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When Grenadier Francois-Joseph Jacquin, writer of Carnet De Route D’un Grognard, returned from the wars in 1815, his father and brothers hadn’t a clue who he was. When he walked into the kitchen and embraced his mother, they pounced on him shouting “Let go soldier! What are you doing?” A decade of Napoleonic conflict had changed him beyond all recognition.
We mention this scene because we were expecting Napoleonic conflict to have had a similar effect on gaming’s favourite historical strategy series. Having heard talk of supply lines, attrition modelling and two-week turns, we hadn’t expected Napoleon: Total War to feel quite so close to its 18th century forerunner.
Of course, both titles share the same superstructure so there was always going to be plenty of common ground. Like Empire, NTW is all about taking things that don’t belong to you. You march armies around a handsome 3D strategy map, snaffling territories like a starving soldier snaffles roadside turnips. When armies meet, the turn-based malarkey makes way for stirring real-time carnage. If you’ve never tried it before, the perfect blend of the managerial and the martial will knock your socks off.
The problem is that many of us have tried it before. We hazard a guess that a fair portion of you reading this will have been Total Warring since Roman times (2004). A few will probably remember the spritely surprise that was Shogun (2000). To impress us – the old hands – NTW needed two things: novelty and refinement. Alas, it offers precious little of the latter and only a flawed form of the former.
But let’s get the cannonball rolling with some positivity. Even the weariest, most critical warmongers are going to find it hard to resist the lure of the new theatres. The three consecutive campaigns all boast bespoke strat maps and all take their goals from a different phase of Boney’s blood-spattered career. Once the tutorial has outlined his formative years, you find yourself in Nice, City of Biscuits, gazing east at a patchwork of Northern Italian states ripe for conquest, comradeship and coercion.
Developers Creative Assembly know how intimidating their traditional grand campaigns can be. This dainty hors d’oeuvre is deliberately compact, focused and short. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Having persuaded Piedmont-Sardinia to become our gimp – sorry, protectorate, – and ‘liberated’ various minors from Austrian oppression, we were happily pushing the Habsburgs back across the Alps when a message popped-up reminding us there were only six turns left in which to capture distant Klagenfurt. Merde! We’d forgotten about the 40-turn time limit and the Klagenfurt clause. Horses weren’t spared, stragglers were left behind, but it was all to no avail. We’d tarried in Tuscany, lingered in Liguria, and pratted around in Parma too long.
The tight timetable, hard and fast victory conditions, and limited room for manoeuvre mean the Italian Campaign has shorter legs than Boney himself. The Middle Eastern adventure that follows it has much greater replay potential. Napoleon spent two and a half years trying to gain a foothold in Egypt and the Levant. We get exactly the same length of time (60 turns) to succeed where he failed. Non-negotiable victory locations include Cairo and Damascus. Opposition comes in the beturbaned shape of Mamelukes, Bedouins and Ottomans. Oh yes, the Brits also make amphibious appearances now and again.
It’s here that NTW really gets into its stride. Before you know it you’re dangerously overstretched and impaled on the horns of multiple dilemmas. While some optional side missions nudge you in the direction of victory locations, others are more mischievous. Can you afford to spend valuable time, cash, and manpower kicking John Bull out of Cyprus? Success will mean extra troops from the motherland. How about that business with the Bedouin? Travelling deep into the western desert to destroy their base will bring rewards, but it’s expansion in precisely the wrong direction.
Partly due to a bloated military and partly due to the fact the CA have inexplicably chosen to disable diplomacy and manual tax tweaking in this campaign, we ran into severe cash flow problems while still some distance from Syria. Response 1: abandon vulnerable outposts and disband their garrisons; turned out to be counter-productive. Response 2: run amok in Lebanon and the Holy Lands looting like a Vandal; worked like a charm. By the time our suntanned soldiery barged their way into Damascus we must have been the most hated man in the Middle East.
As enjoyable as this brigandage was, and as diverting as the decisions had been that led up to it, it was hard to shake the feeling of deja vu. We’d been playing and thinking exactly as we had in previous Total Wars. Features supposed to breathe fresh air into the game, such as attrition and supply posts, had impacted our march of mayhem scarcely at all.
Nappy’s third outing is the grandest and potentially the most pleasing. Commencing in 1805 it runs for 192 turns and encompasses all Europe. What’s a megalomaniac supposed to do with all that space and time? Well, if he wants to triumph he’ll need to build an empire of at least 35 regions and claim the capitals of Austria, Prussia and Russia – something that even Dictator Monthly’s Man of the Year 1934-45 didn’t manage.
With the added logistics angle, taking Moscow should be one of those gaming achievements you remember forever. It will stay with us, but for all the wrong reasons. The first time we set out for the land of Muscovy, we had no realistic expectation of reaching it. We were playing on hard difficulty; we were at war with four of Europe’s five superpowers. Napoleon was convalescing in Paris after a battlefield injury (he never dies - just respawns in the capital) and we controlled almost nothing east of Hanover.
For turn after turn our brave band of no-name, no-hope Frenchies trudged along. For turn after turn we expected them to be wiped out by force of arms or the same combination of disease, cold and starvation that ravaged the real 1812 invasion force. Incredibly, the coup de grace never came. Apart from a brief scuffle at Minsk there were no incidents of note on the long trek east. Our army was never challenged and never troubled by lack of supplies. On arriving at Moscow they overpowered the modest garrison with relative ease.
Don’t assume from this account that the strategic AI in the European Grand Campaign is hopelessly broken. It’s not. Capturing the capitals of major powers is improbably easy but holding them can be hard. While Strikeforce Moscow was busy doing its thing, Austrian rebels were evicting us from Vienna and the Prussians, backed by ship-delivered redcoats, were doing their darnedest to acquire Hanover.
What we think can be concluded from our experience is that NTW’s strat AI struggles to produce plausible play, and the new logistics element has been so timidly implemented it’s barely worth having. We’d pictured supply working something like the current trade routes system – a network of lines snaking over the country that could be disrupted with crafty interdiction. What we’ve ended up with is a big slab of full-cream fudge.
Depleted armies will automatically replenish just about anywhere as long as they’ve got a general. Supply posts can only be built in economic satellite towns, and are far from essential. Attrition – which should have been a major pain in the rump – only occurs in midwinter and desert conditions. Elite units are immune. In short, Creative Assembly have bottled it. The enhancement that should have prevented that classic and increasingly tiresome TW phenomena, the rampaging MegaKill Army, barely impacts it.
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.