Creator of the successful DarthMod, the highly acclaimed series of mods for the Total War games, I have arrived to moddb.com to establish a new internet home.
Posted by DARTH__VADER on Feb 28th, 2010
Napoleon: Total War
Arcade Battles and mediocre AI
I have promised to share my opinion about the new game of “The Creative Assembly”. I dedicate this thorough review to all the users of twcenter forum who have followed my modding work all these years and I hope you will find it interesting and different from the bulk of clone-reviews across the web! Since I am a not a native-English speaker (Greek nationality) I apologise for any mistakes I may have done in the below words. So, I remember the popular demand for a creation of a Napoleonic era Total War game to exist for many years. At last we can have it in our hands. Is it worth it? I will analyze and rate the basic aspects of it, then I will provide my overall rating, and lastly… you will decide if it is worth it!
The Graphical Interface (6/10)
I believe that this “futuristic blue” is not fitting to the era we play and it is all over the place. I would like to see a more historical design of the interface and not actually think that I play the “Star Craft” game. The irony is, that in DarthMod, I use this concept of Star Wars in many occasions, because this is how the trend of DarthMod is, but again it feels less futuristic than this! The small “strumf” icons, the bright colors, the minimal round edge, a strange blue overlay of the map etc. are not eye catching in my opinion and do not drive you into the era, as they are supposed to be… or maybe I am wrong. This is a personal opinion whatsoever and of not so importance, so better to stop mentioning about this and start talking about more serious things.
The Historic Scenarios (8/10)
The available scenarios can be challenging with the scripted AI that is included in them. Also, they have those historic parameters and information that can make them interesting to try them and learn some brief history facts. But I would like to have more of them instead of only 8. They are far more than those ever released for Empire: Total War, and seriously more polished, but again we witness a “productivity misery” providing to us a handful of scenarios to play and that’s it. If they want to sell as DLC, I will not buy. This DLC trend will kill the game industry… remember that.
The Campaigns (8/10)
The 3 story-based campaigns in which we can play as Napoleon seemed to me like well put together and cautiously designed but after some short playing I started to get bored with them. First of all, I liked very much the new auto-reinforcement system (which is similar to the Europa Universalism system) and I remember that it was for many years discussed at the forums as a good idea to implement. Yes, it is realistic to not micromanage the reinforcement of units and to expect this to be controlled by a logistic system which is affected by many parameters (Having a general unit, Proximity to friendly cities and supply chains, trespassing to enemy terrain etc.) Also I agree with the idea of attrition that can be heavy in certain weather conditions and terrains (Did not test how much heavy to tell you about). Another realistic parameter is the new recruitment system of military characters. Now there is a limited recruitment pool of generals and admirals who re-generate after 4 turns and under certain circumstances. The diplomatic options are more and seem to work better than in Empire: Total War. The negotiations with other nations can now include requests to break an alliance or issue a trade embargo with a rival , join ongoing wars etc. Gentlemen and Spies have enhanced abilities as well. A gentleman for example is not useless if he is not inside a school but now can inspire or incite rebellion if he is in a friendly or hostile town accordingly. Also Spies can now infiltrate and sabotage the progress of an army while both types of special units can spy around with different probabilities of success.
So all these new realistic campaign enhancements are good enough to offer us a better campaign experience? I think we mostly needed a dynamic interactivity with the Campaign AI of other nations. About this interactivity I cannot say too many things. The Napoleon campaigns seemed to me “too story driven” so they look like long scripted scenarios and not a live system in which we can re-write history with freedom. The Coalition campaign has the same feel with the above mentioned. I think that what we would all like to see is a serious strategic challenge in the campaign map: naval invasions as a real potential threat and generally some sort of free and dangerous action around. By playing a scripted campaign we can predict after some time what it can occur and when, no matter what. Also for this reason the AI may become passive between the time intervals of the predetermined missions: The units stay at their towns, and react only to attacks, never taking offensive action until an event is triggered. Overally, I did see some expected AI behavior to attack/defend regions and towns, I did see some rational maneuvering to protect borders….I was not impressed though nor I am disappointed, which is a good thing (remembering the release version of Empire: Total War and the passive AI problem). There is still need to play more campaign turns to have a more concrete opinion about the campaign AI but my perception and the experience in the Total War games lead me to this “boring” feel which basically lowers the replayability rating of the whole game.
