Sega – Napoleon: Total War review

conquer Europe, the sea and the desert as the French emperor
Photo of Sega – Napoleon: Total War

Napoleon wasn’t a short person, apparently. That’s a myth. In reality he was about five foot six, which sounds small but was in fact a pretty average height for the time. Maybe the problem was that Josephine was unusually tall for a woman at around five foot four, and in heels was slightly taller than her all-conquering husband. She wore a lot of sandals and flat shoes as a result, most likely, although the perception of Nappers as a small man with a big complex to conquer is one that stuck anyway. Probably thanks to the propaganda of his opponents.

Napoleon is certainly a fitting subject for a Total War game, and this latest instalment of the series offers up a series of three campaigns that the great man tackled. This triplet is designed along more story-focused lines than the previous Empire: Total War. You follow the life of Napoleon, with a series of objectives pointing the way through his early engagements, helping the novice to find his or her feet in the game more easily.

The first campaign is an introductory affair, with limited diplomacy and no naval conflict, in which a young Bonaparte takes on the Austrians. The second is based on the French invasion of Egypt in the following year, and the final major campaign is more open, revolving around the conquest of Europe in its entirety, with a full range of political options. There are also opposition campaigns where you can assume the mantle of Russia, or the naval might of Britain, and fight against the French Emperor of average height.

In other words, there’s a large new chunk of content here to occupy your strategist’s brain with. In actual fact it’s mainly the content that is new since the last incarnation of Total War. Napoleon is pretty much a sizeable standalone expansion, as the gameplay engine remains essentially the same, although a good deal of tweaking, polishing and bug-squashing has taken place. This process has been very effective, mind you, and some bigger changes have been implemented, mostly on the multiplayer front.

For the uninitiated to the Total War series, here’s a recap of the basic ins-and-outs. It’s a turn-based strategy game, played on an overview campaign map where armies stomp around, conquering provinces and capitals. The player controls finance and taxes, along with a limited amount of building construction in cities; although all this can be automated if you wish, leaving you to deal with just troop movements and a rich diplomacy system which features layers of treaties, trade agreements and spy actions. All this provides a substantial level of detail, yet the game remains relatively manageable, especially if you switch on the AI automation for building and finances.

The action switches to a battlefield level when a conflict occurs, and here you get to control your army, directing artillery fire, mounting cavalry charges, digging infantry into trenches or buildings, and so on. The interface makes moving troops and switching formations a snap, and the battlefield atmosphere is captured to an absolute tee; the deafening cannon fire, shouting and screaming of the men, beat of the marching drums, and a hundred and one other small observational details. And excellent visuals bring all this to life.

Napoleon: Total War adds a fair amount of spit and polish to the graphics, with elements such as improved particle effects, flashes of musket fire, shell craters, and dust clouds billowing gently across the desert terrain. There are naval battles here, too, with beautiful touches of detail such as a crew that actually operates the ship, so you’ll see men climbing up to the crow’s nest and so forth. The game also introduces the concept of running ship repairs, so the crew can successfully repair a damaged vessel given enough time unmolested by the enemy.

When it comes to the battles, however, the naval engagements are still a touch cumbersome, being rather slow paced and difficult to manage when you’re controlling a number of ships. There are certainly some testing battles to be had here, and on land too, where the AI plays a reasonably clever game as well. It tries to co-ordinate its troop movements and assaults with some effectiveness. For example, it used its cavalry to flank and attempt to hit the artillery in the rear of our battle lines.

When we reacted to this, moving some revolutionary infantry into an intercepting position just off the end of the lines – they can adopt a square formation which is effective at dealing with cavalry charges – the computer spotted this and changed tactics, redirecting its horseback charge elsewhere on the battlefield. It’s good to see these type of reactions to your strategies, although the AI is still somewhat flawed and is capable of some moments of real stupidity. Given the size and scope of the Total War games, we’re happy to cut it some slack in this respect, but be warned, it is necessary to overlook some foolishness on occasion.

As we’ve already mentioned, the one area where Napoleon: Total War really moves the franchise forward is in the multiplayer mode. The single player campaign now offers “drop-in” battles, which basically means you don’t have to face the computer AI all the time. If there’s a balanced battle in the offing, you can elect to click the drop-in battle icon, which will search for another human player online to command the opposing army.

This is a clever addition, and along with an option to play the main campaign online with two players – either co-operatively or against each other – introduces a whole extra dollop of longevity to the game. The downside is that the amount of people playing online currently is small, and we struggled to find games when it came to either the drop-in battles or campaigns. At the time of review, the game had literally just been launched, however, and we suspect many were busy immersing themselves in the single player mode and learning about the fresh nuances of Total War.

Company: Sega

Napoleon's new, more story-driven campaigns will certainly help novice players get into the game more gradually, lessening the learning curve and introducing elements bit by bit. There's a generous amount of new content here when you take into account the coalition campaigns and multiplayer campaign mode. Okay, so it's not actually all that different to Empire at a nuts-and-bolts level, but some smart refinements have been made, and most impressively a large amount of bugs have been squashed and smoothed over. The end result: a lot of long weekend sessions spent conquering Europe.