War is fun! Okay, no it isn't. It's dangerous and terrifying and cold and often quite spectacularly boring. But human beings seem to enjoy the prospect of pitting two large bodies of men against one another armed with bits of metal over some philosophical/ideological/religious/monetary point of of dispute and letting them have at it. Of course, war also results in mounds of corpses and lots of letters that need to be written to parents back home, so as early as the 9th Century AD certain board games had been developed which simulated the art of warfare without having to deal with troublesome issues such as supply lines, latrines or corpse removal duty. Of course, with modern computers, the recreation of war has become ever more complete and thorough.
The Total War series of games first appeared in 2000 from a British company, the Creative Assembly. Formerly known for ports various Electronic Arts sports simulations from PC to console or vice versa, the Creative Assembly had decided to break out with an original title that would much more realistically simulate the art of war than ever before. At that time the most popular series of historical wargames was probably the Age of Empires series which, whilst entertaining, consisted more of building tons of men and hurling them blindly at the enemy than any viable use of real strategy or tactics. Age of Empires and other medieval or fantasy-based games like WarCraft II were fun but their simulation of real military tactics was remote at best. On the other side of the coin, games like the Civilization series were great at providing a context for warfare but reduced the battles to the comparisons of stats, removing the ability of players to swing a desperate battle against a much larger force through the use of superior tactics.
Shogun: Total War, which was published in June 2000, successfully solved the problems. Using a combination of rolling 3D terrain and sprite-based units, it allowed for the realistic depiction of a combined-force army consisting of thousands of cavalry, archers, pikemen and swordsmen, allowing them to be moved and positioned flexibly. Much of the game took place on a map of feudal Japan, with the player taking the role of a clan-leader determined to conquer the other provinces and become the shogun, the ruler of all Japan. On this map the player could assemble armies and position them to defend provinces and castles, or take to the sea and mount sneak invasions behind enemy lines. Agents like assassins could take out high-ranking enemy generals, whilst spies could provide intelligence on enemy troop numbers and movements. In effect, Shogun provided the player a way of following the maxims of Sun Tzu's The Art of War in a manner not before achieved.
Given the specialist nature of wargames, it was a bit of a surprise when Shogun crossed over into the mainstream and became a significant success story, its mix of Civilization-style turn-based plotting and realistic real-time battles providing a heady brew for strategy gamers. 2001's The Mongol Invasion provided new units and factions to the game, including the ability to have the Mongols invade Japan by sea and change the course of history. This 'counterfactual' angle (what if history went down a different path?) soon became appealing to players as well.
The Creative Assembly's success soon saw them conceive of a way of delivering exciting new Total War games to players at a steady clip. Their idea was to divide their games into 'revolutionary' and 'evolutionary' categories (each with expansions). The revolutionary games would feature new engines, graphics, ideas and concepts, whilst the evolutionary ones would build on the success of the revolutionary one. Meanwhile, the revolutionary team would begin building the next revolutionary game in the series whilst the evolutionary team was developing their next title, meaning that the two teams would be required to only deliver a new full game every four years, with a new full game coming out every two years and an expansion falling inbetween. This would allow a fresh Total War game every year and a constant source of income for the small company.
This process soon kicked in. Medieval: Total War, which used a souped-up version of the Shogun game engine, was published in 2002 to critical acclaim. It's much more popular depiction of medieval European warfare saw its sales radically eclipse those of Shogun, and its expansion, The Viking Invasion (2003) saw the game focus on a much smaller theatre of war (the British Isles) and a smaller number of factions, to great success.
The revolutionary team delivered the next full game in the series, Rome: Total War, in 2004. The game went full 3D, removing the 2D sprites of the previous titles and replacing them with individually-modelled 3D units. Through clever programming, it was possible to send a full army of 10,000 3D units into battle without onerous system requirements. The graphical results were so good that a BBC history-based gameshow, Time Commanders, started using the game engine for its graphics a full year before the game was even released. Rome also featured a major shift in gameplay, with the turn-based campaign map now employing small tiles in a 3D-rendered battlemap rather than large provincial squares. This made the placement of units, the importance of ambushes and interceptions and the vital importance of intelligence and spies all the more important, and added huge amounts of strategic depth to the game.
