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Oct 10, 2023

Total War: PHARAOH Review

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4 Awesome
Retails for: $59.99
We Recommend: $59.99
  • Publisher: SEGA
  • Genre: Action, Strategy
  • Released: Oct 11, 2023
  • Platform: Windows
  • Reviewed: Windows

“I want to get into Total War, which game should I start with”? This question is one of many that keeps me up at night. My usual answer is “What are you looking for”? Do you want a more sandbox experience, do you want epic battles, do you want to relive the story of a major leader? It’s the same with Total War: Pharaoh, did you hope this would return to the “best” era of the Total War franchise? To a lot of people, it won’t. But what is the “best” era of Total War? To some it’s the return to its “roots” with Total War: Rome, to others it is the period between Medieval II and Shogun II. Well, there is still a big user base for Total War: Empire. One thing these eras all share in common: the lack of character driven storylines, was first introduced in Total War: Warhammer and has been a staple of the franchise ever since. That aspect remains unchanged for Pharaoh..

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Well. Your faction leader, much like Three Kingdoms or more recently, Total War Troy, is your main character. There are “no name generals that don’t have a skill tree”. They are all equally important to your campaign to some extent. Besides, your main character can’t exactly die, only become wounded. Creative Assembly has been building campaigns like this for a while and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The main reason for that is because this format gives Total War what it sorely needed for many people: structure. Without major historical characters and their narrative arcs, the sandbox nature of it takes place and leaves a lot of players with no idea how to proceed other than, well, conquer everything. Not that the developers haven’t tried their absolute best to find a middle ground between the fans that enjoy a more sandbox approach and the ones that are more keen on following the story of a leader.

A major difference between how faction leaders / generals worked in prior games and in Total War: Pharaoh is the new “skill point” system. Where in previous games skills followed a standard tree, this time they have a more malleable skill tree called “competences”. With three paths (presence, fortitude, ardor), it provides at the least a layer of specialization. Filling out these competences will unlock special passive abilities that are unique to each ruler and its generals. I can understand why some might see this system as a step back from prior Total War games, such as the already mentioned Rome II, but the benefits are much more impactful. If I had to choose one, Pharaoh has it more developed.

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One of the greatest, if not the best additions in a good while in a Total War franchise, it is its campaign customization tool. Everything, from the length of the campaign, to how aggressive the AI is, to how diplomacy works, how much raw material each region provides, unit upkeep, unit replenishment. Players who wanted a more challenging or interesting campaign previously had to rely on mods or extensive knowledge of editing values within the game files. Some of the major mods from previous games tweak things such as the length of the campaign, AI aggression, diplomacy mechanics, region-specific resource availability, unit upkeep and unit replenishment.

As someone who is very much more keen on playing on sandbox mode rather than following a storyline, it helps mitigate some of the “linear” feeling of “conquer this town so then you can beeline to the finish line” of other Total War campaigns. And it’s not that minor and major victories aren’t in the game, they very much are, and are a requirement to “fully complete” a campaign. There is less emphasis on it, but they are just as interesting as following a storyline. So much so that there are multiple victory conditions — from taking sacred sites to worshiping certain gods — to achieve. Nevertheless, both the campaign customization and the major victories help mitigate what can feel to some a “fixed” scenario. But that is not only the major contributing factor; the period itself in which the game takes place is one of the biggest turning points in human history. This style will not come back, in my opinion.

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While Total War has been to Egypt prior (Both during Rome I and II, Attila, and other titles), it was never the focus of the game. The bronze age ascension / collapse is not only a very interesting backdrop, but it’s a great way to Creative Assembly to flex their muscles with the campaign map. There are no major overhauls compared to Total War: Troy, set around the same age, but a lot of smaller additions that create a huge domino effect of playing a game from a different era. Not only does Creative Assembly make every faction less homogenous, it builds a campaign map that showcases how multiple cultures lived and thrived across lower, upper Egypt and its adjacent regions. Taking a new territory isn’t “only” adding more income to your faction, but also native units that can make a massive difference on the battlefield. This idea isn’t new for Total War itself. Creative Assembly has been toying with it ever since Rome II, but it’s only in Pharaoh where you really feel that unit composition matters much more outside the battlefield. I felt this change more while playing with Irus, the Canaanite faction leader that sits between the turmoil between the Hiitites and the Egyptians, looking for an opportunity to take over the throne through fire and hate.

