Napoleon: Total War
A few hours into Napoleon: Total war, I realised that - across almost fifteen years of empire building strategy games - I've never played a single campaign, in any game, as the French.
If Creative Assembly's latest is anything to go by, it's easy to see why: everybody hates the French. In the middle of a grand campaign I seemed to be at war with everybody. The diplomacy tab is (almost always) still there - this is basically Empire: Total War with a bit of extra je ne sais quoi, after all - but it's absolutely useless when you're playing as the French. Unless you just want to check you're still at war with everybody else. Which you will be. Because you're playing as the French.
Those who have been at Empire for the best part of a year will probably have one question. The answer? Yes, there are still loads of totally sweet eighteenth and nineteenth century hats. And the AI is still a bit rubbish.
Case in point. I, by whom I mean Napoleon, am in the middle of taking Italy by force. In this particular battle I am laying siege to Turin, and start by moving my entire army through a small pass. This is clearly a terrible tactical idea, but I'm battling with the conviction of King Leonidas and if I got attacked I was more than prepared to kick off the Battle of Thermopylae v2.0. I lay waste to a pocket of enemies (the AI still has a tendency to spread itself out a bit thin) and, expecting to be attacked, take up a defensive position. My troops, suffering from the effects of attrition and the fact I've waded straight into another battle after an earlier victory, are down to a few dragoons and a couple of squads of linemen, though my crusading Frenchmen have more than enough artillery power (of both 6 and 12lb variety) to blow a path to the Earth's core. Vastly outnumbered by the enemy, I would be completely screwed if I was attacked en masse.
But I'm not attacked en masse. The AI's units come at me in tiny pockets and, taking my cues from the Battle of Balaclava, are swatted away cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them and cannons in front of them. The Dragoons mop up the fractured groups and bask in an abundance of free XP. They make a few nice efforts to flank me (this would not happen in Empire) but it's much too late. I am Napoleon. I am unstoppable against clumsy AI.
Creative Assembly are aware of this. One of the major design initiatives behind this year's effort was to circumvent the AI entirely, the game now offering to provide a human player in certain campaign battles. Sometimes you'll find yourself matched up with a player as you go into a battle on your campaign, which is great, and sometimes you'll be asked to stop what you're doing and go and fill in as the opponent in somebody else's campaign, which is a bit harder to get excited about but okay, go on then, bit of community spirit and all that.
It doesn't work quite as well as I'd like, but it does work. Sometimes. I'm willing to wager the netcode is the same as the one patched into Empire late last year because it, too, is riddled with laggy matches and disgruntled players. I also found it hard to find a steady stream of willing gamers despite the game being less than a week old. I was left with the AI for the most part, which generally puts up a decent fight, but it's still weird to play against a computer opponent who operates to entirely different rules than the way the game itself instructs you to play.
As an expansion, Total War's lot (Kingdoms, Alexander, Barbarian Invasion, et al) have generally relied on drowning you in more new content than you know what to do with. Napoleon is more structured, with its graphical tweaks and fancy new units taking the backseat to the new campaign mode. One of the flaws of Empire was that it threw you the Americas, India and Europe and didn't really tell you what to do with them, leaving you without context unless you were a history student or one of your English professors was so completely obsessed with it all he would make sure to feature it in every single lecture he ever gave. Bless him. Napoleon does a better job of it, focusing you in specific continents against particular opponents and taking away silly things like diplomacy when it makes sense.
It's all neatly framed around Napoleon's rise from student dosser to Emperor of France, which is an interesting historical tale that's been competently told by the game within its restrictions of being a turn-based war simulator. Giving the three single-player campaigns a recognisable face and a bit more narrative structure works well, and lends battles a greater sense of purpose than ambiguous world domination peppered with tricorn hats. For the first time in a Total War game I found myself making impassioned assaults and hurried attacks instead of coolly detached military decisions.
New features help give the game a little extra spice. I especially like being able to force other nations into becoming protectorate states and demand they fight in my wars with everyone else. Tweaks to replenishment also make life a lot easier and marching Generals up and down battle lines to provide a morale boost works a treat. Campaign multiplayer is also (finally) available, although it only supports 2 players. People who didn't give a fig for Empire, turned away by dodgy AI, won't find themselves won over by any of this.
Napoleon is a fun stop-gap for the series and Total War remains the undisputed ruler of its genre, though I'm left wondering where Creative Assembly can possibly go next. Moving forward, the next major part of military history is the First World War. I'm not sure if the series would find its feet in a period with that much technology, but their current AI code would probably work wonders at making blind, fruitless infantry charges and imitating the poor choices made by idiotic generals.