The Multiplayer (9/10)
The biggest disadvantage with Total War Multiplayer games is the unfriendliness to mods. If that was changed in the future a lot of Total War players would be happier and more addicted to the multiplayer features, which now in Napoleon: Total War are so many than never before. The drop-in feature I think it is very good and if it is organized between friends it can be really interesting and addicting to play a campaign. This works like this. If we want to find a campaign battle we click to the multiplayer and after choosing the option of campaign drop-in battle, we wait until there is traced a battle to drop-in. While playing a campaign and a battle is about to begin, we can choose to enable the drop-in feature or not and if this will be filtered only to our Steam friend list. This last option can save us from the usual Internet idiots who like to cheat or create problems and get excited about it. But as a feature I think it is very nice (I was not able to test it) and of course it can help us play more challenging battles against able human opponents. Together with the so much expected campaign multiplayer, these 2 new multiplayer features can save us from the usual AI… read next.
The Battle AI (6/10)
And now I come to the most precious feature of a PC game and the reason of distrust about the latest games of “The Creative Assembly”. I want to say first that my published views about the previous title Empire: Total War were very good. I have given a rating of 9,5 in the review of the greek PC magazine I work and I believed in it. At the time of the test, the most serious problem then was the passive Campaign AI and the lack of naval invasions. It was a severe problem, yes, I had reported that, but there was no melee AI bug, and the battles were fought much more enjoyably. I also had calculated the very helpful moves of “The Creative Assembly” developers to patch rapidly and listen to the gamer’s demands. There were also some semi-official announcements of the release of modding tools... So I thought then it would have been a matter of time to have an optimized strategy game with all these new beautiful graphics and animations which were never seen before in a Total War game. Later on we all know how this has ended. But it was too late to change the rating I gave as a journalist, and I believe that was the reason that many other journalists have given high ratings. Who could believe that a patch meant to correct things, actually would break them. I am a hard core Total War games fan, most of you reading this already know that, and even with the serious defects the latest game had, I seriously enjoy it, because of my mod though which I share with you, and not of the released product. I also respect the company (The Creative Assembly) because they have given up to now a unique gaming experience for most of us, involving large scale battles, and the opportunity to create mods around their engine. In certain occasions they have been very polite and helpful to me and to many other people of this forum. But I have a large obligation to all of you fans (larger)who follow my work up to now, to be completely frank and give to you my sincere opinion. So if I want to be objective now about Napoleon: Total War I have to review it at the state it is in its official release and not about its potential to become far better with mods, or later patches and DLCs…
“What about the AI melee bug?”… you search in the letters of this review… I can feel your eagerness to learn… well…hmm…. I am sorry. It is still there! “What the… why it is still a problem. Shouldn’t that be corrected by now by the advertised as “advanced AI” of Napoleon: Total War”? It should and it is not corrected fully. But it occurs less at least. My tests involved campaign battles as well as custom battles and there was no need to dig out clever techniques to reveal the problem. In custom battles I urge you to just pick the default armies of 2 factions and start a game (Better with Ultra settings). Then deploy the army as is, sit there and wait… in most cases the AI will confuse itself and the majority of its army will blob and land into the center (or where your general is positioned) of your deployed ranks without a single shot. Sometimes it will shoot a little before the initial headless action. The problem is exaggerated in complex terrains, and there is shown in all its glory. I played a campaign battle in which I had to defend a very steep hill with 3vs1 odds against me. The AI was unable to form a line. It maneuvered-maneuvered-maneuvered as it tried to climb just in front of me, losing a lot of men from shots. I was just standing, laughing and crying at the same time, at this never-ending moment. The misery of the AI ended when it accidentally touched my lines and then its troops could relief themselves and provoke some casualties with their bayonets and the wood of their muskets. Luckily for the AI, the statistics balance of the game (I will talk about this next) is favouring too much the melee mechanics and so the AI accidentally did cause casualties to me, but of course I won in the end. I should not win that battle. I believe in real circumstances, if troops were ordered to dance in circles (syrtaki) in front of heavy musket fire, they would not obey at all.
