Napoleon: Total War review

  • Perfect blend of the managerial and the martial
  • Many battles are sublime
  • Scenarios contain spectacle, tension, and drama
  • New features don't have much impact
  • AI isn't up to the task
  • Lacks historical accuracy

In our second Grand Campaign experience, playing as Blighty (it’s possible to play as any of the four Coalition majors) we thought we’d start by kicking the Little Corporal where it would hurt most. A 20-unit expeditionary force was loaded onto transports and floated across the Channel. After a short stroll through Normandy, Paris was reached and fell with a single click of the auto-resolve button. We scrawled a big red ‘WTF!’ into our notes. A few months later, a combination of rebels and Grande Armee troops took back the city, but not before we’d looted the place mercilessly and turned every significant building into a pile of ash.

Part two of our plan to test Boney’s temper was to disband the entire British army along with Nelson’s navy and sit back and wait for the inevitable(?) Napocalypse. After a year in which the French did nothing but a spot of port and trade-node raiding, we’d almost given up when an invasion force sailed up the Forth. Huzzah! But no. The attackers turned out to be Battavians. A tinpot one-state nation, locked in a war with its massive Prussian neighbour, had decided it would be a good idea to mount a naval invasion of Scotland. We scrawled an even bigger ‘WTF!’ into our notes.

Nothing we’ve seen so far gives use much confidence in the silicon brain pulling NTW’s grand-strategic levers. It reacts to city capture well enough, uses spies aggressively, and knows how to raid, but it seems unable to formulate or execute a coherent grand strategy. Its diplomatic performance is also patchy. A worst-case example: we once forged an alliance with the Turks only to see it dissolved for no obvious reason two turns later. No problem. The moody sultans obviously got cold feet. Except they didn’t. Two turns later they were back offering us a substantial sum of money to form – you’ve guessed it – an alliance.

With the high-level AI so shambolic, it’s nice to be able to seek solace in Nap’s splendid battle layer. While you still see stuff that boggles the mind (idiotic generals, ludicrous cannons, bizarre fortress assaults...) the majority of scraps are thoroughly engaging. A few are downright sublime. Last night we had a run in with Wellesley near Hanover that made us proud to be French.

We were evenly matched numbers-wise, but the Brits had the quality, and half our army was arriving as reinforcements (rarely good). As it turned out, that split probably saved the day. Approaching from front and rear our men made a bloody beef sandwich of the redcoats. All credit to the foe though, they behaved admirably, forming an ad-hoc defensive triangle that spat musket balls at a fearful rate. At times the smoke was so thick you could cut it with a sabre.

For a while the battle might have gone either way. We rushed our general hither and thither to steady the nerves of wavering formations (generals have new manually-triggered ‘rally and ‘inspire’ powers). We targeted weak enemy regiments with darting cavalry charges. It was heart-pounding, atmospheric and totally believable. The second the ‘Close Victory!’ message appeared, we dashed off to the replay area to watch our triumph all over again.

Some of the best combat comes via the historical battle mode. Making up for the lack of single scenarios in Empire, NTW boasts a ten-tussle sequence ending logically with Waterloo. Resist the Mameluke surge at Embabeh, rush to Saint-Cyr’s aid at Dresden, negotiate the treacherous marshes at Arcole... what the engagements lack in historicism they more than make up for in spectacle, tension, and drama. And they do lack historicism. In the coming weeks expect a rash of official forum posts with titles like ‘Snow at Austerlitz????’ and ‘Only 4,000 at Borodino!!!!’ Like many a Nap wargame, NTW doesn’t do a great job of communicating the scale of the period’s bloodbaths. Most of the time the massed ranks you see on screen represent less than 10% of historical headcounts.

More importantly, the game also does a poor job of communicating why Napoleon and his marshals enjoyed such astonishing success for so long. The Grande Armee was grande, sure, but it was also flexible, ready to abandon traditional linear tactics when the need arose. Facing Napoleon should mean facing his party-pieces – column and echelon attacks, ‘Egyptian squares’... At the very least CA should have given him huge deployment advantages.

The only time you’re likely to see Boney’s forces fighting in an authentic fashion is in multiplayer. One of the few areas where NTW is significantly superior to its predecessor, the choices available are now dizzying. There are historical engagements, naturally (how does an eight-handed Battle of Waterloo sound?) and pick-your-own-army skirmishes, but it’s the multiplayer campaigns and ‘drop in’ battles that really catch the eye. Frustratingly, we haven’t had a chance to test either properly but assuming there are no technical problems, both have the potential to banish series fatigue in the blink of an eye. Tick the ‘drop in’ box at any point during a solo campaign and prior to every evenly balanced battle, the game will zip off in search of a live opponent. No more steamrollering the AI. No more cheap tricks with cavalry. Now when you look across the valley and see enemy infantry moving in three directions at once you’ll have good reason to gulp.

We’re not going to insult your intelligence by claiming improved multiplayer campaigns excuse the dodgy strategic AI. They don’t. If you’re going to make a game about one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, it’s vital you give him some worthy sparring partners. By delivering dunderheaded opponents and a half-hearted supply system Creative Assembly haven’t done themselves or Boney justice.

More Info

Release date: Feb 25 2010 - PC (US)
Feb 25 2010 - PC (UK)
Available Platforms: PC
Genre: Strategy
Published by: Sega
Developed by: Creative Assembly
Franchise: Total War
ESRB Rating:
Teen: Alcohol Reference, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence, Mild Blood
PEGI Rating:


  • Sebastian16 - February 28, 2010 6:08 a.m.

    Alright, so, this isn't the place to be posting this, but I dun cur. I was able to run Empire on High settings completely smoothly, with dual Radeon 4870s in crossfire. I get Napoleon, and I can't stay in-game for more than 5 minutes before my PC shuts down, this is running everything on medium. Annnnyybody know what the problem here is?
  • michaelmcc827 - February 28, 2010 4:05 a.m.

    kind of surprised multiplayer wasn't an option for the plusses, co-op with my friends was the selling point for me
  • TheGiaour - February 27, 2010 12:38 a.m.

    The review is spot on about the new features. With how everyone everything from Kieran to the Total War Forum blog it seemed like for once we'd have to consider the seasons and supply in order to keep our troops fresh. This is not the case so far with my playthrough, especially at the end. It is still far easier to just recruit new units, merge existing ones to make up for numbers, and keep the steamroller going. These features are merely eye candy, not game changing mechanics. Visually the game is even more a feast to watch the battles but don't expect historical realism. It will be up to the modders to give the variety and historical flair for this game to be up to some Napoleonic standards. The biggest disappointment for every TW veteran has been the AI, and while some parts have been addressed in Napoleon there are problems still glaringly present. Cavalry still charge wildly into your units by themselves, militia still try and get into melee without firing a shot, and generals are kamikazes at heart still. The campaign AI, when not following the scripted path in the Napoleonic maps, can vacillate between cunning invasions to paper thin defenses at capital cities. Diplomacy is still a hit or miss affair, with nations going to war and suing for peace on mere whims. All in all, while the spectacle of battle is good to take in and I will invest a lot of time due to my dedication to the series my recommendation for everyone except the most hardcore of TW players is to wait and save your money. At 39.99 most people expecting a completely new and different game from Empire will feel ripped off. For veterans like myself, we seem to have the tough skins to enjoy a new but flawed entry to the TW franchise.

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