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Total War: Pharaoh is more of a pretender than a true heir

The latest historical entry in the Total War franchise is stuck between two ideals

Rameses III holds a dung beetle aloft in a blinding ray of sun right before a battle in Total War: Pharaoh Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega
Alice Jovanée (she/her) is a commerce writer, and she has been writing about gaming and tech since 2005. Prior to Polygon, she worked at publications such as The Verge.

It’s pretty wild to consider the ground the Total War franchise has managed to cover since its inception. With the introduction of the fantasy-focused Warhammer trilogy, and the theatrical Three Kingdoms, developer Creative Assembly has brought its massive strategy franchise to whole new audiences. However, with the exception of the remastered Total War: Rome, this has left many long-time fans of the franchise yearning for a return to Creative Assembly’s historical roots. While Total War: Pharaoh is more grounded than its supernatural cousins, and deploys a slower overall pace, its attempts to bridge accuracy and accessibility leave its Bronze Age campaign and combat feeling a bit dusty when compared to its larger-than-life counterparts.

If, like me, you only have a vague recollection of your high-school world history course, the Bronze Age is that period in human history that brought us bangers like the wheel, written language, and metalworking. While dozens of civilizations coexisted during this time period, for the purposes of Total War: Pharaoh, Creative Assembly has focused primarily on the Hittites, Canaanites, and Egyptians as they existed around the Bronze Age collapse circa 1200 BC.

A screenshot of Total War: Pharaoh displaying an overview of the campaign map in the faction select screen
The campaign map really doesn’t do justice to the scope of the Bronze Age in this era.
Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

Total War: Pharaoh most closely resembles Troy: A Total War Saga in its presentation and gameplay. Pharaoh also incorporates some aspects from other entries in the series, like Total War: Attila, and Three Kingdoms. Pharaoh’s campaign is less scripted than some of the more recent entries in the franchise, but it still leans on some long-running conceits of the grand strategy/4X genre. You spend the early stages on the turn-based campaign map expanding your economy and empire before the eruption of a civil war forces you to compete with a number of pretenders vying for the throne of your faction. The late game, on the other hand, is focused on withstanding the invasion of the enigmatic “sea people” and ensuring your legacy can persist through the Bronze Age collapse. The freeform nature of the campaign following these story beats is a staple of the Total War franchise, but the lack of direction left me stumbling somewhere around turn 50. The broad victory conditions do offer an alternative in the long game other than “painting the map,” but they don’t lead to anything nearly as compelling as the early game rush.

A screenshot from Total War Pharaoh showcasing the game’s strategic layer
The strategic layer for Total War: Pharaoh is similar to what we saw in Troy
Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

At the strategic level, Total War: Pharoah features a larger map than Three Kingdoms or Troy, but as a title that’s been touted as the “definitive bronze-age experience” by Creative Assembly, it’s still somewhat restrictive. This truncated map has the benefit of being less intimidating, but leaves little room for many of the other key players of the era. There’s no denying the importance of the cultures featured in Pharaoh, but it ignores civilizations like the Assyrians, Mycenaeans, and Babylonians, to name just a few. These omissions not only limit your strategic options, but make for an inaccurate portrayal of the period. Frankly, I’m not certain what would be worse — that Creative Assembly forgot about them, or that it left them out to include as post-release DLC.

A screenshot from Total War: Pharaoh showing the faction select screen
Eight leaders are available at launch, with half of them assigned to the Egypt faction
Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

Diplomacy and backroom politics, staples of the Total War franchise, are on full display in Pharaoh, with the biggest changes present in the court system. This layer allows you to compete with other leaders for positions of power, and even besmirch them behind their backs, in order to gain legitimacy and popularity as you compete for the mantle of Pharaoh. Playing your cards right even allows you to call in some well-timed favors, whether that’s filling your coffers, or filling your ranks.

A screenshot of Total War: Pharaoh displaying the court system screen Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

The respective pantheons from the three playable cultures also play a role in shaping your empire, conveying bonuses to your faction proportionate to the reverence you show them. However, unlike the religious boons in Troy, the benefits here are largely passive: Your army of Ra worshippers won’t be able to summon searing beams of light to turn the tide of battle, for instance, no matter how many temples you build. This is understandable, considering Pharaoh’s more grounded approach and presentation, but having more tempting reasons to engage with this system might have been nice.

A screenshot of Total War Pharaoh displaying the religion screen
You’d think the benefits of worshipping the sun god would be better than some additional workers
Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

On the tactical real-time strategy level, Pharaoh effectively captures the brutality of warfare in the Bronze Age. Even in this primitive era, Pharaoh maintains a vast catalog of units to build out your army, ranging from slingers and archers to axemen and charioteers. Each faction in the game includes its own roster of unique faction units and buildings, which, over the course of a campaign, can be bolstered with native units from specific regions.

A screenshot of Total War Pharaoh displaying the general screen
The RPG-lite systems from Troy: A Total War Saga return in Pharaoh
Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

While having unique unit pools from each region of the map can make the overall roster feel a little bloated, these additions allow you to even out your army compositions when fighting outside of your home turf. For example, your nimble and lightly armored Egyptian army is best suited for warfare in the open desert, but might suffer against the more heavily armored Hittites unless supplemented with some native units from the northern realms.

A screenshot of Total War Pharaoh showing the game’s encyclopedia
The list of faction-specific and native units is truly staggering
Image: Creative Assembly Sofia/Sega via Polygon

Weather and terrain have always played a prominent role in the Total War franchise, and Pharaoh’s dynamic weather drastically alters how you approach a battle. Searing heat that tires your units out quickly can give way to torrential downpours that impede ranged attacks and bog down chariots.

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

Aesthetically, Pharaoh provides an excellent technical showcase in both its tactical and strategic layers. The horizon of golden dunes shimmers under the midday sun, while the scale and spectacle of the battles feel appropriately epic as generals taunt each other amidst the chaos of clashing units.

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

Unfortunately, many of the issues from previous titles continue to persist, particularly in regards to unit collision and AI pathfinding. Units on either side of an engagement can turn into massive blobs, rendering them ineffective — this is especially problematic in settlement battles, which require units to negotiate narrow streets and other chokepoints. Furthermore, the AI can often be plagued with indecision if it’s presented with attacks on multiple fronts, making some rather questionable tactical decisions. During these moments, I’d like to think my strategy is running circles around the AI, but it’s difficult to tell how much of this behavior is a feature, rather than a bug.

Ultimately, Total War: Pharaoh is an attempt to provide an accessible experience that delivers what feels like an abridged version of a world history course. Most of the systems in Pharaoh offer glimpses of greatness, but aren’t deep or refined enough to deliver a memorable grand strategy experience. Creative Assembly’s take on the Bronze Age is not thematic enough to engage a novice, but not accurate or expansive enough to appeal to Total War veterans, leaving us with a Total War title that’s unlikely to stand the test of time.

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