For years, the Total War series has offered enormous, epic strategy on a scale that has only become greater over time. That's about to change. The next game in the series, Napoleon: Total War will, in the words of developer Creative Assembly, "put Total War under the microscope" because it will focus on the somewhat shorter, but legendary, career of one Napoleon Bonaparte instead of offering lengthy campaigns that last through decades of time. We recently had a chance to take a first look at the game and see some of its new features in action.
While Napoleon: Total War was originally intended to be an expansion for Empire: Total War and will still offer the distinctive combination of real-time battles and turn-based strategy in the series, Creative Assembly apparently felt over the course of its development that the game would simply be too different to shoehorn into Empire's current systems. While previous games in the series let you assume the role of one nation's ruler and attempt to conquer the known world over campaigns of many years, Napoleon will focus much more heavily on a single story: M. Bonaparte's glorious rise to power. However, representatives from the studio were quick to point out that the game will absolutely build on the progress made by Empire to date--up to and including all content in the version 1.5 patch. This includes, among other things, numerous artificial intelligence enhancements that make computer-controlled enemies much more aggressive and realistically challenging.
The demonstration we watched began with the Battle of Austerlitz, which was a historically crucial victory for Napoleon. This battle will be part of the campaign, which is primarily intended to showcase the extensive story (and history) of the titular general-turned-emperor, but like in previous games, you can play as any other nation in the game if you prefer. The demonstration we watched showed the Russian armies perched on a hill with rifle-bearing militia, cavalry, and a handful of heavy-duty unicorn cannons. Unlike previous games in the series, Napoleon will offer some 355 different types of military units. Every single unit will also be unique with distinct statistics, abilities, and firing ranges--even analogous units from different nations (for instance, British militia will have totally different statistics from Russian militia or French militia). This change adds more depth to the game and encourages players to more fully explore the individual strengths and weaknesses of their forces. The studio has also increased the number of random unit faces in the game to a minimum of 64 for low-end systems on up to "a non-infinite but extremely high number" for state-of-the-art computers, so it's less likely than ever that you'll see two soldiers that look identical.
Over the course of the battle--which played out on a wintry, hilly Russian map--the hundreds of virtual soldiers died horribly in the name of their respective rulers as you'd expect. During the carnage, we had a chance to see some of the game's new features, such as enhanced particle effects, which will come in the form of weather effects, such as snow. This effect also has a morale effect on units and obscures visibility. And we saw cannon smoke, which also obscures visibility, as well as, in the words of the representative from Creative Assembly, "somewhat deformable terrain" that includes smoking craters left by errant cannonballs. The overhauled engine will also include enhanced height maps that more clearly indicate which units have high ground (an important tactical advantage that adds to visibility and to unit morale). The user interface, while not final, was much smaller and cleaner, as well as took up only a portion of the bottom of the screen.
There will also be more visual feedback in general during battles--units that have gained experience levels in battle will now be marked with hovering chevrons above them to indicate their progress. You can even expect to see more subtle details that are intended to clarify things for newer players and to simply liven up the game. For instance, if a cavalry battalion is sent to charge a densely packed counter-infantry unit, the cavalry's horses will rear back and attempt to toss their riders--an alarming development that will hopefully drive home the folly of the tactic to new players. And if your cavalry begins taking heavy fire, you may see the rider of one horse die in the saddle and be dragged around with his foot in the stirrup by his panicked horse.
The battle also gave us an opportunity to see some of the new gameplay and visual feedback features that will be added to the game. For starters, the game will feature on-field generals (to reflect Napoleon's own propensity to ride out on the field, rather than hang back in a manor house as most aristocrats did during the turn of the 19th century), which will emit a command radius that offers a powerful morale bonus to any friendly units nearby. Generals can also use special "general powers" on friendly units within range--these powers must be used judiciously because they can potentially turn the tide of battle. For instance, Napoleon has both a "rally" ability, which can immediately reverse the broken morale of routed units, and an "inspire" ability that provides powerful combat bonuses to target friendlies. While these bonuses will definitely come in handy in battle, the obvious trade-off for bringing your generals to the front line will be the danger in which you put them.
