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Ramesses II raises his sword on a battlefield full of corpses in a Total War: Pharaoh cutscene Image: Creative Assembly/Sega

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Total War: Pharaoh’s politics and subterfuge are more exciting than its battles

Capitalizing on the chaos of the Bronze Age collapse

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

Ramesses II, who was born a civilian, inherited Egypt’s throne as a teenager, fought several prolonged conflicts with the Hittite empire, warded off pirate incursions along the Mediterranean coast, and navigated a political court marred by betrayals and petty grievances. He was also the victim of the first recorded military ambush ever. Basically, his job sucked!

I find myself in this very crucible when I load up Ramesses II’s campaign in Total War: Pharaoh. Throughout the course of a 50-turn demo, I battle the Hittites, reclaim land taken by the Canaanites, hatch plots against court members, and secure my place in the history books. And although Pharaoh’s real-time battles certainly aren’t the most exciting of the long-running Total War series, once Creative Assembly Sofia’s campaign builds momentum, combat is one of the last things on my mind.

That’s not to say that Pharaoh’s AI enemies aren’t testing my borders whenever they get the chance, though; the series is called Total War, after all. I sent Ramesses II and my strongest army north to capture the province of Sukkot at one point, and two minor Egyptian factions — presumably unhappy with my reign — invaded from the south. It took most of my available food, stone, and wood to field a backup army from my capital province of Neb-Gehes, but once I did, we made quick work of the would-be usurpers.

The Mediterranean Coast in the campaign map for Total War: Pharaoh, depicting the lands of Ramesses II Image: Creative Assembly/Sega via Polygon

Although the variety of units available in Pharaoh’s real-time battles feels lacking — not just in comparison to Total War: Warhammer 3’s fantasy rogues’ gallery, but also to A Total War Saga: Troy’s lineup — the battles themselves are sleek and responsive. Battalions react quickly to my commands, chariots swoop around enemy flanks in fluid loops, and archers are quick to reposition when I need a peripheral enemy out of the way. On a purely kinetic level, Pharaoh is excellent.

As I expand along the Mediterranean coast, I not only build up individual settlements and cities, but also the outposts that dot each province’s edges. These can be military fortifications (to buff defensive units’ stats or increase siege materials, for instance) or economic zones, which can increase the resource output of their corresponding provinces. Pharaoh isn’t revolutionizing how grand strategy city-building works, but its outposts do remind me of Civilization 6’s district system — and that’s never a bad thing.

By reclaiming land for Egypt and expanding my borders, I accrue political influence. Luckily, one of Ramesses II’s faction effects allows me to perform two “court actions” per turn. In order to appoint my own followers to the court, I first need to begin plots against the current ruling elite. I can gossip about them behind their backs (thereby gaining the trust of the person to whom I’m gossiping, as a byproduct) and set other court members against them. At one point, I got a little too gung-ho with this, and my political target became aware of my intentions. I could have continued with the plan to remove them (I’m fairly certain I had enough wheels in motion by that point), but instead, I chose to spare them the humiliation, and let my deviousness serve more as a threat than an actual coup.

A battle players out in the desert in Total War: Pharaoh, with Hittites streaming down a hill toward Egyptian forces Image: Creative Assembly/Sega via Polygon

I’m not only spending political capital on subterfuge, though — I’m also declaring political decrees. These upgrades take the place of other Total War games’ technology trees, and offer a litany of economic, militaristic, and cultural bonuses. Seeing as how Ramesses II has unique buildings to increase the happiness of his citizens, I tend to avoid doubling up with redundant political decrees, instead opting to buff my economy as my empire grows; armies can’t fight if they don’t have weapons, food, and water. I’m just beginning to field my third full-stack army as I finish turn 50 and the demo comes to an end.

As the first Total War game since the gargantuan Total War: Warhammer 3, and the first historical game in the series since Total War: Three Kingdoms (that game is more historical fiction, but the point stands), Pharaoh was fighting an uphill battle from the start. Warhammer 3’s sheer scale, replete with dragons and magic and monsters, will make any strategy game look quaint by comparison. Three Kingdoms, despite its poor DLC roadmap, represented Total War at its best: nuanced diplomacy, compelling leaders, and challenging combat. Call me a cynic, but I never expected Pharaoh to reach those heights because, well, it really didn’t need to.

Instead, what I found after 50 turns of Ramesses II’s campaign was a pared back, yet focused, grand strategy game with various avenues toward victory, be it a martial or cultural one. There were lengthy stretches where the warmonger in me wanted more out of Pharaoh’s real-time battles and empire-building. But in taking a page out of Ramesses II’s book, I found ways to defeat my enemies off of the battlefield as well.

Total War: Pharaoh will be released on Oct. 11 on Windows PC.

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