Big Steaming Pile – Napoleon: Total War

Napoleon’s military prowess has been studied for centuries now, and in 2010, armchair generals got their opportunity to emulate the campaigns of L’Empereur with today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, Napoleon: Total War.

Full Disclosure: Napoleon Bonaparte is my favorite historical figure. Sure, there have been people who’ve done more for humanity, invented things, helped others and such. But for my money, give me the diminutive Corsican who came along at the right place and the right time to finagle his way onto the French throne and run roughshod over Europe so hard that he had to be exiled twice. Napoleon’s military prowess has been studied for centuries now, and in 2010, armchair generals got their opportunity to emulate the campaigns of L’Empereur with today’s piece of the Big Steaming Pile, Napoleon: Total War.

Napoleon: Total War is a half-sequel, half-spinoff of Empire: Total War. For the uninitiated, what we have here is a combination of real-time tactics and turn-based strategy. The main mode of the game, Napoleon’s Campaigns, takes you across several milestones in Napoleon’s military career: there’s a tutorial to get you familiar with the interface, the Italian campaign, where a young Bonaparte launched a dagger thrust at the Austrians to keep the French Revolution alive, the Egyptian Campaign, where Napoleon battles the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks in the arid deserts of the Levant, the Europe campaign, which is basically an open-ended experience starting from Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France, and the Battle of Waterloo, where the curtain finally fell on Napoleon’s reign.

Each turn, you’ll start with a view of the campaign map. Here, you’ll manage the more macro aspects of your empire – conducting research, engaging in diplomacy, recruiting troops and the like. On a provincial level, you’ll need to focus on Capitals and Towns. Provincial Capitals serve as hubs for your nation, and in them, you can build various structures like Tax Offices which boost your income or Barracks that allow you to recruit more and increasingly powerful types of soldiers. Towns can only hold one type of building, but they get different construction trees, like Supply Posts, which allow your troops to reinforce at a faster rate between turns, or Gunsmiths, which lower the cost of raising regiments in that region. If you’re not interested in handling that yourself, you can automate the building process, however, you and the AI might have different opinions of what your war machine needs, and it will not hesitate to spend your precious ducats on projects that aren’t really worth it at the time.

Well-covered French infantry holding off Sardinian troops.

Of course, we didn’t come here for road-building and diplomacy, we’re here to take what we want at gunpoint. When you march one of your armies up to an enemy force and it’s time to throw down, the game shifts to a real-time strategy setup that features some of the deepest tactical flexibility I’ve ever seen in a strategy game. Depending on a number of factors like the skill of the commanding generals and which side is attacking as opposed to defending, one side will have to deploy their troops first and the other side gets to see their enemy’s formation before deciding how to counter it. In this pre-battle phase, you can do things like form groups of regiments that can be called upon with the push of a button, so if you want all your cavalry to be one united force or your light infantry all together, you can do so. You can unlimber your artillery so that they’re ready to open fire at the beginning of the battle instead of having to wait for them to get set up first, and if you’re being attacked after your army has been stationary for a full turn, you can set up defenses like earthworks to protect infantry or spikes that shred enemy cavalry that attempt to charge you.

Once the fight gets underway, you still have a myriad of options at hand. You’re not limited to making formations a certain depth or length, you can stretch out a regiment into a single file or pack them tight to occupy a narrow valley. You can tell dragoons to dismount their horses and fight afoot with carbines, you can tell skirmishers to adopt a hit-and-run strategy, grenadiers can lob a volley of grenades, and certain artillery types can switch between regular cannon fire and deadly quicklime rounds that, if they score a solid hit, can decimate an enemy regiment long before they reach your lines. Now, one thing to keep in mind is that, unlike a lot of RTS games, your goal isn’t necessarily to kill every enemy on the field. Instead, every regiment and unit has a Morale meter, and when it reaches a low enough point, the unit will rout and, depending on how badly it’s getting pounded, it will either attempt to retreat and rally back to the fight or they will bail on the battle completely. There are a number of factors at work here, like whether the army commander is nearby, whether certain elite units are nearby, if the regiment is taking both musket and artillery fire, and whether they’re holding high ground or attempting to seize it.

