During the Napoleonic wars the French engraved on their cannons; ultima ratio regum. In latin it means; the final argument of kings. Napoleon: Total War taught me that. It also taught me what a truly stupendous strategy title looks like. When it comes to real time strategy the Total War series can rightfully be called the final argument of kings, and Napoleon: Total War is one f*cking big cannon.
This title is one I have been following with interest – having had both a chance to preview the game play mechanics and sit down and chat with Creative Assembly about the title itself. After both of those occasions expectations were running high in the NZGamer camp.
Those familiar with the long running Total War series will instantly recognise the format of this game. It’s a real time strategy that combines both turn based campaign play – of the kind seen in the Civilization series – with intense, realistic and historically accurate real time battles involving often thousands of individually rendered units. It’s an ambitious concept and Creative Assembly hasn’t always perfected the balance, but it’s always entertained.
Napoleon: Total War is the latest installment on the series, and builds on the gameplay offered by its predecessor; Empire. Out are the swords and arrows – in are the cannons, muskets and charging dragoons.
Where Napoleon differs is that this time Creative Assembly has decided to narrow the focus. Unlike previous titles where there was much more fluidity in how you decided to achieve your objectives, Napoleon: Total War puts you firmly in the boots of the famed French general Napoleon Bonaparte.
This was one pretty feisty dude. He was the anointed leader of the French Empire from 1804-1815, he put most of Europe to the sword, conquered Egypt, nearly conquered Russia and was only taken out of action by the dastardly British with a generous dose of Prussian backstabbing. And he did all of it while suffering from short man syndrome and some pretty brutal hemorrhoids. What a guy.
Creative Assembly’s decision to base the single player campaign around Napoleon’s exploits is inspired. It gives much more form and structure to a single player experience that in earlier titles often lost its impetus once you’d sufficiently crushed your opposition. The single player is broken up into three campaigns; the Italian – where Napoleon first earned his stripes. The Egyptian – where Napoleon rubbed sand in everyone’s faces until they packed it in and went home. And the European – where Napoleon was kicking so much ass and taking so many names that all the major powers were forced to join forces to take him down.
Each campaign has a turn time limit, and as the turns are now only two weeks long (as opposed to six months) things are a lot more pressured. This is a good thing, as it forces you to be far more strategic in which territories you wish to capture, liberate or loot. Secondary missions are also on offer that if completed give you extra money for your treasury or extra troops to send into battle.
The campaign map has had a facelift and the results are absolutely stunning. The snowy mountains look sufficiently imposing and the lush valleys look like the perfect place to aim your muskets at dawn. Add to this the fact that armies travelling around can now heal on the go (if in a friendly territory) and the introduction of an environmental attrition system that deals damage to your armies if you march them through snow or the desert. There is a historical reason for this – Napoleon’s ill fated march on Moscow was stopped by the Russian Winter – but it also forces players to be much more strategic about which routes they take – I made the poor decision of marching my fully healthy army through the Egyptian desert for five turns. Half of them were dead when I made it out. I felt a bit bad about that.
Region capitals are now supplemented by outlying towns which specialist buildings can be built in. These buildings open up more building options and certain buildings (such as colleges) allow you to research technologies – which can help improve your campaign game play, by increasing your economy, or your battles themselves – by unlocking new unit tactics.
Add to this an intricate system of diplomacy and government – between major powers such as the British or the Prussians, but also minor republics such as the Kingdom of Sardinia or the Baden Württemburg Republic – and you have an engrossing turn based strategy game in its own right. This complexity is supported by artificial intelligence that is vastly improved. Enemy armies are now frustratingly good at attacking undefended cities and are much more willing to sally forth to meet you on the field of battle. And thank goodness they do. The total wars of the 19th century were much better suited to open fields than narrow streets. Creative Assembly have realised this and even city assaults happen in the surrounding fields. This is awesome, because it means there is much more room to aim your eight pound howitzers.
This redefinition of the single player campaign is readily welcomed. Empire felt a bit like a glossier version of Risk. You made a few large armies and marched them around the map puppy stomping everything in their path. Now, don’t get me wrong. That is actually pretty awesome. But it doesn’t lend itself very well to narrative driven game play. In Napoleon: Total War you can still lead massive armies around the countryside pillaging everything in your path (and there is still great fun in doing it) but this time it’s in pursuit of strategic objectives that are numerous, challenging but most importantly, historically structured. Why is this good thing? Because it makes you feel like you are playing out the story of Napoleon Bonaparte with your own personal twists and improvements. You’re not just reliving history; you’re rewriting it.