There are cases whatsoever that the AI shows good thinking and flanking maneuvering. Random these actions are? I believe all this has to do with the internal code calculations which tell the units to avoid each other (We all speak about this theory…) and the physics and positioning system implemented which prevent the units to satisfy the space thresholds that are programmed for this routine (My “tiny” fixes in DarthMod have achieved to correct the second problem). Also, another thing is that this problem is shown mostly when the human player… plays well. If for example over-maneuvers, forgets his units and cannot group them all together, the usual problems of novice players or children, then the AI can hide its weakness and attack effectively… an idiot..hmm…amateur .
I observed that the developers did try to correct this issue. But it seems they lack themselves the proper AI tools? If they could re-write the code, meaning to have full access to it, I think they had much time to trace this problem and erase it. Simply. If they have some access to it (as for example we modders have some access in Medieval 2: Total War through some xml files and formation code and in Empire: Total War we do not have), then they could only change some parameters and try to balance out. If my speculations are correct, then this effort was not fully successful and it was what they maximum could do. We must wait for a next Total War title to see something more efficient.
The first proof for this is the implementation of simplistic 1-line formation to all armies (except to the Ottomans I think, which seem to suffer the most melee bug). I have implemented this formation method in DarthMod as part of the whole solution provided in DarthMod for the melee bug. The way I did it by changing classes is weird but it worked. This makes the AI units less favourable to bump to each other. OK… this is an official solution as well? We are talking about the Napoleonic era. The historic period in which strategy and tactics orchestrated the thousands of soldiers to the battlefields. Where is that now? Where are the column attacks of Napoleon? Where are the complex reserve line formations which the generals brought to battle as fresh troops at the right moment of the battle? These things cannot be seen because the AI can do as much as in Empire Total War could with some official modding around it. There is no advanced AI to target per formation and not per unit. There is no AI to halt fire behind the first lines and not shoot the friendlies in front, so it was better to put them all in front, in a thin line of platoons instead of a heavy mass of soldiers…? I am sorry this is way too disappointing. A second strange thing is the removal of platoon fire and fire by rank firing drills. Why are they out? The Napoleonic era is more fitting for them. Was this a “side way” technique to reduce the melee bug? More strange things: I noticed the over reaction of the AI in flank cavalry maneuvers of the human player. It is very easy to take a small group of cavalry and run it to a flank. Then the AI, even if it has a good firing line, will break, turn and try to chase the cavalry unit, while it withstands devastating fire from the front. The AI artillery can pick a good location at first and then in a large probability it decides to leave it and maneuver elsewhere, without obvious reason, becoming more vulnerable and losing fire opportunities (This “opportunistic stroll” problem existed in Empire: Total War too). In Naval Battles the tactics are more straightforward and thus more efficient, but there are balance issues for which I will speak about in the next chapter.
In the end, the AI logic that is applied fits more to a resource managing RTS game than a strategy simulator. But this has become a dream for most of us all these years. Let’s be frank in this. The Creative Assembly never advertised the AI so much as its graphic engine. But I do remember the first advertising campaign for Shogun: Total War and the Sun Tzu Art of War “implementation”. I was younger then and I was convinced partly that it was like that, but I remember also that this game was so well designed and enjoyful for these days…yes maybe the person who chief designed it was actually thinking Sun Tzu then. Did he take a pension?
“So… there is no good in it”? You ask. I will reply shortly but first note the following sincere position of mine. I am too demanding. This is my “defect”. Also I am used to play DarthMod and not vanilla, which is way too different. So I confess I do compare it, in my mind, with the gameplay of my mod, and this makes me harsher. So returning to the question… yes it has good moments. You can see the AI to form shooting lines more than Empire: Total War. You can see it to flank. You can see it to do some rational things. But it does all this with a low IQ. There it is… the final personal answer.
