Behold – perhaps the best fit of Total War mechanics and a historical character: since you have to be a tactician, administrator and diplomat at the same time, who’s better to identify with than the tiny emperor, known grissini enthusiast?
The “multitasking” and spark of genius that defined Napoleon do not require any presentation or explanation and I dare say that the Total War series enjoys a similar prestige among gamers. And placing it in the context of the 18th century’s political swaps and especially in the web of intrigue that surrounded the Corsican despot offers enough parameters for a first-rate show.
I wrote parameters, not variables, because a background that’s so full of fixed and detailed elements mutilates the open-ended potential. Thus, while in Shogun, Empire or Medieval the blanks left by the rarity of historical documents could be filled with any approach we wished, here you’ll be slightly limited on a road that’s a bit too narrow for the nature of the franchise.
Mais cést la vie. That’s the convention. I worried a little about limitations before starting the game, and this preset perspective allowed me to go through the campaigns without much hassle. And that’s because instead of freedom, the producers stuffed as much narrative content as they could without the title appearing too husky or boring. From the March to Vienna to the war against the fourth Coalition, your path is filled with historical references and real events. The alteration of these small “pins” on Europe’s map is possible to a certain extent, but the solutions and plans you need to achieve the campaign objectives are not many, though they do multiply once you have access to the second and third campaigns, which are a bit more relaxed in every regard.
The quality of the story is pretty high though. More fluent and natural than any of the previous Total War games, Bonaparte’s military career is not only educative (and from my perspective, terribly interesting) but also very realistic, because of the clever scripting when it comes to historical events that you trigger and the way that a certain tension is built when you’ve got a massive historical encounter before you (mind you, Trafalgar, Embeleh, Dresden, Waterloo and Austerlitz are not incorporated in the campaigns and they must be unlocked as separate scenarios). Your allies will betray you, the mini-states tend to commit unbelievable mischief when not properly whipped, and the attrition and other geographical factors truthfully pencil out the Empire’s rise and fall.
There are four campaigns available, starting with a tutorial about Napoleon’s military debut, while the first “serious” campaign, Italy is followed by the systematic disassembling of the Austrian enclave in the Spanish territories. Then there’s Egypt, at the twilight of the 18th and 19th centuries, describing the French struggle not only with the Nizami Cedid, mameloukes, Bedouins or the Brits, but also with the harsh desert conditions or, in the absence of friendly populations, with the lack of diplomacy – and you’ll have to make it work where Napoleon failed.
The cream’s crispier when you get to the “Mastery of Europe” campaign, somewhat more open-ended and non-linear, taking place (as the name suggests) on the surface of the entire Old Continent, conserving the typical game style passed on since the time of Shogun. And if you’re not a big fan of croissants, Edith Piaf or nosy talk, you can side with Austria, England, Prussia or Russia against the commander of the Great Army. The content is not vast in the raw sense, but it does offer plenty of possibilities to remove all doubt as to Napoleon: Total War’s entitlement to being a proper sequel and not just an expansion pack for Empire.
Because visually speaking, it’s really the same thing. Sure, with small additions like cannonball effects on the landscape or clouds, fog, color nuances depending on the season and other meteorological firecrackers on the turn-based map, but it’s essentially the same engine and it doesn’t take five minutes in-game to figure that out. Still, Creative Assembly didn’t sleep on the job with last month’s clothing, and the 355 uniforms, the attentive and realistic modeling of units, from Howitzer cannons to the legendary Dragoons, stand tall as evidence in this sense.
Some of you are probably wondering how so many historical events can be fitted in such a narrow timeframe, considering the classic end turn duration in the TW series. The answer is simple: this time around, an “End Turn” advances the action two weeks. Another important innovation is the way that you recover your lost troops – on your own territories, the decimated ranks will rebuild themselves.
The macromanagement aspect on the other hand is traditional and simplistic, as you can peacefully occupy towns or squeeze every coin in them. Obviously, each choice has a fitting impact on the population’s happiness and too much cynical humming on the Empire’s streets can lead to riots. And in order to convince your minions that you are the natural choice, you can either drop taxes or build entertainment and culture structures.
Diplomacy works more or less in the same way. A treaty with too many elements will be declined by default, and therefore you’re encouraged to keep demands and offers to as simple an equation as you can. The stance of any nation towards you is also important – a protectorate will offer you half their profits, alongside military logistic rights on their part and a warranty to follow you to war against anyone.