The massive combat experience of the Total War franchise gets a little more focused, a little shorter in stature, and a little better.
- More focused campaign assignments
- Impressive, massive battles
- Comprehensive online multiplayer
- Not much new
- Still a lot to learn for newbies
- Ill-fitting pants
The last time a Total War title took us all for a spin with Empire: Total War, it brought us to the colonies, letting us get all patriotic, unifying the New World and the old one while learning a little history along the way. The real-time strategy experience was incredibly open-ended, so you could form whatever sort of coalition you wanted, but this latest entry to the franchise focuses things in a little bit, enabling you to relive the exploits of the Little Corporal and, maybe, find a little more success at Waterloo than he did. Can you succeed where the Emperor of the French failed and, more importantly, do you want to bother?
Straight Out of Corsica
While Empire: Total War offered a series of campaign missions that delved into the formation and unification of the New World, in general its gameplay experience was open-ended. For gamers wanting nothing more than to spend hours and hours exploring which of their various world domination schemes was most ideal it was perfect -- for those wanting something a little more guided it was overwhelming.
Napoleon: Total War brings a little more focus to the franchise, reliving the exploits of that most famous Bonaparte. His story begins in the tutorial, taking the little man from his island home and onto the continent as you learn the basic gameplay mechanics (virtually unchanged from the last Total War), then the first proper campaign follows Napoleon into Italy. From there, getting more complex with every step, it's over to the deserts around the Egyptian pyramids, where you’ll quickly learn that troops don’t fare well when left in the desert. And then, in the last Napoleonic campaign, it’s back to Europe to follow or change destiny. Meanwhile, if you’re not much for French nationalism, you can play as one of four nations (Russia, Prussia, Austria, or Great Britain) who faced off against the empire, or just jump into 10 of Napoleon's most famous battles -- Waterloo being the last, naturally.
As before, gameplay is a mixture of empire building and battlefield domination. In this respect, little has changed. Napoleon: Total War uses the same basic interface for navigating and manipulating things like diplomatic relations, tax rates, and political structures. Here you upgrade your cities with better armories to open up more advanced units and newer facilities to improve tax revenues, while things like opera houses keep the populace from rioting too often. It's also here where you'll move your armies -- when they meet the enemy is when the fun begins.
Waterloo to Waterlogged
Like the previous Total War games, Napoleon really struts its stuff when diplomatic relations fail. And like Empire, the resulting battles take place on land and sea. For land battles, hundreds and hundreds of individual units can be seen navigating around the battlefield, forming lines, taking advantage of the terrain, and sometimes turning tail and running away when faced with overwhelming odds. The game engine does a great job of managing resources, swapping out 3D models for 2D sprites when necessary to maintain steady framerates while delivering plenty of detail and environmental effects as well.
At sea, the visuals are still impressive, with ships rolling over gentle waters and crashing through rougher ones. Water effects are as good as they get and environmental audio does well to pull you into the gameplay. Ships creak and groan as they dance at sea and erupt with a cacophony of sound when firing – and enough kindling to start a lifetime’s worth of fires.
That's all about as it was last time, and while the campaign structure is new here, online play too has been significantly revamped, even reaching into the single-player gameplay. You can invite human players -- friends or otherwise -- to take the AI opposition's seat when entering a campaign conflict, making for a significantly less predictable battle. So too you can play the entire campaign with or against humans, selecting the faction you wish to play as and inviting others to put on the pantaloons of opposing or supporting nations, creating deals and alliances to try and stop Napoleon’s might. Or, if you're just not into all that intra-battle namby pamby stuff, you can set up random skirmishes and go to town.
More Accessible, Still Gripping
Napoleon: Total War takes the grandiosity of last year’s Empire: Total War and focuses it a bit, giving players slightly narrower objectives that get broader with each successive campaign, yet still scratches that globe-conquering itch. Meanwhile, the online play modes have been significantly improved since Empire’s release, ideally enabling gamers to worry a little less about the AI and focus more on the unpredictability of a human opponent. Although some will argue that beyond the multiplayer and campaigns, there's not all that much new here, it’s a more focused approach to Empire’s vast scope. So while some might argue that it feels a bit like an expensive expansion, fans of the franchise will feel that it's a must-buy one.