The general Gameplay and Balance (5/10)
I have expressed many times the opinion that a good gameplay balance in terms of statistic values and plain mathematic or just rational logic can create a success or a disaster to a game, even if it has a well coded AI. Also if it is well implemented it can hide defects of AI and manipulate it indirectly. This is what I basically did in Empire: Total War (In previous titles I had some access also to AI files). Some people argue and state that it is a disgrace to mention the word “AI” in these balancing methods, but they cannot understand that this indirect way is a fantastic tool to finalize the AI. Ok how do you want to call it? Name it…
So, what has been done in Napoleon: Total War in this section of design? The problems here are worse than I expected. I really thought that at least we could see some advanced musketry tactics of the era. Drilled soldiers to approach slowly and in order to release their musket fire at the right moment. Artillery to massacre the lines but those would keep advancing. Thousands of troops to … well lets stop dreaming and face the facts. The good facts first… OK.
Squares are finally useful! Good news! They can fire at will (and do not wait till all men reload…ridiculous) and also horses seem to stop their charge when the soldiers brace. That is very important and I wish this was implemented somehow to Empire: Total War with a patch. The generals also have some extra abilities, which can help the units to last longer. Not something new… it should be in Empire: Total War since Kingdoms: Total War had this feature also. Cannon shots shake the ground and they do not only kill but bring men down all over the place, making them dizzy for some moments and braking the formations. Houses are really useful also. Not only they are more resilient to cannon fire but the troops which are inside fire more effectively and generally when there is a fight inside it is represented with a bar on top of the house which shows who is winning. By bringing more and more troops in a building, the upper hand is gained quite realistically. Well that is about it really… then there are the graphics enhancements for which I will speak later.
So here are the weird things I never expected for a Napoleonic game. The usual insect speed of units is again destroying the strategic elements of the game. The Creative Assembly must witness an accelerated reality to allow these speeds…, but also many other developers balance their games with insect speeds to favour their AI. I recall now a funny video I saw somewhere playing the Benny Hill Music Theme for Napoleon: Total War... yes this hilarious sound comes to my mind all the time while seeing the soldiers to run in “fast forward”, cavalry to collide with ramming speed to blocks of troops and toss them to the heaven (3-7 mtrs away!), units inside the formation to virtually teleport to their positions… what brings more unrealistic mechanics are the ballistics. First of all, the usual weapon trails are destroying the visual realism. Can you imagine the epic film Waterloo with Rod Steiger to show soldiers equipped with laser muskets and turbo laser cannons? Also, most firing drills (except firing and advance) as mentioned above are removed. So basically Line Infantry soldiers shoot like in Empire: Total War primitive volley style (Only the 1st line shoots and the rest wait or watch the sky). What is strange about this is that they fire extremely rapidly and extremely accurately (distance really does not matter, the laser bullets home to their target) so combining this with the extreme speeds, there is no tactical value of timing your attack. Double click everywhere, bam, bam, boom… soon the tiny groups of men are eradicated from the battlefield and remain some to claim a victory. This is it…this is the implemented challenge and difficulty which some futuristic young players will like for sure and will believe that the AI is winning them… they are won by the odd balance of the game. And the cannons…. they are firing too rapidly as well and in strange angles, losing deliberately their targets(?) and creating everywhere almost random explosions, killing mostly friendly troops, if the player does the mistake to move them a little in front of them. The cannons need immediate re-calibration because they just do not work properly. For example their shots bounce too much and since they target rather chaotically, you may see laser cannon balls every now and then to fly 1 km above the sky after a fierce bounce to a hill… nobody sees that? I am crazy? Trying to fire for the first time a canister shot I saw it to fire like a catapult(!) missing 100% the units in front of the cannon!
