Napoleon: Total War – updated impressions

The refinements are minor, but interesting in a bookwormish kind of way. For instance, now the AI will consider how a goal’s coming along. If it’s finding itself unable to achieve something, and the goal isn’t something as fundamental as a victory condition, the electronic brain will reprioritise it and focus on something more likely to bear fruit. If the idea of putting human thought into code gives you a tremor in that secret part of you that you prefer to keep hidden from the cool kids, then you’d probablylaunch yourself into space if you saw the numbers at work behind the scenes.

Because that’s what the third and final campaign is about: the crash zoom out to the world map, the blue empire squatting over the chest of Europe, with more than a couple of fingers in Africa. Now you’re playing a more familiar game. Not as global as Empire, but with all the old concerns of taxes, the containment of unrest, and the movement of agents. If that’s not to your taste, you can always automate the micromanagement for a small cut in efficiency.

The stylish Rake has gone, so there’s no point building bawdy houses – but the age of the true Gentleman appears to have ended: he now takes on more Rake-like behaviour. During one duel cutscene, a gentleman flees, only to be gunned down by his opponent. Meanwhile, to fulfill those covert pursuits, the Spy makes a return.

This affects the settlements – there’s no point dropping brothels everywhere when they don’t attract Rakes – and the supply depots are vital, of course. This means a growing responsibility, in terms of setting taxes, to keeping the rabble happy. But as usual with Total War, you can limit your involvement in these money-minded matters and suffer the slightly (and deliberately) inefficient decisions of the AI to keep your game simple and streamlined. You’ll lose around 5% of your optimal income, but that’s the price of an easy life.

Napoleon’s charismatic and legendary life ran from 1769 to 1821, making it a perfect way to extend Empire’s remit of the 18th Century. The change in zoom level and the narrative of the campaign make it yet another Total War game that gives you a feel for an era, without ever going so far as to educate you. The amount of military knowledge knocking around in the Horsham HQ is formidable, but Creative Assembly aren’t history teachers – they’re game-makers.

With a deeper attention to the ways in which soldiers find themselves dying, the more intimate, up-close Napoleon campaign looks set to be the most realistic yet. It’s not like Total War was ever the most whimsical, throwaway series – but if they keep getting closer to the real experience of war, they might as well sell the game with a post-traumatic stress disorder counseling course.

Nov 12, 2009