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Rameses III rides into battle on a chariot, accompanied by his charioteer bodyguards, in Total War: Pharaoh

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Total War: Pharaoh completely shifts gears after the series’ fantasy phase

Weather effects and unit stances bring the series back down to Earth

Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

It turns out I got pretty attached to eagle-mounted archers.

In 2016, Total War: Warhammer marked a sharp turn for the long-running strategy series. For 16 years, developer Creative Assembly had leapfrogged between historical settings, offering a general’s perspective on Sengoku-period Japan, the rise (and fall) of the Roman Empire, and aggressive 18th-century imperialism. Total War: Warhammer, in keeping with the fantasy setting of Games Workshop’s tabletop universe, introduced magic, dragons, vampires, orcs, and the explosive kinds of battles all of those things imply. It sparked a trilogy that’s now about spectacle as much as it is about strategy.

Total War: Pharaoh, which Creative Assembly announced last week, feels like a response to that shift. Based on the three scenarios I played in the game’s Bronze Age Egypt setting, battles are not only slower paced, but more deliberate than those of the Warhammer trilogy. I don’t have any mages to melt large swaths of enemy troops, and I can’t deploy rat ogres or giant glacial bears as one-size-fits-all solutions. Once I made a tactical decision in Pharaoh — to advance my left flank in the hopes of pushing the enemy into a marsh, for one — I had to live with it. The results played out over a matter of excruciating minutes as I obsessed over the dwindling health and morale bars of every unit. In several instances, I didn’t realize that my strategy had allowed the enemy to slowly gain ground on the opposite flank until it was too late.

“We wanted to make a game where your choices are fewer, but more impactful,” Creative Assembly Sofia game director Todor Nikolov told Polygon on a video call. “We wanted to reduce the amount of micromanagement because of how overwhelming it can be for the player. You need to plan a bit more, taking into account army composition, terrain types, elevation, and weather.”

The city of Memphis, during Bronze Age Egypt, at dusk, with palm trees along the Nile and a dizzying maze of city streets in Total War: Pharaoh Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega

It’s also important to note that, in keeping with the time period, there are no cavalry units in Pharaoh — only chariots. This further extends the lifespan of each battle, since flanking takes more time with foot soldiers, and chariots, at least in the battles I played, weren’t abundant.

Pharaoh will include three factions at launch, with eight playable leaders spread between them: four for Egypt, and two for the Hittites and Canaanites each. In every scenario I played, I took control of Egyptian forces as Rameses III, the famed monarch who defeated the mysterious Sea Peoples in the years during Egypt’s steep decline in power. These three encounters give me glimpses of Pharaoh’s biggest change to the Total War series’ battle system: weather effects.

The first battle was a simple affair (a skirmish against the Egyptian forces of Seti, on a wide expanse of desert with groves of palm trees flanking the map) until a sandstorm struck, rendering my archers useless just as my forces were about to break the enemy. The second battle took place on a thin patch of sand next to a fetid swamp. By changing my units’ stances (a series feature that’s been greatly expanded upon here), I commanded my left flank of Medjay swordsmen to push the opposing flank of Šuppiluliuma’s Hittites backward into the bog. The enemy’s heavily armored greatax troopers were all but immobilized by their own weight.

A sandstorm swirls over Mennefer (Memphis) in Total War: Pharaoh Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega

The last battle was a bit more complicated. Forced to defend Memphis from the aforementioned Sea Peoples, I lined the city walls with swordsmen (a tactic that, although inefficient in Total War: Warhammer 3, actually worked pretty well here) to halt enemy combatants scaling the fortifications. I also placed my own greatax defenders behind four sets of gates, anticipating the enemy breach. I then stationed my archers among the houses, shops, and religious structures of the city, the better to ward off invaders once they made it over the walls.

This turned out to be a mistake. Enemy archers switched to fire ammunition not long into the battle, and their flaming projectiles turned patches of the city into a blaze. My archers, shaken by the sight of their own homes burning only yards away, retreated into the depths of the city. By the time they regained their composure, the Sea Peoples had nearly breached the gates and claimed the walls. Despite my best intentions, a simple ammunition swap had changed the course of the battle. Upon replaying the battle, I reacted in turn: My archers, closer to the walls and farther from any fires the enemy might spark, sent their fire arrows into the dry brush scattered throughout the opposing forces. Fires spread, and the confusion gave my soldiers enough time to establish control over the rest of the battle.

Hittite soldiers set fire to palm trees in the middle of Egyptian troops in Total War: Pharaoh Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega

“Oftentimes, it takes a single decisive maneuver to decide the result of a battle,” Nikolov said. “When this happens, it feels like things have gone in my favor as a direct result of my clever tactics alone. This is the kind of thing we’re trying to capture with Pharaoh.”

As a Total War game, battles are only one half of Pharaoh’s equation: I have yet to see any changes or improvements to the turn-based campaign map. Sly diplomacy and wise economic decisions can turn the tide of a playthrough just as easily as a well-fought battle. And the Bronze Age setting, in the waning years of Egypt’s New Kingdom period, is rife with opportunities to make a court system as nuanced as that of Total War: Three Kingdoms, or a province-management layer as in-depth as Total War: Attila’s.

So far, though, I’m intrigued. Pharaoh’s battles are less visually exciting than those in Warhammer 3, but just as intense. It’s harrowing to know, while my finger hovers over my mouse button, that the outcome of an entire battle might hinge on my next tactical decision, no matter the repairs I try to make in the aftermath. I thought I would miss the giants, trolls, and treefolk of Warhammer 3, but the Bronze Age might be the return to reality I need in October.

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