Another “problem“ is the curious low limit soldiers per unit. Before some years I could understand this. The 3D technology could not allow many troops in battle for most PC users but now… It has been tested widely with DarthMod that the Total War Engine (The WarScape if I am correct) can support many thousands of troops with very little fps drop downs. This 3D engine is a gem and it is not used at its maximum potential. 160 men per unit is now the maximum but why shouldn’t be an option to allow more troops (like the hidden multiplier in the config file)? Is there someone in the world now playing with low settings… how many troops per unit I do not know 30-60 maximum? Maybe an old netbook user or a Negroponte 100$ laptop user…. they are potential buyers too I guess. Or maybe the low unit sizes is another indirect method to hide the melee bug…? The problems are other… Well, virtually the battlefield seems naked with some tiny groups of men who may die all in some seconds from lucky turbo laser cannon shots. For example cavalry units are only 60 men. This means that the unit will last maximum a minute in battle with the current mechanics. If the developers removed the laser trails and lowered to realistic levels the movement speeds, the engine could really hold the thousands troops they advertise and not a handful of platoons.
I have also observed that the balance of units is weird in some occasions. I recall now a battle against Mameluks in the Egypt Campaign which had so low morale that they rooted as I approached near them! (Boo… I am Napoleon). The funny thing is as they run, I advanced with no losses from them to scare the last unit which was fortified to a house, and my stupid artillery started to massacre my own troops because it could not calculate the correct trajectory to kill the enemy. Also the available units per country seem too few. I do not know in which way they count 350+ in the game but France should have much more at least.
Next I will speak about the naval battles. I think in this sector everything works better. The new repair system of ships is a welcome but mostly “transparent” new feature. The AI seems to follow the straightforward tactics of the era but the balance makes that less enjoyable. I still cannot accept the motorboat turning rates… I cannot. Also the cannon shots are sharphooting turbo laser cannons, so again, tactical timing and strategic thought is limited to a quick pass of cannonry where the biggest ship eats the small. Simple it is. I can imagine a “casual player” dialogue during a sea fight:
-Now go to bed child… it is late and you have school tomorrow.
-Yes mother, let me crash them all with my mothership first! Kaboom! Yeahh. Napoleon rocks! Yeahhh.
As you may have understood, the critical aspect of this game is history which is not represented in the 3D Battles as it should be (My opinion always). There are many good historic parts mostly in written form and in the graphic representation of the various units, but apart from that the game is not balanced to its full potential. Something that really has shaken me, and has proven me the “gameish” and rather insulting approach to the historic era is the barefoot revolutionary infantry of Napoleon in the Italian Campaign. Everybody can read somewhere (In a book or in the Internet) that these starting troops of Napoleon suffered from supply shortage and many –many not all– had damaged shoes or were forced to throw them away. So this has been interpreted by the designers to make the Revolutionary Infantry completely barefoot (French Giant Hobbits)! Not only this, but every new unit of this kind that is recruited is barefoot! The militia for example has shoes. This unit should not. They are the Revolutionary Infantry and history says… you got the point.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned anything about the sieges. It is because NOTHING has changed! So I ignore this really annoying part of the game. Who could have thought that in Napoleonic eras troops would prefer to charge to the walls with ropes…. So many ideas to make sieges realistic were wasted. If we add to all the above the fact that the difficulty settings when are to Very Hard make the AI ridiculously immune instead of somewhat more challenging to its logic, I can only say that I am too disappointed by the balance. It is a disaster to my eyes.
Graphics and Sound (9/10)
What “The Creative Assembly” has in their hands is a unique 3D engine which no one has around the world up to now. No one all these years has managed to create something close enough to this. Thousands of soldiers, great animations, realistic effects (sometimes they need a little modding), beautiful 3D maps... In Napoleon: Total War we can see now more diversity to the faces of the troops: 4-64 different variations per unit while in Empire: Total War these were only 1-4. So there are no more clone armies, although in some occasions the variations look so minor that the soldiers look not like clones but twins. Ok we can accept that. Do you remember older Total War titles, Rome: Total War for example which we still enjoy? Furthermore, there are some new very realistic and eye-catching effects to watch during a battle. The cannon shots make craters as they land to the ground and their shape varies according to their trajectory. You can really read in the map where there was a heavy bombardment. The effects of cannon explosions are not only graphical but also create thrust waves shacking or bringing down the soldiers (Too powerful shakes in my opinion). Additionally, now horse riders can die separately from their horses and in this occasion the horses run in amok in the battlefield. Years I expected this feature! It adds a lot to the immersion of the battle. What I liked a lot was the shaking of the ships when they fire or they sustain cannon shots. That is really good to see…
There are numerous pretty good effects and graphics in the game and that was expected because as I said: The 3D graphic engine of Total War games is what have made them most famous about it. If the gameplay, the physics and the AI were better balanced, Total War games would be outselling everything in the universe. On the contrary, despite the goods I mentioned, I think that some effects need optimization. For example, the musket fires are looking like “tiny super novas” than smoke and fire of gunpowder and also their offset seems a bit off. The Howitzer exploding shots in the air resembled to me fireworks… but again these are minor. Overall, the game in the graphics section is visually very good if not perfect. Ah… and another thing… I forgot. What are these flying fluffs in a battlefield? Terrible they are and they create lag to a game which requires strong PCs to run smoothly. I would prefer not to have musket and cannon trails and… fluffs to see at least 20% increase at fps speed and thus more troops in the battlefield.
