While we’ve seen Total War games start to indulge in a little bit of fantasy in recent times – Warhammer, of course, was full fantasy, while Three Kingdoms was drawn from a fictionalised historical record – the series’ legacy and most popular entries have been rooted in reality. That’s the goal that Creative Assembly Sofia set out with when creating Total War: Pharaoh, to represent a pivotal period within Ancient Egypt’s history and the tail end of the Bronze Age.
Around 1200 BC, the New Kingdom era was coming to a close, the third great golden age for Ancient Egypt, and some two millennia since the nation’s First Dynasty. As Pharaoh Mernephta takes his final breaths, it leads to a power struggle between his rightful heir, Seti, his sister Tausret who wants the throne for herself, rival king Amenmesse, and an upcoming wonder kid in Rameses.
Game Director Todor Nikolov explained the choice of this setting, “One of the most important ones is that Egypt is awesome and very widely popular, and it was not represented in a Total War game in sufficient depth. Later periods of Egyptian history were represented in Rome 2, but we wanted to go back into the past and, along with Ancient Egypt, reveal more about the Bronze Age.”
“What’s really important about this period is that this stable environment fell apart and got destroyed in a period known as the Bronze Age Collapse. It was an end of the world scenario where there were external invaders, civil wars and strife, rebellions and severing of trade connections.”
Egypt’s decline during this time comes in part from this internal squabbling – there were several back-to-back civil wars – with economic difficulties that saw tombs being raided and workers striking amidst the impact of natural disasters, but there’s also plenty of external threats to the New Kingdom. The Hittites were now challenging for supremacy in the region, the Canaanites are a collection of city states and kingdoms that are finding their own collective relevance, and theres the somewhat mysterious Sea People invading as well.
This could have led to a narrowed scope for the campaign, but Todor tells us it’s roughly one third larger than Total War: Troy, though with fewer settlements to meet player feedback.
“It feels huge right now,” he said. “It covers territories from modern Sudan in the South, to modern Turkey in the North, so almost the entirety of the River Nile along with all the vegetation along its banks, vast deserts to the West and East of the Nile with some oasis here and there, the coastline of the Eastern Mediterranean, and finally the mountains of the Anatolian Highlands. It’s all in the game.”
Each of these kingdoms has their own particular strengths within battle. Egypt have their iconic chariots engendering an aggressive play style, while the Hittites are better armoured and can use force and power in battle, and the Canaanites are swifter and more stealthy.
Total War: Pharaoh is looking to push the series forward in a number of different ways, going beyond simply having thematic differences to recent games. There’s new mechanics like the Pillars of Civilisation, which shift the tone of the game’s visuals to match the world. There’s three levels to this, with Prosperity having a brighter mood and tone to the darker Crisis, during which natural disasters can be more prevalent, and Collapse, where darkness, despair and instability are at their peak.
Trying to ride out the more turbulent moments and make the most of prosperous times, you’ll be able to manage your empire by choosing Ancient Legacies to modify your rules on annexation, building restrictions, and plenty more besides. Once you become a Great King or Pharaoh, you can choose a Legacy to follow, taking inspiration from historical rulers to focus on building great wonders, expand trading, and more. It’s an interesting way of wrapping up government policy in a fashion that suits the setting, but also bows to player desires.
Todor said, “During that age in Egyptian history nobody built pyramids, nobody had the resources or the time, but in the game, you can choose to build your own pyramid via one of the Ancient Legacies, if you decide that it’s worth the resources. ”
Real time battles also haven’t gone untouched, and there’s a fresh attempt to add more technical play to the management of your ground troops. Battle pace has been slowed down a touch to make your decisions have a greater impact, and you’ll have to be more aware of your soldiers’ exhaustion level and the terrain that they’re trudging across, both of which have been made more impactful. Their Bronze Age armour can also deteriorate, after which they will take significantly more damage.
There’s new unit stances that determine how they will act once in melee combat, whether that’s pushing forward, holding the line or strategically giving ground to minimise losses. The fundamentals of wanting to flank and outnumber enemies remain, but this can emphasises the differences between the different kingdoms and leaders – the Hittites could play more defensively and use the high ground to sap more numerous but less adept foes – and play into certain combat scenarios.
Battle Designer Bozhidar Staykov gave us some examples: “If you’re in a choke point and you’re trying to push through, but you just can’t because an enemy unit is holding it, this would be a good place to use the advance stance to push forward, or you could fall back and pull the enemy with you to open up space. Stances are more for opening spaces and being more situational than being an instant win button.”
Another key factor is the new dynamic weather that can change during battle. From sandstorms and weltering heat to rain and thunderstorms, they’ll affect your tactical choices and play off the strengths and weaknesses of your army.
“Sandstorms are a really bad place to be in, especially if you field ranged units.” Bozhidar said. “Sandstorms will decrease range unit efficiency, and not just stat-wise, as the wind of the storm will physically move projectiles, so your ranged units will be less accurate. [In Anatolia] it would be more thunderstorms, which will decrease effectiveness of ranged units, but can also decrease effectiveness of fire.
“Another thing weather can do is change the terrain as well, so if a thunderstorm turns up and you have a normal patch of grass to walk through, this can turn into mud which will have all the penalties of mud. You have to dynamically adapt mid-battle depending on the weather.”
Todor also noted that it’s not always bad weather rolling in mid-battle, but that you might choose to launch an attack during a sandstorm to take advantage of an enemy’s archer-heavy army.
This is determined by the regional climate, each having a different impact on your troops, and can dynamically change through the course of a battle – you will have a weather forecast to be able to plan your tactics accordingly. Rain will stop fire arrows from setting the ground on fire, and thunderstorms even come with a morale debuff, while sandstorms can even whip up to deal damage to your units, and sweltering heat will bring higher fatigue and increase the spread of fire. Oh, that’s right, fire is a greater weapon here, now able to spread through foliage and between buildings of a city under siege – these take place on full 360º layouts again, but with changes to how victory points are placed.
We got to go hands on with three example battles with Rameses as our commander in all three. His army is stronger and more elite, but units are smaller in number, while we faced off against Seti in a sandstorm, Suppiluliuma’s armoured elites in a thunderstorm, and then defended Mennefer from a numerically superior Sea People army. Each one showcased a different side of the combat, and I had a good time combining traditional Total War tactics with the new stances, trying to use fire – oh yes, fire now spreads through foliage and buildings – and the changing terrain conditions and weather to my advantage.
All of this will be deeply customisable, as the team try to “kick the sandboxiness up a notch,” as Todor puts it. You can tweak AI aggressiveness and difficulty, counter that with increasing your own resources, turn the risk of rebellions up and down (or off entirely), and even have randomised start points for the different factions. It should ensure that this is an eminently replayable entry in the series.
That’s the line that CA Sofia is toeing, with historical accuracy on one hand, and fun on the other. “We are portraying the Bronze Age in a way that players can recognise,” Todor said, “but if we can stretch the truth to get better gameplay, like more varied player choices, we will do that.”
The Total War series has always done a great job of exploring new settings and time periods, and Total War: Pharaoh is no different in that regard. As it steps back further in time than ever before, it’s also clearly trying to be more than just a pyramid-filled backdrop with chariots in the foreground, bringing with it some interesting new ideas and mechanics that look to push the series forward.