In the case of M. Bonaparte, the campaign is being built around him, thus a critical wound will send him back to Paris for a good long while and a second will kill him permanently. Any other general in the game who is wounded enough will permanently die if struck down in battle. Should such a catastrophic event occur, that army will take an enormous morale penalty--much larger than in other games. This particular tweak is all part of Creative's attempts to build a more convincing AI. For instance, defending a stronghold in siege combat will be tougher because AI enemies will be more aggressive about sallying forth into siege combat. They will also more aggressively seek out and exploit gaps in your walls, as well as other weak points.
We then briefly jumped out of Austerlitz and switched over to a real-time strategy battle in Cairo. Battlefields in North Africa will look considerably different from those in Europe--this battlefield took place in a sandy desert under the searing sun at the edge of what appeared to be a sandstorm. The sandy environment and intense heat will apparently pose severe morale penalties to any armies unfamiliar with the climate--only local armies will be able to march through them with impunity.
As it happens, the game will have five campaigns in all: a tutorial that chronicles the ambitious French ruler's initial rise through the military ranks from 1778 to 1793; the assault on Northern Italy from 1796 to 1797; his conquest of Egypt and North Africa in 1798; his campaigns in Europe from 1805 to 1812; and, finally, the Battle of Waterloo on Sunday, June 18, 1815. The Battle of Cairo takes place in the game's third campaign and will be a good example. During the tutorial and Italy campaigns, Napoleon will be poorly equipped with lower-end militia and not expected to be particularly successful. However, after seizing Northern Italy, M. Bonaparte will begin the Egypt campaign as a high-ranking military officer who transports a large army of well-trained, elite French soldiers to Egyptian soil. But he faces the challenge of being unable to recruit any new French units and must befriend the local Bedouin population to seek military allies there.
We then switched to a more macro view--the game's turn-based strategy component, which will be alive and well but presented in a more in-depth manner this time around. Because the game's turns will be shorter (they'll represent only two-week time intervals, rather than six month), you won't be able to recruit or reinforce armies or move forces as quickly, nor will you be able to receive as much tax revenue per turn from your holdings. In addition, weather will play much more of an effect. For instance, during winter, your agricultural holdings will yield fewer crops and your armies will have more difficulty marching.
Your armies will have an even tougher time marching through enemy territory because the game will now model attrition--marching for long distances in enemy territory with no friendly rest stops in sight will decimate both their morale and their ranks. This is why it will be crucial to familiarize yourself with Napoleon's new supply line system, which will let you develop your larger towns and holdings into supply depots by researching larger granaries, as well as other food reserves. It's been said that an army marches on its stomach; thus, if you can keep your soldiers moving through friendly territory that will feed and supply them well, you'll have a much greater chance of success when you do reach your enemy's stronghold. You can also expect to see new tweaks in the game's special strategic units. For instance, rakes will be replaced with spy units that will possess army-hindering abilities similar to the shaman from the Warpath campaign from Empire, while gentlemen units can now be planted into enemy nation's cities and pose as radicals to stir popular unrest.
While these are all significant upgrades and tweaks, perhaps the most exciting new feature in Napoleon will be the campaign's drop-in multiplayer option, which you can simply check "on" or "off" as you play. If you elect to leave the option "on," this means you'll be able to play out any of the battles you face during your single-player campaign not against the computer-controlled AI as usual but against an actual human player online through Steam who may offer a much stiffer challenge. Creative is confident that this new feature and the complete randomness of potentially finding either an easy walkover opponent or a tough veteran adversary will add much to the experience. It's definitely an intriguing option and one the studio hopes will be engaging to the zealous Total War fan community.
And fortunately for those fans that would rather create than destroy, Napoleon will also ship with at least some editing tools out-of-the-box to let you customize your own units. However, it hasn't been determined whether the game will offer any other editing tools. Regardless, Napoleon seems like it'll have plenty to offer both new and veteran Total War fans in the form of improved AI, a totally new campaign style, and a highly unusual multiplayer feature. The game is scheduled to ship in early 2010.