Sound is also good. Nothing much though. The music has been improved from Empire: Total War. It is not “computerish” but lacks of character. The older more “computerish” music of Total War games did not sound as professional, but it was something to remember. In my opinion the latest Total War games music is not good-not bad, feels transparent, so soon it becomes repetitive and finally tiring, because there is no pluralism in the tracks. Maybe if there were more tracks to shuffle dynamically according to battle events this would not be the case. The sound effects are all very good except… the musket sounds. I wonder… this is how they sounded then? In historic books we read about their noises which shake the soldiers from the medieval times. What is this poof-poof sound? Enough of this then. Time to summarize.
OVERALL RATING: 7,5 /10
We have a standalone add-on for Empire: Total War. That is Napoleon: Total War according to “The Creative Assembly”. To my eyes it is like an official mod of Empire Total War which tried to hide all the defects of it. The movement speeds are “Benny Hill Themed”, the infantry fires very rapidly, everyone (the few groups of men) dies in a few seconds, the melee bug is still there and it is more evident in obstacle terrains, turning rates of ships makes them like motorboats again etc. etc. I saw also that formations are simplistic 1-lines (As I did in DarthMod by changing classes) so that proves to me that the AI code is not really fixed, because if it was new and sophisticated, the AI would be able to hold fire when there are friends in front, keep formation and not blob etc... This is not what I have observed. So basically I wonder: The Creative Assembly sees these defects as features? Another thing I noticed is that fire mechanisms are simplistic. There is no fire by rank, so the units just machine gun everything in front of them... some call this responsiveness… I call this a total unrealistic feature because there is no historic need of timing of a volley release, due to the rapid firing and the sharpshooting accuracy, an accuracy that cannons do not have because they fire randomly and annoyingly in weird angles.
All these new “additions” may seem to create a layer of difficulty for the player, thus tricking him that the game is improved in the AI sector but mostly they make it frustrating for the more demanding players. Nothing feels historic and realistic during a battle. If The Creative Assembly’s target was to make the game more arcade... then it is accomplished. For me, it is unplayable and boring, and I am sincere here, as always. The greatest new thing is the improved square formations which finally and logically fire at will. All the other very nice features implemented in the game, especially in the graphics sector are shadowed by the many defects in the gameplay sector, making Napoleon a shallow approach to a very bold military era.
My main test version of the game was the “Dev Edition” which was pre-released for the journalists. I also have checked the retail version from a friend to see that the main problems were still evident (The Dev version lacks only some minor fixes to graphics, sounds etc. if it is not completely identical). I will buy the game only when there are released mod tools official or unofficial. Else, I am done with it. Please keep that in mind DarthMod fans before you message to me about modding Napoleon again and again. If “The Creative Assembly” wants to get rid of us modders (or me especially)… now it is the right time to strike! Lock them all!
In the end, I can recommend this game to the so-called “Casual Gamers” –the “Dark Matter of the PC Game Universe” I call them– who seldom post to the forums so are not easily traced but somehow they are the majority of the buyers. They do not seem to complain and they like “simple” games which give some straightforward fun. Although Napoleon: Total War is no simple game at all, it can be played simply and someone can have real fun with it. The very demanding history and strategy freaks, such as me, will probably be disappointed.