By Chris Matel

Like epic games of Risk, but with more emphasis on fostering diplomatic ties, The Creative Assembly's Total War franchise has been a favorite among real-time strategy fans for over a decade. The U.K. based developer first introduced gamers to their work of virtual historical warfare with feudal Japan, and have since brought the series throughout various time periods of political instability. Though it's only been a year since Empire: Total War hit the PC, as Kieran Brigden, the studio's communications director, explained it, a change in the team's development strategy has allowed them to be more flexible and capable of delivering quality RTS experiences with shorter turnaround times. The result: the “standalone, premium expansion,” Napoleon: Total War.

As a five-year production, Empire was the last exercise in Creative Assembly's “Evolution, Revolution” development model, wherein every other project was completely built from the ground-up. Now, with Napoleon, their new “spine process” takes the core work done on the Warscape engine from Empire and past games, and upgrades individual components as needed, shortening the development cycles.

As Kieran noted, Empire was a push for the franchise into the next-gen classification, using DirectX 9 and 10, distributing over Steam, and employing Achievements; but to them, Napoleon marks a completely new paradigm. And such was evident from our play time with the game as we experienced its multiplayer campaign and battles, naval combat included.

If not evident from the title, the game follows Napoleon Bonaparte, and, more specifically, his rise to power during the French Revolution. Employing a three-tier campaign system, the game is said to be composed of more competent AI pathfinding and decision making, stronger naval controls, and shorter turn times than Empire, not to mention the addition of environmental effects on battlefield performance.

Though my experience with the franchise wasn't as deeply rooted as those I played against, the few hours I spent with the game relayed Creative Assembly's commitment to listening to community feedback and criticism.

First up in the demo session was a two-versus-two battle, showcasing how terrain can impact strategy. As our team's opponents took over a pair of ridges separating our factions in the middle of the map, it was evident this wasn't going to be an easy fight—at least for my team. Impressive smoke effects from my enemy's artillery fire hovered over my riflemen as they approached the hills, nearly making the scene invisible. With infantry colliding on the contested ground, even my flanking cavalry couldn't keep my regiment's morale high as they tackled the sea of foot soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Swooping the camera in showed exciting detail of horsemen shot from their saddles and dragged across the map.

With my general killed quickly thereafter, there wasn't much left to prevent my soldiers from breaking rank and fleeing the onslaught, a nice, albeit, humiliating touch. A bit of lag was noticeable in our session, but was understandable considering our jerry-built network.

There wasn't much time to lament as we concluded the slaughter and went straight into a flyover tour of the three different playable campaigns in Napoleon, with Kieran as our guide. Moving from Napoleon's early years in Corsica, to his stalemate in the  Middle East against the Ottoman Empire, and up to his cede of power in the European Grand Campaign, there looks to be a wealth of variety to experience in the game as differernt environments are said to aid some armies while acting as a detriment to others.

From there, we went straight into a bout of the multiplayer campaign—an option recently added to Empire—allowing me to catch a glimpse at the heart of the experience. Able to be played in setup matches or with drop-in battle sessions, the multiplayer campaign is a strong asset, likely to enrich play time even after a solo completion. Equal parts strategy and timing, the section of the Grand Campaign I experienced in the northern part of Italy allowed for a little bit of payback to my competition.

At this latter point in Napoleon's career, my opponent was charged with the task of conquering Italian cities, while it was my duty to repel their invasion. To accomplish my objectives it took diplomacy, upgrading my cities' infrastructure, and smart recruitment strategies. Like past games, each army has two types of activities to accomplish in the turn-style gameplay: unit positioning, and faction management. During the active part of a turn, you have the option of moving and recruiting units as you like over short distances on an overworld map. In this game, travel is dependent on the advancement of road paths, as well as terrain type.

According to Kieran, improvement has been made to the overworld system. The goal was to make it look less like a chess board by producing greater detail not only in its fidelity, but also with its composition. Now, armies represented by a single avatar, traverse over mountain ranges and through forests with depth as you zoom in and out of close camera angles.

A change in turn length also means to distinguish gameplay in Napoleon. This time around, a full turn cycle represents two weeks, leaving multiplayer contests moving at a quicker clip than in previous games. For veterans, the shortened turn time may feel a bit unusual, but it allows you to get to the more advanced upgrades quicker.

As our match progressed, I noticed how important it was to improve relationships with the enemies of my enemy. With payment and access to my army, I was able to gain a partnership with those who would ultimately help me take down my opponent. Between trade agreements, embargoes, and petty offerings, you can either enlist an ally or create an adversary. Obviously there's more than one way to play through the campaign.

Once I exacted revenge and with only a few minutes left, Kieran set up a quick naval battle so that we could experience the boasted tightened controls. As I took command of four large ships, one with a broadside of over twenty cannons, I soon learned there's more to pointing and clicking while at sea. The action was slow to unfold as a northwestern wind failed to capture the full canopy of either navy's sails, but in the meantime, I was able to once again see the great effort put into making believable on-screen action. As I zoomed into the decks, sailors where scurrying about tending to various duties, while others climbed the mainmast and manned the crow's nest.

It was all delightful eye candy, and things only got better as the firefight erupted. My four-to-three advantage faded when my adversary's volleys ignited one of my ship's gunpowder reserve and caused a brilliant explosion. Elsewhere another exchange between two ships showed off damage modeling when the hulls of the ships were torn open by cannon fire to expose an unprotected crew. Ogling over the effects turned out a detriment to my efforts as two more ships sank, leaving the final one to be boarded and commandeered. The results may not have had been in my favor, but the scenes were enjoyable to watch.

True, the focus of the event started as a controls demonstration, but with no overt discrepancies and too much to get lost in, it seems like criticized issues have been dealt with.

Altogether, the move to an adjunct style of iteration looks to be paying off for The Creative Assembly, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the future. Releasing in late February, Napoleon: Total War looks to be an upgrade to Empire in all the right aspects, and ought to be a strong, addicting complement to the series.

Which is your favorite Total War game? Did you know if you play enough, you could one day land a job at CA? Seriously, just ask Kieran. Want the details? Let's talk on Twitter @Gamers_Hell