Total War

On August 19, 2009, in Games, by peterb

In the comments on my recent rant about overly complex strategy games, regular Tea Leaves reader Andy P sung the praises of the Total War series. It was a very short song, but very spirited.

I’d heard of Total War but never really paid attention to the details. So, I decided to check them out.

There are at this point, not counting expansions, 5 Total War games, with fairly self-descriptive names: Shogun and Medieval are hard to find (read: not on Steam), so I didn’t spend too much time thinking about them. Rome is the oldest one you can get, and was followed up by Medieval II and the latest release, this year’s Empire: Total War.

I have something of a bee in my bonnet about ancient Rome, so I opted to pick up Rome: Total War. The fact that it was a mere $9.99 on Steam helped seal the deal (for our Macintosh brethren, an OS X version of Rome: Total War will be released on August 30.

I enjoyed Rome so much that two days later I dropped $20 to pick up Medieval 2 as well.

The basic premise of both games is the same: your faction, playing on a map of the world divided into provinces, raises an army and grooms leaders to battle for control against other factions. You conquer a province by taking control of the city or fortress in it. This will almost always involve a siege, but you may also become entangled in field battles along the way. Your leaders and your troops improve their fighting skills through battle.

The strategic game is turn-based, not unlike Civilization. The battles themselves are conducted in real-time, but you can pause as much as you want to consider your tactical situation and issue orders (if this sounds a lot like Legion Arena, that’s because it is). In battle, your troops are divided into groups of soldiers who move as a unit – for example, a unit of 45 javelin-throwing Velites, or 55 light infantry. Victory in tactical battle comes from using a combination of combined arms and flanking manuevers. In a typical battle, you’ll deploy your troops, start the battle, and immediately pause (at least if you’re not playing online), and then issue orders to your units. With some exceptions, these orders mostly consist of telling your troops to march (or run) around the battlefield, maneuvering and engaging (or avoiding) enemy troops.

Battles can be won by annihilating enemy units, of course, but a more common outcome is to cause the enemy’s morale to flag, causing their troops to rout. Enemy morale can be reduced in a number of ways, including inflicting casualties, by exhausting them, by attacking from their flanks or rear, or by killing their general. All of these factors apply equally to your troops, as well.

You can resolve battles automatically, skipping tactical combat, if you like, but since the battles are sort of the point of the game I don’t recommend it. The tactical battle is the center of the game.

The older game is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the better one. In addition to having a more consistent feel and being more focused, it is simpler, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s clear that in Medieval 2, Creative Assembly tried to make everything bigger and more complex. They achieved their goal, and the game suffers for it. To take just one example, in the strategic game in Rome, in addition to troops and their leaders, you have spies to infiltrate cities, and diplomats to negotiate with other countries and their armies. That’s it. In Medieval 2 you have spies and diplomats, as before, but you also have merchants, who can make money by wandering around the map, and assassins, who can try to kill leaders, and priests (or imams) who can convert the populace and try to kill heretics, and you also have Princesses, who are just like diplomats, only with breasts.(Footnote 1)

In Rome, recruitment of troops and agents works like this: if you’ve built the right building in a given town, and you have cash, you can recruit them. In Medieval 2 you can recruit them if you’ve built the right building, you have cash, you haven’t reached your muster limit in that town, you haven’t hit the mysterious global limit on that number and kind of agent, and this is all affected by several other variables that, on my second play through, I still don’t understand. Medieval 2 adds complexity, but this complexity doesn’t make the game appreciably richer. It just makes it busier.

The tactical game feels a little better to me in Rome as well, although it’s hard to separate my opinions on this from my subjective enjoyment of the setting. As you would imagine, towns in Medieval Europe tend to be better fortified and a little more closed in than your average Gallic outpost. The net result of this is that sieges take longer (especially at the beginning of the game, when you don’t have elaborate siege engines yet) and your options for maneuver warfare are more limited.

None of this is to say that Medieval 2 is bad, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who prefers that milieu to that of ancient Rome. But I do think it’s a fascinating case study of how adding features to a game can in fact detract from the experience. By some reports, the most recent game, Empire has gotten even worse, and is sagging under the weight of newer features, such as detailed naval combat, although recent patches have reportedly improved things somewhat. I haven’t played Empire yet. It does look beautiful, though:

If you’ve played any of the Total War games, please share your comments on the games with us below. I’m especially interested in anyone who can compare Empire to the previous games.

