The Total War franchise is a real-time strategy (RTS) genre staple with titles like Warhammer 3 and Shogan 2. You can tell that the developers excel in exploring various eras and settings. While RTS games may be considered a more niche product, Creative Assembly remains committed to integrating its award-winning gameplay systems with a fresh coat of paint. This time, they’re headed to Ancient Egypt with Total War: Pharoah.
Set in the Bronze Age, where leaders and their respective people duke it out over complete control, Total War: Pharoah lets you choose to become a feared war general or a brilliant tactician to lead your armies across Egypt, Canaan, and Anatolia. Whether it be massive battles or through careful political negotiations, you must work your way to the top.
I was able to get hands-on time with Total War: Pharaoh through an Early Access Weekend in which we were allowed to play up to 60 turns with 2 playable factions in the full campaign map. Here’s everything you need to know.
How do you play the campaign?
If you’re someone like me, it means you aren’t exactly the most veteran RTS player. That’s fine because the Total War games aren’t exactly the easiest to just pick up and play. There are a lot of complex gameplay systems that you have to take into consideration.
Total War Pharaoh introduces a dynamic campaign experience where every decision you make carries significant weight. As a leader, your job is to make sure everything is in tip-top shape. The core of your empire’s strength lies in its economy, which is represented by the sum of income at the top of your screen. It’s imperative not to strain your coffers, for your economic stability sets the boundaries for your ambitions. Careful resource management is the key to success, ensuring that you always have the necessary funds to support your grand plans. You can’t exactly conquer a land if you’re broke.
While focusing on expansion is tempting, it’s essential to avoid leaving your borders unguarded. Maintaining a well-positioned army at home is crucial to fight against potential invasions. Your enemies can strike where you least expect it, and a strong defense is your first line of protection. Furthermore, don’t overlook the potential of ruined settlements on the campaign map. Colonizing and rebuilding these regions can provide a valuable and relatively risk-free source of resources, saving you from the risks of battle.
As you navigate the campaign, keep a close eye on the movements of opposing forces. Employing armies in the Ambush stance can give you a strategic advantage against enemies on the march, allowing you to surprise and outmaneuver them. Your province’s workforce is also a critical resource for constructing various buildings. However, it’s essential to strike a balance; letting your workforce accumulate for too long can lead to unrest and trouble within your empire. To maintain efficiency, ensure that your influence remains high in each province, encouraging your workers to strive for optimal resource production.
Lastly, never underestimate the importance of domestic stability. Unrest at home can disrupt even the most well-planned invasion. Keep a close watch on happiness levels within your settlements, using garrisoned armies and tax reprieves to quell the flames of rebellion and maintain control over your empire.
Explaining Total War Pharoah’s battle system
There is a deep and strategic battle system, where one wrong move can lead to multiple headaches down the line. To begin, positioning your generals near key units is important. Their presence significantly boosts the morale of nearby troops, ensuring they stay committed to the fight even in the face of adversity. A strong leadership presence can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Protecting your flanks is another critical aspect of successful warfare. No matter how formidable your warriors may be, none of them relishes being attacked from the side or rear. Maintaining a solid defensive formation and preventing flanking maneuvers is vital to preserving your troops’ effectiveness.
Total War veterans will find that many of the golden rules of gameplay still apply in Pharaoh’s battles. Spear-wielding infantry, for instance, can effectively counter chariots, while melee infantry may struggle against archers. It’s a complex web of interactions where shield-bearing units face vulnerabilities from axemen, and heavily armored units can take substantial damage from club-wielding foes. Flexibility in your unit compositions and tactics is key.
Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the greater good of your army. If it means sacrificing a less valuable unit to gain a more advantageous position with an expensive and critical unit, don’t hesitate to make that decision. Battlefields in Total War Pharaoh are not just open plains; they have varying topography. Exploiting the terrain to break the line of sight and neutralize ranged unit threats or capitalizing on charging downhill for a tactical advantage can be the key to victory.
All units have access to three basic stances, and some units possess special stances that can provide additional advantages. In the Advance stance, units focus on pushing the enemy back without withdrawing themselves, maintaining offensive pressure. Conversely, the Hold stance instructs units to stand firm and maintain their position, emphasizing defensive stability and formation integrity. When opting for the Give Ground stance, units can strategically maneuver backward while keeping their orientation toward the enemy, minimizing potential losses as they tactically retreat from the frontline. These stances offer strategic versatility, and mastering when and how to use them is crucial.
Weather dynamics in battles within Total War Pharaoh introduce both strategic challenges and opportunities. Fog, rain, and sun, along with some interesting new variants are here and they play a big part. Storms, for instance, significantly reduce the effectiveness of missile units by limiting their range and preventing fires. Thunderstorms, while similar to storms, also inflict a slight morale penalty on all units. Sandstorms, on the other hand, severely hinder visibility, movement speed, fatigue recovery, and missile unit efficiency, while inflicting minimal damage over time to all units. Sweltering heat raises fatigue accumulation from activities, disables fatigue recovery, and accelerates the spread of fires.
