From a screenshot, the graphics will look virtually identical to Empire. But there have been improvements. On the desert level, a heat shimmer warps the screen gently. It’s not purely cosmetic – it’s a visual reminder that you’re in a hostile environment, and likely to be suffering from fatigue and thirst. A renovated particle engine throws dust into the air: a wind direction that has been set at the beginning of the level carries it slowly over the map. If you remember the build up to Empire, there was a lot of fuss about every bullet being individually calculated – every naval cannonball causing individual damage.
That perfectionist fuss is continued here – the dust kicked up may look like a cosmetic effect, but it will affect the visibility of troops. If something looks like it would have an effect on the battle, it almost certainly will. Even the new individual troop animations aren’t entirely functionless. Not only do they break up the uniformity of the battle, making it tempting to zoom in fully and follow an individual on the battlefield, they also give you feedback. When cavalrymen rear up against pikemen in the square formation, they’re giving you the important message that horses hate approaching geometric arrangements of spikes.
Often, you’ll see a dead cavalryman, an ankle snagged in his stirrup, getting dragged across the ground. That one’s fairly pointless, admittedly, but it’s understated. CA are keen to make their game make visual sense, and use as much as possible to show, not tell, the player what’s going on. But they’re far from mirthless – the joy that’s expressed at a dead man getting dragged by a terrified horse across a battlefield speaks volumes.
This is a period in which Napoleon suffered a defeat – giving you the chance to prove that you’re only one massive army away from world domination. Another visual improvement is the deformable terrain – cannonballs now leave marks in the ground. It’s not a battlefield tactic – artillery wasn’t big enough to leave huge craters – but along with the particle effects, it all adds up to make the battle feel that much more real.
A UI tweak now displays a blue ring that shows the area of effect for commander abilities such as Inspiration and Rally, which can boost troop morale. Rally can even bring your troops back from Empire’s new shattered rating.
However well you finish the campaign, though, the next one will snap your progress to the historical timeline. Allowing your bonus world tour to persist would imbalance the campaign and eliminate any attempt to seriously recreate Napoleon’s rise to power.
Over in the AI department, the renovations made in Empire have been built upon. Avid readers with steel-trap memories will recall the move from a chess-based consideration of possible moves to a to-do list. The computer keeps in mind a prioritised set of goals, with every action ranked on how likely it was to achieve any of them.