Posts Tagged ‘ Total War

Reviewed – Napoleon: Total War

My first-ever review is up at GameShark, and it’s a fairly positive one for Napoleon: Total War. This assignment was something of a treat, and is probably a poor representative of the reviewing experience as a whole. Napoleon: Total War is a good and very enjoyable game, and I’m still wrapping up some campaigning in it even though the assignment is over. I was happy to have an excuse to plow over 40 hours into the game.

I am sure I’ll jump onto the “I hate reviews” bandwagon the moment I have to review a real dog of a game. But for now, it’s a fun change of pace.

As I was in the process of assigning a score to this game, I found myself thinking about the kind of reviewer I want to be. It would be nice to have a reputation for being tough but fair, but somehow I think most reviewers probably aim for that. It’s maybe more important to have come to terms with how I react to games.

On the Three Moves Ahead before last, or maybe it was during the after-party, Tom made the comment that he got the feeling there weren’t too many games I hated.  On reflection, that’s very true. I actually like most games I play. I’m the sort of person for whom a lot of things just don’t get old. Sometimes, when I’m putting my car key into the ignition, I still kind of marvel at the fact that I can drive. I got my learner’s permit ten years ago, but the feeling of privilege hasn’t entirely gone away. I feel the same way when I sit down to play videogames, especially when I can say, “It’s for work.”

So it takes a lot to make me dislike a game. Huge disappointments, like Rebellion, Rome: Total War, or Empire: Total War, can usually get me there. Pissing me off is another good method. I thought GUN was a good game until it all went to shit in the third act, and that final act erased just about every ounce of goodwill. I’m a little allergic to hyperbolic praise and self-importance. I enjoyed Far Cry 2, for instance, but I can’t say I really like it. It was a beautiful and exciting open-world shooter, but it was also murderously repetitive and kind of shallow. I end up judging the game more harshly because of how it was received, and for its own very limited ambition. I have not been kind to Modern Warfare.

But for the most part, I love gaming and like most videogames. I just don’t think many of them are excellent. I really loved playing Napoleon: Total War, and really do think it’s probably the best Total War title in quite awhile. But when it was time to consider flaws that really bothered me, I didn’t have to look hard to find them.

I’ll have more to say about Napoleon. I really did like it quite a bit. So I’ll close with the reviewer’s typical request: read the text. The score doesn’t perfectly reflect how I feel about the game, or how I personally weigh the game’s elements. It reflects a slightly more cold-blooded assessment.

The Napoleon Total War Conundrum

During my sophomore year of college, I bought a car with the money I saved working in a 115 degree packaging factory for a summer. A single bus trip was all it took to make me scrap the idea of hanging onto those savings. When the four hour trip from my house to Lawrence University morphed into 10 hours of bus travel, I decided it was worth it to me to spring for a car. At a stroke, a whole new world opened up to me beyond the neighborhood around campus. And a host of opportunities for disastrous misjudgment.

I could go grocery shopping, and when I was out grocery shopping, I could impulse-purchase a copy of PC Gamer in which they reviewed Rome: Total War. And when I read the review of the highest-rated Total War game yet, and saw those glorious, glorious screenshots, it was no trouble at all to cut class, drive to Best Buy, and pick up my own copy.

If I didn’t have a car, I might have had to wait. I might have waited to hear what some of my fellow fans were saying, instead of a magazine that I felt was in serious decline, and which had developed a disturbing habit of publishing suspiciously positive WORLD EXCLUSIVE first reviews.

When I was starting with Rome, I told my friends what an amazing game it was. How it was the best yet. The battles were spectacular, the map was amazing, and I was so glad at how the battlefields changed depending on where you were fighting. It was the best ever!

But I was a Total War veteran, and I started to notice how the AI never seemed to defend its cities, nor finish up a siege against one of mine. I noticed how the enemy would seem to come charging straight across a battlefield at my army, taking a straight line regardless of terrain. I noticed how, after the touch-and-go early game, the AI kept fielding crummy first-tier units against my increasingly powerful and deadly Roman armies. I noticed that it no longer seemed possible to lose in Rome, whereas catastrophe was always just a mis-timed charge away in Shogun or Medieval.

