can relive the historical Battle of Waterloo in the hope of changing the outcome, and rewriting history. But one thing you may want to take note of is that Napoleon was a brilliant strategist, and the odds of success were as the French say, 'le-craptastic'. So losing this battle, easily one of the series' most complicated engagements, triggers a natural conclusion to the campaign, with a lengthy cut-scene to boot.
As a short Frenchman with grand ideas, and a thirst for world domination (the world in this case being Europe), Napoleon himself was probably not the easiest of guys to get along with. That is, if your name wasn't Jean Pierre Francois or something equally French sounding. Take his conquests in Egypt and Syria for example, where he basically forced his way through the region without the need to open up diplomatic channels. In the desert climate, building allies or trying to lull enemy nations into a false sense of security with stately gifts took a backseat to a more "load ball bearing, pour gunpowder, raise rifle, shoot first and ask questions later" approach. Translated into gaming terms means a campaign mode that is historically accurate in the sense that it aims to top modern-America in the 'we hate the French' stakes. Compared to Empire, the change of pace is both welcoming and restrictive, putting a lot of pressure on the player to head out and conquer as soon as possible, whilst leaving your enemies little time to do anything else other than try and stop your advances.
This adds a layer of linearity to the proceedings that has been somewhat absent in previous titles, Empire in particular. And although you can choose to play a campaign as another nation, the choices this time around are severely limited with only four nations on offer. It doesn't help that these campaigns simply offer a polar opposite experience to the main game, where your goal here is to pretty much stop the French. With that in mind the focus is clearly on Napoleon and his conquests, and although changes and improvements are abound, one can't help shake the feeling that this plays like a 'themed expansion' to Empire: Total War.
Apart from the obvious visual enhancements, one of the key changes that directly affects gameplay and the player's overall strategic planning is the environment. Positioning troops near a border amongst some mountainous regions during winter or in the desert plains of Egypt during the summer means that the elements will claim a percentage of your forces as well as restrict reinforcements during each turn. This helps improve the campaign map, and introduces some welcome complexity to the process of arranging your forces across each region. Although logically similar in its inclusion, the civil unrest of newly conquered cities is amped up considerably this time around, leaving a lot of time spent garrisoning forces in cities, making regions exempt from paying taxes, and general populace control after each siege. As the time restrictions (ie limited number of turns available) in the campaign force the player to make continual advancements into enemy territories, trying to be diplomatic or simply 'the good dictator' is nigh on impossible.
Overall the changes to the campaign map or the Civilization-like aspect of the game are for the better. The interface feels less cluttered as a result, with the numerous options being integrated into helpful lists, allowing players to manage their civil improvements, research, and armed deployments in a more imperialistic fashion. Changes to the multiplayer side are reflected better here, allowing players to manage a number of civic obligations whilst waiting for another player to 'finish their turn'. For those people who have played their fair share of Empire, the setup will feel very familiar, and almost identical in execution. But more often than not, Napoleon is about the battles, and if played out in their entirety the various campaigns on offer will take quite a while to get through.
No other series out there has managed to replicate the epic feeling of leading hundreds of infantry troops into the fray like the Total War series does. Over the years, the franchise has almost become its own genre, carving out a corner for itself in the strategy gaming market. And although 'hardcore' in nature, there's no denying the amount of fun to be had. As the visuals improve, introducing all manner of advanced lighting, particle effects, and other bells and whistles (literally in the latter case, as each squad comes equipped with a guy playing a flute) to the fold, so does the immersion factor. Controlling the camera gives the player a movie director like feeling of control, allowing unparalleled views of each battle with player controlled camera sweeps, aerial shots, and close ups, much like the battles seen in epic movie fare like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact most of the fun to be had is setting up an attack strategy and then watching each battle play out like scene from a movie.
Built upon the same engine as Empire, Napoleon is more of an evolution as opposed to revolution, with minor improvements and changes across the board. Historically a strategy title such as this would be labelled as an expansion due to the similarities to its predecessor and its gameplay progressions merely being refinements as opposed to radical changes. However, as a stand-alone title, Napoleon: Total War offers an experience less expansive than its predecessor, Empire, by focussing more on a specific time in history, that being the time when a small French guy decided to take over the world. That's not to say that the game loses the feeling of world conquest that the series is known for, it simply changes the focus from Player A as world dictator extraordinaire and shifts this to the role of "Player A as Napoleon".
With a more linear campaign on offer and a predetermined path to victory, there's little room for deviation by the player. With that in mind the improvements and changes made to the game feel less prominent then they should. And although the idea of strict character study in the Total War universe sounds like pure gold, the end result is a little disappointing. Impressive to be sure, but after playing this game you can't help but shake the feeling that Napoleon was a bit of a bully.