My nigglings about the world map game mechanics aside, I like the Total War games I’ve played. I like them a lot. I like them because they allow me to play at my own pace. I like them because they don’t abstract the combat away completely, and instead keep the realities of cohort-level tactical engagement constantly in the foreground. And I like them because they work hard to balance the desire to match over-the-top levels of military detail to keeping the game fast, simple, and fun.

Footnote 1: No, I’m not kidding.


5 Responses to “Total War”

  1. Nelson says:

    After seeing your Tweets about Total War I bought Rome. $10, what a bargain! Unfortunately it has crippling bugs that make it unplayable on my multimonitor setup :-(

  2. Andy P says:

    I agree to a reasonable extent with most of this assessment. The newer games are a bit “busier” and not necessarily better for it. Merchants, in particular, were just annoying in Medieval 2. I’m already building markets, what do I care what individual merchants do?

    Overall I preferred Medieval 2 though. There were a few things in Rome that annoyed me. For example, in order to play as any non-Roman race, you have to defeat them (as Romans) first. This meant that I spent weeks fighting against Gauls and Spaniards and no-one else, during which time it was “elite Romans” against “rowdy Barbarians”, and then that unlocked the Gauls and Spaniards, hurrah! – except now I could fight as someone non-Roman, but it was just “rowdy Barbarians” against “elite Romans” instead. I never really got to play as Greeks or Egyptians or Carthaginians, and had to wait for the expansion pack before I could take on the role of Alexander. Finally – the end game of Rome was disappointing. I controlled fully half the map (with the other two factions each controlling a quarter) but got pwned (if you’ll excuse the anachronism) because every one of my cities needed a massive garrison to prevent rebellion, so I had no field army to speak of while the other Roman factions marched across Europe at will. I suspect I’d have needed to play differently from turn one (finding some way to use smaller garrisons) to get a different result.

    Don’t get me wrong – Rome was still awesome (I mention the above only as a counterpoint to your own assessment, not because I think they are criticisms that ruin the game in any meaningful way), but Medieval 2 didn’t have these niggles (only really the busy-ness).

    And then there’s Empire… ah, Empire. I’m a Napoleonic nerd through and through (even more so than I am about Alexander) so I was looking forward to this immensely, probably more than any other game ever. For me, it failed, and that’s tragic as I’d loved every other Total War game to a greater or lesser degree. Empire is even busier. Right from turn one, you’ve got a hundred things to think about. Your empire is far-flung across three continents which, while realistic and challenging, is also too much to cope with. Native Americans are so hard-as-nails I ended up employing a bunch of them as mercenaries and shipping them to Europe where they carved out a European Empire for me with stone tomahawks, which just seems wrong – not because I think guns should automatically be better than bows, but it’s just not what happened or even came close to happening in history, and I’m sure someone would have done it if it were possible. Plus there are bugs and the sea battles are dreadful, you have to micro-manage every ship in your fleet. I mean, Empire is still a 75% game… but compared to what came before, it’s desperately disappointing.

    I’d suggest that Rome and Medieval 2 were the high points of the series, though Shogun is also very well worth a look (especially if you still have an older PC, though it’s not available on Steam). Among those three, it’s a matter of personal taste I think. The expansions are also very good… whatever your preference, there’s value to be had.

    Still I’m glad you appreciated the recommendation. It’s not the most accessible strategy game ever, though it’s a long way from impenetrable, but the mixture of turn-based strategy and real-time battles is just so natural, so right, so obvious that I’ve never yet played a better game. The only thing I’m not sure about is where they go from here. Most of history is pretty well covered now; I can’t see the formula working half as well for WW1 and more recent. Perhaps they can focus on specific wars, and if they scrapped Empire and started again (doing it properly this time) I’d be happy, but they must be starting to see diminishing returns, which is a real shame.

  3. Megan says:

    “I…got pwned (if you’ll excuse the anachronism)…”

    This is one of the greatest things I’ve read in a long while.

    But on the topic, I’ve never played any of these games and never had any real interest in them, but after reading the reviews and watching the videos I think I might actually give them a shot.

  4. Benoit says:

    Wait, there’s a part where you build a civilization, and then you get to fight battles — it’s not just set battles?

    I’m never going to finish any of my work now, and I’ll get fired, and it’s all your fault.

  5. Chris says:

    Hi Peter and Psu – for some reason the Tea Leaves feed fell off my Google reader list a while back and I didn’t notice. I am now back subscribed, but still scratching my head as to what happened (probably you changed my feed while I was on holiday and I missed the notification).

    Anyway, I’m glad to have you guys back in my feed!

    All the best,