When the Roman civil war broke out, I thought that things were bound to pick up. German primitives, decadent Egyptians, and Macedonian pederasts might not have been a match for my legions, but surely the Roman Republic would give me a run for my money.

Except that it didn’t. I came at them with full stacks of urban and Praetorian cohorts, and they shot back with penny-packets of regular legionary cohorts supported by some ill-advised cavalry charges. All my units had to do was stand there and carve through them until the enemy units broke, as they always would.

Past the earliest stages of the game, there was nothing to keep the game interesting. The AI failed on both levels of the game, and the game’s entire balance was off. Roman primacy was a given unless the incompetent AI was managing them.

Rome marked the start of a lot of bad trends in the Total War series. Inflated review scores and hyperbolic review copy, over-promising and under-delivering from Creative Assembly, ugly fights within the Total War community between the people who couldn’t stomach the flaws and the people who wouldn’t see past the spectacle, and AI that couldn’t play the game.

All those trends persisted through Medieval II and Empire. I was smart enough to predict that Medieval II was going to be a dog, and waited until it went on a hefty discount. But with Empire, credulity got the best of me again. How could it not? I’d just spend two years reading the works of Christopher Duffy and pretty much memorizing every detail of Frederick the Great’s military career. My mind’s eye could see the Prussian grenadiers leaning into the hail of shot and the sheets of flame to storm the Grander-Koppe at the Battle of Soor.

So I found myself at Best Buy on release day grabbing my copy. The Total War games have a knack for short-circuiting my better judgment.

Empire was in far better shape than Rome or Medieval were at release, and probably better than they were even after the last patches came out for them. The AI could deliver a few sound spankings on the battlefield if you weren’t careful. Strategically, it was still very poor. The naval invasion bug, where the AI would simple refuse to load its troops on ships and take them across the ocean, was unfortunate but it’s not like an AI army would have done anything useful once it made landfall.

The more I played Empire, however, the less I thought of it. The Civilization-esque touches proved to be entirely superficial or just plain obnoxious. You couldn’t really do much to affect the character of your cities. Some would be large cities capable of producing advanced units and civic buildings, while others would remain provincial backwaters, good for small tax revenues and little else. Was unrest becoming a problem? Raise more dragoon regiments to keep the Morlocks sufficiently terrified. Then be sure to put up a whorehouse in one of the neighboring villages. In Empire as in other Total War games, prostitution breeds lower-class contentment.

And all the towns could do anything and everything. So you could make a new town into a university, a factory, or a tavern. Whatever you wanted or needed, really. Your call.

Let’s not even discuss the fortress assaults, which are easily the worst in any Total War game.

The gentlemen were useless, except for sending into universities to buff the research rate. You could have them duel with other gentlemen but what, really, was the point of doing that? A coin-toss would decide whether or not Kant helped you invent the steam engine or perished while trying to put a bullet between Voltaire’s eyes. Better to keep him at the university, generating a steady supply of science.

Diplomacy was a tedious mess. Naval combat was ridiculous, exactly the kind of counter-intuitive mess you can expect from a game that has been idiot-proofed. The ships handled without any sense of mass or wind, spinning around like three-masted tops, and whipping broadsides in every direction.

We could go on. Suffice it to say that with Empire, the Chick Parabola was alive and kicking. At first you were curious about its slightly baffling and seemingly interesting mechanics. Then, the more you understood, the hollower was the edifice. Finally, you were left with contempt for the broken features and disinterest in the few rudimentary features that worked.

It took me about 60 hours with the game, maybe a bit longer, to grasp how screwed up it was. Probably far longer than most reviewers had to spend with it. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? Creative Assembly makes games that are so big and cumbersome that it takes forever to comprehend the whole. Once you do, it all falls apart. But you might convince yourself that you’re playing a good game before that happens.

Creative Assembly have habitually abused the trust of their customers and released buggy, half-finished games packed with ill-conceived features. Then they’ve turned around and whined about how unfair people are being when they get called on it. Or consider this breathtaking post from Mike Simpson over at the Total War Blog. Remember that Empire came out on March 3rd, 2009 in North America, and this post is being written in early October.

