Watching a melee battle is a sight to behold - it really is worth zooming in and just observing the ruckus. Infantry thrust and block their bayonets with amazing individuality of movement. Dust kicked up by charging cavalry drifts through the battlefield. Generals roar to gee up the men. At one point, we're pretty sure we saw one grenadier scratch his arse during a lull in the gunfire.
In terms of gameplay, the land battles in particular work a treat. Having placed various divisions of line infantry, cavalry and artillery on the field, the two (and sometimes more) armies go about manoeuvring themselves into optimum positions before the fighting starts. Once it does, the combination of infantry lines, cavalry charges and artillery bombardments come together to create some of the best moments in real-time strategy we've ever played.
The sea conflicts are equally stunning to look at - though it has to be said a little harder to get to grips with, and ultimately not quite as fun. But they definitely add an element of realism to the period, where naval battles were every bit as important as ground warfare.
AI wise, apart from the occasional questionable decisions made on the campaign map (every now and again a rival nation will send a lightly-armed squadron of militia on a suicide mission to attack a city defended by dozens of your most advanced units) there have been some noticeable improvements.
This varies depending on how hard a setting you play on, of course. Set 'normal' to get the grips with the play - but do yourself a favour and whack it up to the highest difficulty once you have. The engine will genuinely surprise you at its best, and it's a shame to waste it.
As there's much more emphasis on conquering vast areas of the campaign maps quickly, the logistics of keeping your battle-weary armies stocked-up becomes more time consuming, compounded with new additions like attrition damage.
To some this may present a somewhat tedious task compared to the rush of the tactical battles - and at times later on in the game it can get a bit wearing. But this is a very minor gripe - and never verges on spoiling the experience.
More important is the subject of performance reliability. Empire famously suffered from bugging issues - it was one of the few solid problems you could throw at it. Experiences in this area varied, but many people complained of regular total system crashes.
Improvement must have been high on Creative Assembly's agenda when planning the next instalment, and we're pleased to see that they have mostly succeeded. The problem has not gone away completely - but is nowhere near as acute as it seemed to be in Empire.
Unless you have access to Skynet, turning the graphics settings down will dramatically smooth things along, and any subsequent patches will hopefully solve what issues remain.
It has to be said that much of what is brilliant about Napoleon is also present in Empire, but there's no reason to see that as a negative.
It is more of a controlled experience than the original - something fans of the open world dynamic may raise an eyebrow at.
But there's still plenty of room for interpreting challenges in your own way, and the campaigns offer a narrative framework which is genuinely compelling. And for history buffs, its sticks largely to the facts.
You'd be hard pressed to find a better thought-out, beautiful and addictive strategy game which to spend your hard-earned on, and the nature of the story based campaigns means there's plenty of new things here to keep current fans of the series interested.
This is a defining example of what great strategy games do best - and if the genre's your bag, it should definitely be added to your collection.
Visually stunning high-strategy from the masters of the genre
- Battle scenes that are unrivalled in graphical flair
- Genuinely engaging campaign narratives
- Innovative new multiplayer options
- Occasional bugs remain
- Some rare questionable AI decisions