Furthermore, certain units possess the ability to deploy fire arrows or torches, and fire can propagate across grass patches, forests, and buildings. Wind conditions can also influence the speed and direction of fire spread, adding an additional layer of complexity and strategy to battles. These subtle tweaks encompass Creative Assembly’s goal to create a more dynamic and immersive battlefield experience in Total War Pharaoh.
New campaign mechanics
Total War Pharaoh introduces several new campaign mechanics to dig deep into. It’s a very deep pool to get lost in but mastering all of these is one of the most rewarding and satisfying gameplay experiences you’ll have.
- At the core of your rise to power is legitimacy, earned by conquering sacred lands and showcasing your prowess as a conqueror. As you amass legitimacy, your influence and threat level increase. Use it to challenge the current ruler in a civil war, secure their position, and enhance your court and regalia.
- Power of the Crown
- Regalia represents your authority as Pharaoh or Great King. Unlock and adorn your character with various regalia items, each offering unique faction bonuses. As Pharaoh, you gain access to Royal Powers, such as annexation, migration, and building restrictions removal.
- Pillars of Civilisation
- Reflecting cosmic balance, this mechanic features three tiers of stability in your world. Prosperity brings peace, darkness signals crisis with disasters and invasions, while collapse brings chaos. Cult centers, representing powerful cities dedicated to deities, influence stability and require protection.
- Ancient Legacy
- Emulate great rulers and achieve historical deeds through this mechanic, which specializes your faction and adds replayability. Choose from various leaders and playstyles to shape your campaign.
- Worship up to three gods throughout your campaign, each providing unique bonuses and granting access to cult centers. Build shrines and temples to increase favor and unlock powerful Army Effects, but be wary of losing favor, leading to negative effects.
- Royal Court
- Gain powerful buffs through court positions, but beware of schemes against you. Interact with court members, use requests, and leverage unique faction interactions within the court.
- Campaign Customization
- Customize your campaign experience with a range of settings, from challenging to empowering, ensuring each campaign feels unique.
- Multiple Resource Economy
- Utilize a barter-based economy with resources like bronze, gold, wood, food, and stone to manage your armies and expand your empire. Diplomacy plays a crucial role in trade agreements and alliances.
- Vassal System
- To make peers into vassals, you must be a Pharaoh, Hittite Great King, or pretender. Gain resources and units from vassals, but maintain their loyalty to avoid betrayal.
- Royal Decrees
- Invest in various options through the tech tree, unlocking bonuses like recruitment ranks, reduced construction time, and resource generation improvements.
- Seasons change every two turns and impact food production along the Nile, culminating in the Shemsu Hor event that resolves court intrigues and faction commands.
- Construct structures on the campaign map, including shrines, forts, trading posts, and monuments, to shape the landscape to your needs and provide buffs to your armies.
I’ll go ahead and admit that during my first few hours with my hands-on time, I was very confused about what to do. The build that was given didn’t really have a tutorial for beginners so it just threw me in there with hopes that I just figure it all out. There were some dialogue and system prompts that pointed me in a general direction but they weren’t enough to introduce a newcomer like me to the beast that is the Total War gameplay experience.
However, I would say that Total War: Pharoah is definitely an interesting game for Creative Assembly. While Total War: Warhammer 3 was a success, the community is still vocal about its technical issues and misses with the DLC content. Pharoah does hold a few systematic changes such as more varied battle animations, dynamic weather and geographic elements, and armor degradation, but I don’t imagine them to be a major reason why people go out of their way to shift.
Another concern I have is in its visual presentation. This is unfortunately an unavoidable issue given the massive shift in setting from a fantastical mix of sci-fi and medieval warfare to large patches of sand and Pyramids. While Total War: Pharoah’s Ancient Egypt definitely looks great, it doesn’t hold the same impact of the aesthetics of Warhammer. Looking back at my time in Pharoah after playing through the Shadows of Change expansion, it felt like a massive step back.
On a much more positive note, I am glad to report that Pharoah ran relatively well on my ROG Flow X16 gaming laptop. The settings do have a decent amount of options to tweak. I was getting stable 90-100 frames even when massive battles were taking place. The developers did mention that what we got to play was an early build of the game so it is possible that whatever issues or technical bugs we encountered, were already fixed or being actively worked on for the final release. I didn’t really encounter much other than the typical texture glitches and pop-ins.
For me, Total War: Pharoah has an uphill battle to win as it approaches its October 23, 2023 release date. It’s not exactly a beginner-friendly experience which may turn off potential newcomers while veterans of the franchise are already skeptical enough given the inconsistent support Warhammer 3 has been getting with their post-launch updates. Nevertheless, Pharoah seems to be a continued refinement of the already tried and tested RTS gameplay Creative Assembly has been successful with.