I had 6 copies of Empire: Total War sat on my shelf intended for close gamer friends that I didn’t send out because I was too embarrassed about the flaws. Old friends are the harshest critics. Well they’ve gone out now.  I think the game now meets my personal unreasonably high quality threshold – not just good but great. Hopefully my friends will agree.

So the head of the Total War franchise sat on his complimentary copies of Empire because he was too embarrassed to send them to his friends. For seven months after releasing the game to the public and asking $50 a pop. But it’s cool, because this is how SEGA had to play it.

We do however also have another customer who we make the game for, and in one particular way they are the most important of all. It’s our publisher, who is driven by the grim necessity of commercial reality. Those necessities tend to be short term compared with the dev time of a game or the lifetime of a series. They are also necessities that we cannot ignore – if we do it’s Game Over. Empire: Total War happened the only way it could – it had to be in a box in Feb 09.  Damned stressful for all concerned, but it’s so much a fact of life it’s almost not worth talking about.

I think some people think that when “commercial reality” wins, they lose. If the car parks at Sega or CA were full of Ferraris, I might agree. But they are not.  When “commercial reality” wins, we live to make another game.

Got it. Empire had to sell huge exactly according to SEGA’s timeline, regardless of the game’s condition at release. And Total War customers got clued into this eight months after the fact.

I rehash this sad, bitter past because the saga of the up-and-down relationship between Creative Assembly and the die-hard fans it won in 2000 with Shogun is important to how I approach their games now. I don’t have a clean slate with any of their work, and never will. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt, and as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t made a great game since Medieval Total War. They make “decent at best” strategy games with some stunning spectacle attached to them, and that formula has long since worn thin.

This is the attitude I took into Napoleon Total War, and this is why I really do not know what to make of that game. Because having played it for about 25-30 hours, I must reluctantly concede that it’s pretty good. And at times, even great.

I’ll get into that  in another post. But right now, I’m trying to figure out an answer to a comment that Jason Lefkowitz left on Flash of Steel, in response to Troy’s remarks on Napoleon. Jason said:

Here’s what annoys me: buying a game at full retail, finding it to be broken, and then being told by the vendor a year later that I can play the game they promised me back then by paying them again now.

Hearts of Iron 3 was broken as well, but at least Paradox aren’t charging me $35 for the patch. You know?

And I don’t know what we should say to that very good point. Napoleon is a good game, in part because it’s Empire without all the screw-ups and bloat. I’ve played Empire with the 1.5 patch and still find it to be a bit of a dog, but Napoleon is pretty good right out of the box. Empire may never be brought up to this standard.

As a furious consumer, I’m inclined to say that Napoleon should have been free to everyone who bought Empire. We subsidized the development of a good game buy purchasing a bad one, and now Creative Assembly is charging for the “fixed” version. Screw those guys.

But then I consider Napoleon Total War and some of the unexpectedly nail-biting battles and the solid, if not brilliant, action on the campaign map. This is pretty much the game I wanted when I bought Empire. And now that it’s here, I still want it. If it were anyone other than Creative Assembly, and if it were devoid of all this context that I’ve outlined above, I’d say Napoleon Total War is steal at $40. But this expansion brings a longer baggage train than the Grand Armee.

Looking Back at the Aughts

For the next several weeks, I’m going to be working with my friend and colleague Troy Goodfellow on a special project over at Flash of Steel. Troy is wrapping up 2009 with a decade retrospective on strategy gaming since the turn of the millenium, and he was kind enough to invite me to contribute. Troy, Bruce Geryk, and myself are picking out a game from each year of the decade that we think was significant in some way.

In true strategy gamer tradition, we don’t remotely agree one what constitutes a strategy game, so you may see some eyebrow-raising choices over the next couple months. We’ll probably stretch and twist the definition pretty mercilessly.

Anyway, I kicked things off yesterday with a piece on Shogun: Total War. It’s not my favorite of the Total War series, but I would argue it is the most important and perhaps the most interesting. So come gaze into the Pensieve, and together we will revisit 2000, and a pivotal moment in my life as a gamer.