You’ll also have to take factors like terrain and weather into account, as well. Troops can hide in forests, making them mostly invisible to the other side, they can use walls as cover, rivers have to be crossed either at specific fords or by bridge, which can bottleneck a large army, and regular artillery has to have a clean line-of-sight to hit targets. The weather can also play hell on an army; wet weather means gunpowder may not work properly, leading to misfires that blunt musket attacks or damage artillery, extreme heat or cold tires troops out, as well, and a tired army is an ineffectual army.

After each battle, you get an account of your survivors, casualties inflicted, and experience gained by your troops, which affects stats like reloading time, accuracy, and unit morale. If you were attempting to take a city and won the battle, you’ll then get the option of how to handle your new prize: peaceful occupation or shameless looting, although the latter almost inevitably leads to a local revolt and a boatload of rebel troops coming to retake the city. After naval battles, you might also get the opportunity to seize enemy ships and add them to your own fleet, but regardless of land or sea, you’ll be brought back to the campaign map to plan your next move.

Admiral Horatio Nelson: the Royal Navy’s sledgehammer.

There’s a few other modes worth perusing as well. There’s a Quick Battle, which allows you to select from a wide variety of nations and select your army or navy composition, Napoleon’s Battles, which drop you into some of the most famous fights of the era, from Napoleon’s masterstroke at Austerlitz to the frigid stalemate at Borodino, and for those looking to thwart the Little Corporal, there’s Campaigns of the Coalition, which allows you to play the Europe Campaign, but as the Prussians, Austrians, Russians, or British instead of France. There’s also the option for online play, but seeing as this game is seven years old at the time of this review, there’s probably not gonna be a lot of potential opponents out there.

The presentation here is stellar, especially during battles. The scale of the battles themselves is amazing; even on medium graphical settings, you’ll witness hundreds of individual soldiers on the field, and while they don’t look great zoomed out, if you pull the camera in tight, you can observe details like artillerymen covering their ears before launching a round, infantrymen going through every step of the arduous process of loading a musket, and even which of your troops are clean-shaven compared to who has beards and mustaches. There’s a lot of speech to be heard as well, and each nationality has their own language, so Austrian troops will actually scream in German as opposed to badly accented English, which is a very nice touch. You know you’re going to be in for a good show when the intro video is fantastic.

I do have some hangups, however, but none are truly game-breaking. For one, the AI, while quite capable of putting up a decent challenge to even hardened veterans, is occasionally capable of some questionable decisions. For one, if enough of your regiments are hidden, the enemy will not march on you until you move your hidden troops. And I don’t mean they’ll try to flank you or probe around instead of attacking head-on, they will literally stand still and allow you to blast them to death with artillery. Also, as I said, the biggest factor during battle is troop morale, and the easiest way to smash enemy morale is to kill their commanding general, which, in reality, was considered a no-no in Napoleonic warfare because it was considered uncivilized, but here, the best way to start almost any battle is to train your cannons on the enemy general and pick them off while there’s still tons of space between you and them. Also, the game at times has a nasty habit of putting way too much emphasis on generals’ abilities over the armies they command. For example, if you don’t wish to fight a battle yourself, like if you grossly outnumber the enemy and don’t feel like spending 10-15 minutes on mopping up a weak force, you can allow the game to auto-resolve the battle instantly. Unfortunately, and especially if you’re playing as a Coalition nation against France, the game values French leadership so much that you will sometimes lose battles where you outnumber the enemy twice, even three times over because the game decides that their general was just that good, which is somewhat understandable if you’re up against Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, less so against a handful of basic line infantry.

Those minor quibbles aside, Napoleon: Total War is an excellent hybrid of real-time and turn-based strategy, set in perhaps my favorite era of history, and with tremendous visuals and sounds. It’s quite deep, but not intimidating, and the amount of tactical options and abilities available mean that you never have to fight the same battle twice. The historical battles and Campaigns of the Coalition mode add some great replay value, and there are quite a few quality mods out there to extend this game’s life even further (I recommend Napoleon: Total Factions, which allows you to play as any country featured in the game). I highly recommend it, and if you pick this one up, hopefully you’ll complete Napoleon’s Grand Empire and not get exiled to Elba. Or Saint Helena. Because you definitely don’t come back from the second one.

Current Price – $19.99

Is It Worth It? – If you’re a fan of strategy games or this period of history, absolutely yes. Even if you’re not, this might convert you.