Without question, my favorite historical figure is Napoleon Bonaparte. All apologies to my non-French European friends, but I am completely fascinated by the story of the diminutive Corsican who finagled his way onto the French throne through his wits and ability to be in the right place at the right time, baited, outsmarted, and cajoled his way across Europe, and was such a heel that he had to be exiled to a distant island…TWICE. I also enjoy a good strategy game, and when I happened to stumble upon a copy of a strategy game about Napoleon’s signature battle while trying to find something in my closet, that could only be described as serendipitous. And so, destiny has brought us to the battlefield today, with 2002’s Austerlitz: Napoleon’s Greatest Victory.
The game engine is based on that of Sid Meier’s earlier Civil War games, but as the title implies, ANGV revolves entirely around the Battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon managed to defeat a considerably larger allied Austrian-Russian army, and while the option to play through the entire battle in one sitting is present, the game is mostly comprised of scenarios that focus on smaller chunks of the larger battle, like the battle for the Pratzen Heights or the fight for the village of Telnitz on the southern flank. Each scenario has an info page describing the situation and offering some strategic hints, as well as a few variants that alter the playing field, such as reinforcements arriving later or not at all, or a shakeup of force composition, like more cavalry but fewer infantry, to help keep things fresh.
When you get to the battlefield proper, you’ll quickly become acquainted with the importance of the morale and cohesion system. Y’see, unlike a lot of real-time strategy games, combat success isn’t necessarily determined by the size of your army or the body count being inflicted, but rather, through a system of morale, represented by blocks at the bottom of the screen. As a unit sees action, it will take battle stress, reflected by a red bar that creeps over the morale blocks, and if it fills up entirely, the unit will rout and run to safety elsewhere. Units begin with a certain number of morale blocks based on its skill, so the French Imperial Guard will have more blocks than a regiment of Austrian conscripts, but extra blocks can be added through a number of factors, such as having friendly regiments around, being in the radius of officers, or being placed in good defensive terrain like a town or a vineyard. Taken together, a smaller regiment in a good position, supported by their commanding officer, can hold their own against a larger and more experienced enemy.
The other ingredient in the victory souffle is the taking and holding of objective sites, critical locations on the battlefield, which differ depending on the scale and location of the battle. For example, seizing a hill might be worth 100 VP’s, but a village or Sokolnitz Castle might be worth four or five hundred points. These objectives are often worth more than inflicting casualties alone, and if a location is contested at the end of a scenario, extra time will be tacked on, so a desperate push for a high-value location can swing victory from one side to the other. After the battle, enemy casualties, the value of objective sites held, and morale loss are tallied to decide the winner, or if the battle is drawn. You can also check battle details, such as which regiment inflicted the most casualties, or if any officers were killed.
ANGV does feature a series of tutorial missions, as well as an in-game manual, which is nice, because controlling your armies effectively is quite tricky at first. You can select individual battalions by clicking on the flag above them, but you cannot issue orders to multiple units at once unless you select a commanding officer, and even then, you can only issue orders to the units under his control. Furthermore, there are different formations for units, each with their own special purposes, like Maneuver Column to move troops long distances quickly, Three-Rank Line for engaging enemy infantry, and Square, which is lethal against enemy cavalry charges. On top of that, you also have a handful of commands like double time, hold position, and volley, which makes a unit hold fire until all guns are loaded, allowing for a single wall of fire.
Aside from that, you’ll also have to familiarize yourself with some of the little quirks and rules that govern the combat system: cavalry, while powerful, is rather fragile, and cannot charge into woods, across streams, or in the vineyards dotted around the battlefield. Artillery can be lethal at close range, but an infantry unit that charges it can capture the guns for their own use, which is something you don’t see in a lot of strategy games. Russian Cossacks are almost useless in direct combat, but serve well as scouts and are excellent for chasing routed units and stopping them from rallying. They may not sound like much, but I always appreciate little nuggets of realism like that.
Now, given that the controls can be a bit clunky for some, you might think that trying to conduct a large scale battle with roughly 150,000 troops in the field would be damn near impossible. Luckily, you have the option to turn over control of units to the CPU, and either allow the AI commander to handle business himself or issue them orders while you tend to other areas. Even more awesomely, there’s a multiplayer option that allows you and your friends to delegate roles amongst each other, and should you grow bored with the historical and variant battles that come with the game, there’s an editor feature that allows you to gin up your own scenarios for future use.
One thing the developers deserve major credit for is the immense level of historical detail to be found here. Just about every hill, village, vineyard, and other assorted landmark of the Austerlitz battlefield is labelled and accounted for here, and literally every unit present in the order of battle for both the French and Allied sides, with pretty much every general on the battlefield that day assigned their correct historical brigades, and most of them even have little portraits next to their names when you select them. In fact, even the menu music consists of accurate Napoleonic Era marches, so it’s very clear that the developers really put in some serious research time into the game.
Sadly, though, the graphical detail doesn’t come close to matching the historical detail, as this game looks pretty ugly, at the best of times. Needless to say, it wasn’t feasible to cram 150,000 troops onto a screen in 2002, so each individual soldier in the line actually represents about 60-75 troops in the game’s calculations. That’s fine, in and of itself. What isn’t fine is that those figures move like tin soldiers filmed in bad stop-motion animation and have virtually no detail unless you zoom in to the maximum level, which only illustrates the clunky movements. Towns consist of blocky buildings situated on a brown patch, and soldiers pass cleanly through buildings like they weren’t even there. Worse yet, you’ll undoubtedly run into some issues where you can’t select the unit you’re trying to because another unit’s flag is blocking their flag, or their flag is being covered by the overlay of an officer’s name. Granted, we don’t like to complain that a 13-year-old game’s graphics aren’t up to par, but when an infantry unit being charged shakes and spazzes out like they’re being swarmed by invisible bees, it has to be noted.
It should also be said that there’s a surprising amount of mods to be found for ANGV, mostly in the form of other classic Napoleonic battles taken and applied to this engine, such as Borodino, the Peninsular War, Jena-Auerstadt, Eylau, and sadly, Waterloo, so if you enjoy Austerlitz but feel you’ve seen it from every angle, there’s still a good bit out there to hold your interest.
Austerlitz: Napoleon’s Greatest Victory may not stack up against a juggernaut like Napoleon: Total War, but it’s still a competently done strategy game that takes great lengths to be the definitive depiction of the famous battle. It does take some effort to learn all the controls, as well as the intricacies of the combat system, but once you do, you’ll find a pretty deep experience with enough replay value to cover for the fact the entire game is built around one battle, and even then, the mod community is strong enough to keep hardcore armchair generals intrigued. It’s not pretty or flashy, mind you, but I’d recommend a look if you like a more complex strategy game than Command and Conquer or, like me, you’re a giant shameless mark for L’Empereur.
Everything you ever wanted to know about Austerlitz and more, incredible attention to detail, engine allows for tons of mods.
Bit of a learning curve, rather weak graphically, even for the time.
“Soldats! Je suis content de vous!” -Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz