Total War Pharaoh preview – familiar but promising

Total War Pharaoh preview – familiar but promising

Total War Pharaoh is the type of strategy game that makes you feel daft. I’m out of my depth, wading through lashings of historical authenticity, court intrigue, and flimsy peace treaties, my brain blistering into a mushy heap as I try to keep my food stocks up. And that’s not even mentioning the real-time battles, where thousands of scuttling little soldiers hurl metal at one another per my misguided instructions. Thank goodness the game is weighted in favour of army size because a shrewd tactician I’m not, or at least not yet.

Total War Pharaoh preview - campaign map.

About a month ago, Creative Assembly and SEGA let VideoGamer sample a preview build of Total War Pharaoh for the better part of a week. Though this is the first time the series visits Ancient Egypt in earnest, the premise remains largely identical to previous entries: conquer, subdue, and dominate, all in the hope of one day becoming Pharaoh.

It’s 1200 BCE. The once prosperous and stable New Kingdom is on its last legs, with the Bronze Age collapse looming. The new game screen teased eight faction leaders across three playable cultures – Egyptians, Hittites, and the Canaanites. I was limited to Rameses, a young battle-hardened upstart gunning for the throne. As anyone familiar with the going-ons of the time knows, the lad made quite a name for himself. I started with a small army, a few scattered settlements and provinces in the Sinai Desert, and plenty of ambition. And in typical Total War fashion, there’s no milling about as you’re thrust into the action and handed a steep learning curve.

Total War Pharaoh preview: real-time battle.

The Total War games have never been all that accommodating to first-timers, and Pharaoh is no different. The systems stacked on top of systems, the resource management, the recruitment, and the bartered trade deals – it’s an overwhelming mesh of moving parts that, I’ll admit, left me glassy-eyed at first. My first playthrough was sheer chaos. I clicked and tapped everything and anything, declared war on all and any rival, and the generous stock of starting resources trickled down until my stores were bare. I didn’t last long when civil war broke out, as other pretenders with bigger and better armies – and stacks more sense – tore through my disjointed empire. Poor Rameses was saddled with a fumbling oaf.

Deflated, I fired up several more runs, and things went much, much better. There appears to be a concerted effort on Creative Assembly’s part to ease players in a little more gently. Partly through a meaty written help section, in-depth campaign customisation options, and replayable tutorials coming in the release build, but also an advisor regularly dishing out help whenever you try something new, hit a major in-game event, or bring up a menu for the first time. Pay attention, and you’ll learn. Or at least that’s the idea.

Total War Pharaoh preview: world map.

One thing that struck me was the reach of the map. Zooming out to get a sense of the scale, it was clear that I was only privy to a small slice of the playable region. The map encompasses not just Egypt and the Sinai but extends westward into modern-day Libya and north into the Levant and Anatolia. The cities I freed from map fog, let alone those I visited or attacked, within the build’s 50-turn cap were restricted to a tiny pocket of the map.

Despite the new setting, there’s no mistaking Pharaoh as a total war game. It marries those epic historical real-time battles and the granularity of a 4X campaign map topped with plenty of stats and sub-menus to get stuck into. CA has woven in fresh, historically plausible activities to hammer home the setting. There are, for example, court intrigues, a kind of interactive, gossipy soap opera where you stir up trouble, backstab, or otherwise bank favour by staging little plots. Then there’s the pillars of civilisation mechanic, a gauge of the region’s stability designed to mimic the Bronze Age collapse with tangible impacts on the world map. The visual mood gets darker. There are more natural disasters. Invaders get more aggressive, and so on. You can also relive historically significant events, like building the pyramids, more or less organically in your campaign through the ancient legacy system. You can also worship deities for different buffs and bonuses like extra XP at every turn or a melee damage boost.

Total War Pharaoh preview: Egyptian court screen.

Is it enough to make it stand out? What’s clear is that the historical period does a lot of the heavy lifting, but it’s too early to say if Pharaoh can unshackle itself from the ‘just another Total War game’ label. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but evolution feels like a reasonable expectation from such a long-running franchise. Making sweeping judgments is hard given the build’s turn cap and only one budding monarch to play with, so hardly enough to get into some meaty conquering and make a meaningful impact on the world map. But there’s a lot to like here despite the inherent complexity and the slightly sickly feeling of playing another very similar Total War game.

Total War Preview: aerial shot of the pyramids near the Nile.

It’s been a few years since I dabbled with a Total War game. At the time, it became a bit of an obsession. More hours spent playing than I’m comfortable assigning a number to, even more ruminating about the game and wanting to play. Pharaoh is shaping up to be a similarly life-engulfing strategic playground for those partial to the series, and I imagine plenty of newcomers drawn to the promise of military conquest in Ancient Egypt. The Nile, Pharaohs, sun-baked pyramids, fiddly scraps in the sands of the Sinai, and so on – it’s all catnip for history buffs.