Napoleon: Total War

In preparation for my annual Game of Last Year awards, I’ve been going through my Steam library looking for games from 2010 that I bought and then never actually got around to playing. This is how I ended playing through the Italian campaign of Napoleon: Total War. As tends to be the case with Total War games, it was an interesting, but not entirely pleasant experience. Since this is my first time with a Total War game since Medieval 2, I played on Normal/Normal difficulty.

I had a lot of trouble adapting to the presentation style. Both in battles and on the campaign map, I had trouble finding the information I needed at a glance. I kept missing when a unit was taking heavy losses, for example. I had an entire unit that I think got wiped out when a cannon shell destroyed the building they were entrenched in, but I’m really not sure. I couldn’t find the button I had come to rely on in Medieval that flashes unit sides so I can tell at a glance how a melee is progressing. The portraits for my various unit-types seemed insufficiently distinct. From my default, zoomed out, camera view I had a lot of trouble seeing how large unit-stacks were on the campaign map.

But along with the quirks, the campaign map had seen numerous improvements since Medieval 2. Limiting what structures could be built, and how many, in a given region meant that there were more interesting choices to be made. The replenishment system dramatically simplifies the process of rebuilding a depleted army while at the same time providing an interesting trade-off decision between a higher replenishment rate and a stronger economy.

Despite all this good, Napoleon won’t be making my Game of Last Year list, and I won’t be playing much more of it. Why? Because while the game does a good job of providing interesting decisions on the campaign map, it completely failed at generating interesting, varied battles.

I have in my head this comic image of 18th century warfare where the two armies line up at close range in dense formations, and then just keep shooting at each other until one or the other side is all dead. And I will say this about Napoleon: it did a brilliant job of conforming to this image. Artillery helped a little, and whoever has more artillery is able to take the defensive stance in the engagement, but one the two armies are engaged, artillery is as likely to hit friends as foes. Cavalry is not particularly effective against infantry with guns, especially with the square formation. There seem to be no engineers, or any sort of ability to entrench or create cover.

Which is a shame, because the other image I have of warfare in this era is of barricades in the streets, and armies trying to storm them. But even urban environments didn’t alter the game’s combat very much. Towns didn’t have walls, so half the time the engagement would take place away from the buildings anyways. Even when the fighting was in the streets, it felt like there was so much open space that manoeuvering wasn’t limited. And on these streets, there was nothing that could be used as cover. Sure, there were a handful of buildings my troops could enter, but the enemy tended to avoid these positions, or just destroy them with artillery.

There were a handful of forests, but otherwise there was a real dearth of useful terrain. Everything felt flattened, even in what should have been the foothills of the Alps. So, like I said, I ended up with lots of infantry lining up and shooting at each other. Again and again. Minor supporting roles for cavalry and artillery. Maybe someone would have enough numbers that they’d feel comfortable charging into a melee. But mostly just these slugfests.

So the game seems to be undone by a lack of variety. If I’m fighting again and again with similar units, on similar terrain, it just doesn’t produce an interesting variety of gameplay. Possibly it’s just this one campaign that feels so monotonous (it is the first campaign of three, after all). But I don’t have the patience these days to find out.

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