Napoleon would have loved to have knocked the Duke of Wellington out of his saddle with a musket ball to the face. This title lets you do that. It even lets you see it happen in real time.
The battle map experience of Napoleon: Total War is one of the most engrossing, entertaining and visceral experiences I have had in a strategy game. No stone has been left unturned, from the historically accurate units, uniquely catered to their own nationality – to the intricate decorations on cannon barrels. Creative Assembly has really done their homework and it shows. But be warned, even though there has been substantial tinkering to try and make the graphics as smooth as possible this title is still a GPU and CPU guzzler. Gamers with slightly older computers are going to need to turn it down a notch if they want decent frames per second – meaning a loss in some of that gorgeous detail. However, you can’t fault Creative Assembly too much for this. They are simulating warfare here. It’s going to take some decent computing power to individually render literally thousands of units, all with gleaming buttons and shiny bayonetes. But for those gamers who have forked out for the highest end gear it’s all a bit overwhelming. Not in a bad way. In the ‘oh my god why this is so god damn awesome’ kind of way.
That seems like a pretty bold claim to make, but when you have your camera zoomed into the front line of an advancing Prussian militia, who are under heavy barrage from French artillery, you begin to appreciate the immersion that this game really offers. The camera shakes; the ground trembles, cannon balls whistle and whine as they fly over, past or through troop lines. It’s almost traumatic. It’s definitely cool.
But it’s also rather hard to win these battles. Sure, if you turn the difficulty down your going to have an easy time – but when the battle map AI is so adept at putting on a good show – why would you? When the difficulty is ramped up to the middle or higher ranges you begin to really appreciate the tactical mechanics that this title offers. The ability for infantry to form squares to counter cavalry becomes invaluable – and the loss of your flank is often accompanied by much sobbing and loading of save games. Add to that the fact that while your general offers a special buff to units close to him – he is now just as vulnerable to stray bullets as your weakest troops. Charging him into the front lines is a very, very bad idea.
But you can sail your admiral anywhere you want to. Oh yes. Ship battles are back and they are better than ever. While I prefer my cannons to be on firmer ground, the ship battles offer an interesting break from clashes on the mainland. They are harder to get right – ships are cumbersome beasts to control – but Creative Assembly has provided the best attempt at ship conflict that I am yet to see in an RTS title. Watching the French sink the Enterprise at Trafalgar (round two) is almost cinematic. It would be, if you weren’t frantically checking on your remaining frigates and sloops to make sure they are all firing at something.
If one criticism can be made of both the land and sea battles it is that the AI is often a little slow to get the ball rolling, particularly when they have poor units and are in an attacking position. It’s by no means a fatal flaw, but it does mean that you may be spending a little more time with the speed slider on full as you wait for the enemy to approach your lines, particularly in ship battles. Creative Assembly has partially mitigated this by allowing you to invite steam friends to enter your single player experience and take command of the enemy. It’s an innovation that is going to significantly increase the shelf life of this title and it also innovatively incorporates single player and multiplayer in an intuitive but unexplored way. The standard multiplayer fare is again on offer - so you can duke it out with your friends in pitched battles anytime, anywhere.
I think its important to end this review with one qualifier. This game will not be for everyone. Its meant for a niche crowd of PC gamers and a strong franchise fan base. Its mix of turn based strategy with real time battle simulations is one that requires time and effort. Some gamers just don’t have the luxury of that kind of commitment. But it does what it was designed to do exceptionally well and is currently unparalleled in its ability to bring the drama, intensity, mystique and experience of 19th century total war to the monitors of PC gamers. In some sense Creative Assembly has managed to make a game that appropriately broaches several genres. It’s a strategy game, it’s a civilization simulator and oddly it even borders the role playing realm – as you take on the mantle of one of history’s most decorated generals and try to do what he couldn’t. Whether or not this is intentional is kind of irrelevant – it’s the mark of a great game and a worthwhile experience.
The cannon may be the final argument of kings. But the Total War series is undoubtedly the king of the real time strategy genre - and Napoleon: Total War could very well be Creative Assembly’s crowning jewel.