Napoleon famously had his name given to a type of inferiority complex - a dubious honour that does little to overshadow the man's glittering military career. The little man's campaigns cut a swathe across Europe in the 19th Century, and even his great nemesis regarded him as a legend: When asked to name the greatest general of all time, The Duke of Wellington replied: "In this age, in past ages, in any age... Napoleon."
Now, some 188 years after his death, the diminutive emperor has yet another accolade to his name - because he's the first historical figure to get his own Total War game. In something of a surprise move, Creative Assembly is opting for a narrative and character-led approach to its latest entry in the series. We're still very much in the realm of the epic strategy here - this isn't a point and clicker about "The Adventures of Napoleon B" - but for much of the game you'll have no choice but to play as France: there are three separate campaigns on offer that must be played in chronological order, and unless the developer changes its plans, only the third will allow you to play as the other forces of Europe. It's a risky tactic that may annoy hardcore Total War fans (as if there's any other kind), but hopefully this change of approach will allow for new twists on the series' familiar gameplay.
For a start, playing as Napoleon will force you to adapt to his strengths and weaknesses. While Bonaparte was known for being a bit of a virtuoso when it came to land battles, he was less adept at handling naval combat. This doesn't mean that you'll automatically lose all your fights on the ocean wave, but you will need to think carefully about how you deal with your more powerful enemies. Another key difference lies with the way time is handled: in previous Total Wars each turn of the game represented a whole year of history. Because N:TW focuses on a briefer period of time, a turn in this game will represent just two weeks. As a result of this shift in dynamic, it will take a lot longer for the player to rustle up reinforcements. You'll have to look after your units, and when you suffer heavy losses it'll have a major bearing on your overall plans.
Each of the three campaigns will have a distinct flavour, finding Napoleon at a crucial stage of his military career. The first scenario covers Bonaparte's conquest of Italy - an achievement that effectively marked the start of his ascendancy in Europe. The second campaign then begins in Egypt at the turn of the 19th Century, just after our man in the hat has suffered a severe beating from Nelson's fleet. During this campaign you're entirely cut off from France, so you'll be forced to bolster your armies with local troops from the places you capture. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was actually fairly disastrous, so the aim here is to re-write history by turning things around for him. Finally, the third campaign sees Bonaparte taking on the whole of Europe in a pan-continental orgy of carnage. From what I can tell, this last section of the main game will be the closest in structure to the previous Total Wars, allowing you to engage in diplomatic exchanges with your allies - or to play as nations other than France. In all three campaigns there will be rewards for following Napoleon's historical tactics, but naturally you'll be free to do things as you wish.
One thing that certainly hasn't changed is Creative Assembly's attention to detail. Empire: Total War allowed us to zoom right in on ships until you could see the sailors prancing about on deck, but this time the developer has gone even further. Now you can actually see the individual buttons on each soldier's uniform, and you can have up to 10,000 models fighting on screen at once. The game will feature 322 unique units, and within any given mass of troops you'll see up to 64 different faces. Apparently this last achievement is pulled off using a sort of electronic Mr Potato Head kit. That's right, kids: Napoleon conquered Europe with an army of sentient potatoes.
Sega's presentation of N:TW consisted largely of stills of the game, showcasing a new art style that made the battles resemble epic oil paintings. If the full product looks as good as this it'll be very impressive, and given Creative Assembly's past achievements I see no reason to doubt them now. What is less certain is how Total War veterans will respond to the new structure. Creative Assembly may get a few complaints, but on the whole I suspect that its fans will gladly follow it into battle once more. After all, when it comes to historically-accurate warfare on an epic scale, nobody does it better.
Napoleon: Total War will be released on PC in February of 2010.