In harder modes, its main unit composition was often of native units, or as I like to call it, “whoever I could come up with” because playing with the Canaanites is an uphill battle from beginning to end. Go straight through Egypt, and you’ll face mighty chariots that even the hardest of your soldiers — which aren’t many in the beginning — won’t stand a chance. Go against the Hiitites and you’d better be ready for long walks and attrition that will make your army stand the test of the forces of nature.

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Too bad that Total War Pharaoh only provides with two “major outcomes”, either securing the Pharaoh throne or becoming a Hiitite Great King, which makes playing either with Ramses or Seti on the egyptian side or with Suppiluliuma a walk in the park during the first couple of turns. While I understand these are issues that need to exist because of the time period, I wished that more outcomes, especially ahistorical ones, would exist. But securing a seat of power is just half of the battle.

What makes Total War: Pharaoh stay a cut above its peers is the Bronze Age collapse mechanics. Each campaign starts “slow” but quickly descends into unrest, civil war and the coming of the “Sea People” — one of the many factors that lead to the crumbling of so many civilizations during the period. Unlike Total War: Three Kingdoms, this is not a one note occurrence. You don’t need to become a pharaoh or unite a region for this event to trigger. It will happen regardless of your choices.

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Overstretched, outmaneuvered and on the verge of collapse is a constant in Total War Pharaoh. I lost count of how many times I froze, thinking and rethinking on how to proceed to the next turn. Would it be the one where I would lose grasp on a major city? Will my troops arrive in time to break a siege? Would I get hit by one of the dozens of events that range from droughts to earthquakes? Ending a turn quickly became a huge fear of mine, and that only made Total War Pharaoh more interesting.

This is best seen during the battles themselves, which went from the fast-paced cavalry / chariot rush of previous games to a more tactical approach. During early development, Creative Assembly did mention that they reduced the pacing, but I didn’t expect such a drastic change. Fights that would take just a couple of minutes in something like Rome II are now 20+ minutes affairs if you don’t properly engage in flanking maneuvers and don’t learn to use the terrain to your benefit. (For those who are uninitiated in the Total War franchise, the game does offer a quite impressive and insightful tutorial).

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This change is due to two major system overhauls, the first being a proper armor system and the inclusion of impactful weather conditions. Armor works as expected. The higher the armor, the better the unit is fit to be on the frontline, taking the brunt of the damage. Shredding armor, be it through specific weaponry or through flanking, is a must have. Such “frontline” units do have their drawbacks, of course, such as becoming tired more easily, so a mix and match of light / heavy units is a must. Again, the campaign map and the multiple minor factions and cultures help out on fleshing out the roster.

Weather is where the game truly shines. While it always had a minor part in every Total War entry, fighting during a sandstorm or under the sweltering heat of the desert can make units pay the toll. Accuracy is reduced across the board, fatigue is almost doubled depending on terrain, and minor details such as a small hill go from a minor advantage to something that can define the entirety of a battle.

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Not everything works, though. One of the key features I hoped to be more commonplace, such as fires spreading through cities, feels much more like a cool visual effect rather than a mechanic that you need to have in mind during sieges. As for the sieges themselves, well, sadly, the AI still can’t handle major sieges without struggling with pathfinding. I won’t say it is the worst I’ve seen in Total War — that title is still in the hands of Total War: Empire — but seeing so little evolution on that front makes me wish Creative Assembly would take a break from a while to work better on this rather than putting out a new game every two years.

The same applies to diplomacy, the biggest disappointment in Total War: Pharaoh. For a game set in such an intricate period, still having to use the most basic diplomacy system, one that has been in place for almost a decade — if not more — and with such limited options that boil down to “be my friend”, “please don’t hate me” or “get ready for war” is a letdown. Even in Total War: Pharaoh, Creative Assembly showed it can do better with the many factions’ mechanics. This system needs an overhaul as soon as possible.

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Which brings me to the defining question in this entire article: Is Total War Pharaoh a worthy successor to the historical franchise? Yes. It’s easy to point fingers at what didn’t work and features that won’t be coming back, such as families. I personally wish that some features from previous games make a comeback in one way or another. At least give us a more intricate political system, more things to do on the campaign map other than move armies and agents around. But as previously, I don’t believe this style will come back. And as far as finding a middle ground between historical and greater than life characters, more customization, more mechanics, a greater experimentation after what a lot of the community sees as “years of stagnation” after Total War: Three Kingdoms and Total War: Warhammer, Total War: Pharaoh takes more steps forwards than back, and I can live with that. At least, it didn’t crash and burn like so many civilizations it portrays, so that’s something.

Steam code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes