Napoleon Total War PC Game: An Armchair General Preview
Napoleon Total War, an exclusive Armchair General preview. Developer: Creative Assembly. Publisher: SEGA. Scheduled release date: February 23, 2010.
I can distinctly recall my initiation to the first title in the Total War series, Shogun. On first entering the 3D battlefield I said aloud, "Napoleonics in this engine would be unstoppable." I can only imagine that wargamers the world over shared my excitement at the possibilities. It was with great anticipation that I played each title in the series, watching as the ideas grew, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a game featuring the saber, flying column, and bayonet. When it finally came, in the guise of Creative Assembly’s Empire Total War, I was so incredibly disappointed by the AI and presentation in my initial forays that I foreswore playing it and returned, somewhat chagrined, to Medieval Total War II and Britannia, where my Vikings waited to comfort me.
Therefore, when I was invited to San Francisco on behalf of ArmchairGeneral.com to see the latest build of Napoleon Total War last week, I felt both excitement and trepidation. I had seen enough of Empire to know that if the code had not improved I was going to be very put out. I had, on the other hand, seen a slew of recent Napoleonic games that had failed to meet my expectations and the idea of a new attempt from the experienced hands at CA seemed like a bet that I just couldn’t pass up. So I went down to the offices of Total War‘s publisher, SEGA, to join with a select handful of attendants from various fan forums, meet up with a pair of gentlemen from SEGA and Creative Assembly, and launch into a five-player, multiplayer game on alien-head-festooned monster machines from Alienware.
What followed was nothing short of inspiring.
The graphics of the Total War series have always served well to convey their intended meaning: You knew who was who and, in general, what was happening. Napoleon Total War takes this standard and runs miles beyond it.
The Egyptian desert that rose to meet me in a haze of dust and waving palms was stunning, immersive, even breathtaking. My Austrians were varied and looked already exhausted in the implacable African heat. When the first high-explosive shells burst amongst my allies’ ranks I stopped playing for several long moments to watch. I was there. I was leading Austrian troops in a battle that they’d never fought, in a country in which they’d never set foot, and I was entirely immersed.
Just as important, of course, are the controls and mechanics of gameplay, and these were even more intuitive and logical than in previous games in the series. Significant work has gone into the feel of the UI. For instance, the old unit markers have been replaced with 3D flags that are affected by lighting, smoke, explosions, and the environment. Watching the new 3D battle standards disappear in the smoke and trees of a beleaguered oasis, trying to make sense of the swirling action, was fantastic.
My troops drove quickly into the flank of the main enemy force and headed toward a small hillock that dominated the flat terrain of the lush battlefield, as my allies and enemies all raced for the same key ground. I was initially disappointed to find, in moving my infantry into place, that formations are still represented only at the player’s behest. With the exception of the square formation, standard formations like column and line are all left up to the player. In a way this makes sense: in a game about one of the most innovative generals of our time, why not give the players freedom? After all, if Napoleon’s generals had never toyed with standard formations the terrorizing flying column would never have entered the lexicon of Napoleonic battle. Especially given the complexities of changing national infantry doctrine at the time, I feel in retrospect that CA made the right choice.
The battle unfolded with a sense of drama accentuated by the confident drumming of distant guns and the slow, almost sedate, pace of European infantry marching through brutally unfamiliar terrain, becoming less and less ready to fight even as they moved toward battle. By the time it was over, ugly cavalry charges, desperate last stands, and toe-to-toe exchanges of musketry had wiped clean the slate of past cyber-battlefield offenses which I feared might weigh down Napoleon Total War. In fact, I saw massive improvements in every quarter. The unit tactical AI, of which I had been particularly critical in Empire, shone. The gamers around me, all veteran tournament players, remarked on the way in which the multiplayer had improved.
The jury wasn’t quite ready to re-enter the courtroom, though: the campaign system had yet to be tested. After another short multiplayer battle, happily, we launched into a multiplayer campaign, with myself as the Austrians facing off against the French in the Italian campaign, where Napoleon made his first real marks in the European amygdala.
At first I was unsurprised and then disappointed. After the new splendor of the battlefield, the campaign looked the same save for graphical improvements to the campaign map. The simplified building system was still in place, replacing the old system of gradual, complex building choices that gave cities character. The multiplayer elements were smooth (a new drop-in feature allowing fellow players to pop in for single battles in an ongoing campaign was particularly exciting), but many other things at first glance felt … same-y. Déjà vu all over again. There were a few new systems that were impressive—such as the attrition system, which accounts for supplies and environment, then penalizes and ultimately attrits units in unfriendly climes—but nothing ground-breaking.
It was at this point, a few turns into the campaign, that I moved outside my own realm to "speak" with a neighboring neutral about marching through its territory. The diplomatic options suddenly set before me were almost dizzying. Used to the "ask for what you want and offer tons of cash" system of the previous games, I was astounded to find that not only could I inject just a bit of threat into my proposal without resorting to all-out "war if you decline," I had a staggering array of options for fine-tuning and expanding my demands and offers that made me feel, for the first time, like I could approximate something akin to standard methods of diplomacy: a careful balance of subtle threat, enticing offers, and time-limited demands. I spent a good minute playing with the options, made my offer—and was declined.
The answer in previous games would usually be fairly simple: I asked for something they didn’t want to give, or I didn’t offer enough to make them shake on the deal. In this case, though, there were far more complex matters at work, including a list of historical grievances ranging from petty to majorly significant. This not only gave me a window into my neutral neighbor’s affairs but actually injected a level of psyche, of presence, into the opposing AI that I simply hadn’t imagined could exist. Alliances with a neutral’s enemies, alliances with friends a neutral isn’t particularly fond of at the moment, engaging in trade with people they would rather you hadn’t—all of these and dozens more factors now need to be taken into account when making decisions, lest you expand your neighbors’ lists of grievances against you. A further enhancement is that AI-allies that are well-disposed toward you now seem to actually play the game, guess at your intentions, and actively attempt to support you rather than standing around leaning on their muskets. Mix in a slew of lovingly enhanced trade and personality options, and the campaign system has become a far more beautifully complex, but carefully chosen, set of realized ideas than it ever has been.
After we’d played our games we settled in for a chat with Kieran Bridgen, one of Napoleon Total War‘s developers. We discussed everything from downloadable content, which will follow the same model as Empire, though possibly with a few surprises, to unit editors, which he confirmed would be made available, although whether or not unit statistics could be changed was still up in the air. The AI, he stated, has been reworked from every possible angle, which was clearly evident both on the battlefield and in watching my AI allies in the campaign. Things like delaying actions and broad strategic strokes, which often happened only by accident in previous titles, are going to be more evident and a driving force behind the actions of the AI.
Mr. Bridgen also spoke at length about the philosophy behind Napoleon Total War. "Stability and polish" was the team’s focus, he said at one point, and every head in the room nodded emphatically, for that’s exactly what we’d seen. With astonishingly improved multiplayer capabilities; gorgeous graphics; tight, complex campaigns with a narrative bent that all but ensure player immersion; and battlefield mechanics that feel much closer to reality than its predecessor, this is a game that will set new standards for the series.
Many thanks to Julian Mehlfeld, Kieran Bridgen, and the gentlemen of the Yuku Total War forums who shared the playing field with me.
Phillip Culliton has been a wargamer since the ripe old age of nine when he spent a week’s lunch money on a tattered board game set in Vietnam, causing his peace-loving parents much consternation. It was no surprise to them when he began writing computer wargames in their basement as a wee lad; he went on to become a "real" programmer and spent eight years building intelligent systems for the legal industry until happy chance ejected him to bob adrift in the new economy. He currently works as a developer and writer in the game industry. He continues to cause consternation—now for his lovely wife—by introducing his children to the same great hobby that struck his fancy twenty years ago.