Total War: Pharaoh provides more depth, deities, and deception that fans will love | Hands-on preview
After numerous iterations of the formula, whether that’s conquering ancient China in Three Kingdoms, or reliving the Iliad with Troy, the Total War series is a familiar one these days for fans, and in many ways Total War: Pharaoh feels equally familiar. But once you begin playing this latest offering from Creative Assembly, you’ll notice things feel a bit different, more structured, but with plenty of options to tailor your game to how you want to play, and, hopefully emerge victorious.
The setting this time, as is apparent from the title, is Egypt during the infamous Bronze Age Collapse. During the preview we played as Rameses III, trying to work our way up through the ranks of Egyptian dignitaries, with becoming Pharaoh being the ultimate goal. As you might expect if you’ve dabbled with recent Total War titles, the campaign starts off in very familiar territory. You use your commanders to navigate the overworld map and look to conquer lands around you to grow your power and influence. And as usual you can choose to fight your conquering battles yourself in real time, giving you the option to tactically place and manoeuvre your forces to beat your opponent.
During these marvellous battles, you have to contend with a familiar variety of considerations. Different units work better against others, and some do better at flanking others rather than attacking head on. Terrain as usual plays a part offering cover to your troops or your enemies. Also different terrain could actually hamper your movement, not ideal in the heat of battle.
New to Total War: Pharaoh battles is dynamism, but in specific ways. So previous titles in the franchise have had weather that affected battles, but for a first in the series there is dynamic weather which affects the battlefield for everyone. Stormy conditions for example hinder missiles or a sandstorm could lower the general visibility. This in turn also affects the terrain you battle on, as wet weather can turn otherwise dry terrain muddy, leading to slower movement. It keeps the already lively battles varied, and a bit more frantic, as you have to adjust to more than just the enemy in front of you.
Outside of battles, the familiarity returns too, with your standard balancing act of resources, people, city building and diplomacy with other factions. Balancing all these has always been a fine art, and this is true in Total War: Pharaoh too. However this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Imperial Court from Three Kingdoms is replaced this time with the Royal Court, and rather than being where you place members of your court, it instead plots your ascendency to power. And it feels so deliciously devious to do so. Each turn you can gain regard with a member of court and then spend it on buffs to aid your progress. After enough regard is earned you can plot against your opponents, and doing this with the support of others, increases your chances of success. Every 6 turns, the Shemsu Hor event resolves all the political machinations and you can see if your sneaking and deception has opened up any political progression for you or your allies.
But there’s more. There are various deities you can worship, with plenty to choose from, and these rely on building religious buildings and shrines to honour them. Do so, and you get various buffs and boons to continue your growth. And overseeing everything is a mechanic known as the Pillars of Civilisation, which documents and monitors the general mood of you reign, and dictates the disasters that could befoul it, should it not be kept in check. A low score leads to natural disasters, mutinies and low morale, and fundamentally a much harder path to success.
It’s a lot to keep track of, and there’s mechanics here I haven’t even mentioned. Total War titles are always dense affairs, but Total War: Pharaoh is shaping up to be the densest yet, with so many things vying for your attention, I’d be lying if I said, even as someone who is used to the series, I wasn’t a little overwhelmed at times. The tutorialising appears solid though, in keeping with the series, and there’s always additional help on hand should you need it.
To balance the complexity, it’s clear Creative Assembly has tried to provide more structure to this iteration too. There’s clear beginning, middle and end game phases to your campaign, but even then, there’s so many options that it really seems like you can achieve success the way you want to. Different paths are open to you, and different associated victory conditions which helps add to the variety.
And this all left me feeling incredibly hopeful. A new Total War game needs to inspire you, provide a point of difference, to not fade into the background of all that’s come before, and Pharaoh seems to be doing just that. With a wealth of new ideas, and plenty of customizable ways to victory, this really does feel like the familiar has been re-energised. Definitely one to watch out for if you’re a fan of Creative Assembly and what they do best.
Total War: Pharaoh is due for release on PC on October 23rd.