The confusing, violent, and cataclysmic events we know today as the Bronze Age Collapse shook the Mediterranean 3200 years ago, which is roughly how long it feels like it’s been since we last had a main series historical Total War game. But much as Ramesses III led Egypt out of this dark era, Creative Assembly’s Sofia studio (which most recently released the semi-mythological A Total War Saga: Troy) brings us Total War: Pharaoh. The mysterious Sea Peoples are coming, and as a variety of competing leaders from the Egyptian, Hittite, and Canaanite cultures, it will be up to us to weather the storm.
While we haven’t gotten to see the campaign map yet, I was able to get a few details on it. We’ll fight over the Nile Valley as far South as Nubia and Kush – modern-day Sudan, basically. Heading North, we’ll get to explore Canaan, the region we usually refer to today as the Levant. Opposite Egypt, across the sea, we’ll also get to battle for Anatolia, the peninsula today which makes up most of modern Turkey.
We won’t be going as far East as Mesopotamia, so don’t expect to be tangling with any Assyrians or Babylonians. But the developers were quick to point out that this is a “full-fledged,” main series Total War game, though, and not a Saga. So we should expect sandbox gameplay and a scope similar to Rome II or Three Kingdoms.
Born To Be Kings
Total War: Pharaoh First Look Images
While the marketing for Pharaoh centers on Egypt, there is no faction called “Egypt” to begin with. Similar to Three Kingdoms and Troy, each faction is organized around a specific historical or semi-historical figure who is in a position to potentially unite their culture under one rule. For the Egyptians, this obviously represents the ambition to become Pharaoh, including the historical winner, Ramesses III. The Hittities in Anatolia have an equivalent office called the Great King. And the Canaanites are kind of stuck in the middle of it all, just trying to survive.
There’s quite a bit more variety than just those three cultures in terms of the available units, too. Egypt, by itself, has four different regions with their own local, “native” units to recruit, in addition to a base roster tied to your starting character which is always available. You have Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, Nubia and Kush in the far South, and the Western Desert on the outskirts where the most rugged and hardy warriors are available. The Hittites will be able to recruit from other Anatolian people like the Phrygians, and the Canaanites have two subcultures with unique units that represent the more settled city-state dwellers closer to the sea, and the pastoral hill folk of the East.
Wrath of the Gods
As this campaign focuses on the Bronze Age Collapse, the world will grow darker and more dangerous as the turns tick by, partly based on how well you’re doing at holding everything together. One of the main ways this manifests in battle is a dynamic weather system, in which you might start a fight under a baking desert sun only to be caught in a raging downpour moments later. This can change the terrain mid-battle, with large areas of ground turning into mud that slows down chariots and heavy infantry. Likewise, this marshy muck can dry up if the sun grows too brutal.
Each culture is equipped to handle their native lands better than others. Egyptians are typically lightly armored, which makes them nimble and very capable at fighting in extreme heat. The Hittites are much more heavily-clad in bronze, shrugging off the cold and the rain and able to endure quite a bit more damage, but they will be more susceptible to the relentless desert sun.
Terror From the Deep
Then we come to the enigmatic Sea Peoples, who seemingly overran many ancient and powerful cities during this time. We know very few concrete facts about them, so their depiction in Total War: Pharaoh is assembled from fragments of art and written accounts, along with some historical “best guesses,” but their main role is to serve as a major endgame challenge like the Huns in Total War: Attila.
They’re ruthless raiders and obviously quite talented seafarers, visually realized as a multi-ethnic coalition with eclectic combat gear that suggests they have gathered warriors from all over the ancient Mediterranean. Some of their troops are clearly riffs on Total War: Troy’s Mycenaens. They have multiple units with “Aegean” in their names. Others borrow from ancient depictions of Corsican, Sardinian, or Cretan islanders. They won’t be playable at launch, though the DLC roadmap promising multiple “Faction Packs” makes me think that’s likely to change.
War Never Changes
Back on the battle side, the siege AI seems remarkably competent for once, though the city defense I played saw the entire opposing army retreating almost the second their general died despite making it past the walls and still outnumbering us. Total War: Pharaoh is promising more granular customizable difficulty settings for campaign and battles than ever before, though.
Another addition is the ability to damage enemy armor over the course of a melee, with units like clubmen being particularly good at this. We’re still living in an era without battlefield cavalry, like in Troy, so chariots are your fastest and smashiest units. We’re also getting some new “stances” that cut down on micromanagement for infantry a bit, including one where you can tell them to simply advance until they run into the enemy and then attack.
Sea of Sand
From what I’ve gotten my hands on so far, Total War: Pharaoh doesn’t feel like a revolutionary step forward for the series. Not yet, anyway. I really look forward to seeing more of the campaign. This is an era I find especially fascinating, and the fact that we know so little about what actually happened is both a challenge and an opportunity for Creative Assembly. The path ahead lies clear for us to claim the title of Pharaoh this October.