Unfortunately, this is where the first problems with the game's AI came into play. The first two games, being based on provinces, didn't require huge amounts of computer intelligence on the positioning of armies. If they could only move into one province and attack it, there wasn't much else for them to do. In they went. In Rome, however, it wasn't unusual to see multiple AI-controlled armies marching around consisting of a few small units rather than amalgamating into one large force, allowing you to destroy them piecemeal, whilst the AI's ability to use ships to launch seaborne invasions was almost non-existent. During sieges it wasn't uncommon to see the enemy AI drop their siege weapons and run around confused in front of your city walls whilst your archers turned them into pin-cushions. Various patches and Rome's two expansions, The Barbarian Invasion (2005) and Alexander (2006) did eventually solve many of the AI problems. Rome was also the first game in the series to permit fully-comprehensive modding, with amateur programmers retooling the AI and making it far more impressive.
The Total War series proceeded with the release of Medieval II: Total War in late 2006. Featuring an upgraded version of the Rome engine, it was assumed that Medieval II would build on the patched-up version of the engine from the expansion. Instead, it very oddly returned to the basic engine of the original Rome release, just with more impressive graphics and obviously a shift in factions and units. Lots of bugs not seen since the early days of Rome returned and, unlike Rome, were never fixed through patches. Some features, such as the implementation of the New World across the ocean, were half-assed at best. The game was also not well-optimised, requiring radically higher system requirements than Rome to work despite using the same engine. Medieval II's failings saw the first signs of real discontent from the fanbase. The Creative Assembly did win back some loyalty with the release of the excellent Kingdoms expansion in 2007, and Medieval II's modding capabilities were (eventually) better than Rome's, paving the way for excellent mods such as Third Age: Total War (a Lord of the Rings-based game, more coverage of which is coming soon), Stainless Steel (a much more hardcore and historically accurate version of Medieval II) and our own in-development Westeros: Total War.
The Creative Assembly soon revealed that the next game in the series would be the next 'revolutionary' title, Empire: Total War, which took the franchise into the 18th Century, focused on gunpowder-based warfare and, for the first time, depicted 3D naval battles. Worked on by the same team behind Shogun and Rome, the assumption was that this would be another strong game in the series.
Instead, it was pretty much lambasted on release in February 2009 by the fans, even whilst the computer game magazines gave it high scores. Very rarely has there been such a disconnection between official reviews and public opinion. The game was shipped in an incomplete state, rife with graphics bugs, memory leaks and crashes to desktops, whilst the game's AI was in an even more woeful state than Medieval II's on release. The game also required the use of Steam, Valve's digital distribution service. Whilst Steam is excellent at delivering downloadable game content, its use as a form of DRM (Digital Rights Management) without which it is impossible to play a game, even in offline single-player mode, has long been highly controversial. On top of all of these problems, the Creative Assembly took the decision to make Empire effectively unmoddable. Whilst unit states could be tweaked, full-game modifications like those available for Medieval II and Rome were simply impossible to implement. CA several times promised to release development software making modding possible, and never did so. They also promised that the game would feature a multiplayer campaign mode, but over a year after release it has still not been implemented.
The Total War fanbase, long loyal to the franchise, was understandably annoyed. There were even more annoyed when CA announced the next game in the series, Napoleon: Total War, for release in the spring of 2010, whilst the problems in Empire still had not been sorted out. Even worse was the news that Napoleon would be a stand-alone game, not an expansion as previously thought. The prior Total War expansions had shipped with major patches which usually improved the original game at the same time as delivering new content (the Barbarian Invasion and Kingdoms expansions both removed the most outrageous bugs in their parent games, for example), whilst this was not going to be the case for Napoleon, which will continue to make use of Steam and would also not permit modding.
At this current time it is difficult to say what the future holds for the Total War series. The Creative Assembly's actions over the last two games of the series have been pretty much lamentable (although Empire is now, more or less, in a reliable state after several new patches, although the AI remains deeply problematic), but at the same time the Total War series' combination of tactical and strategic warfare remains ambitious and enjoyable, and in an age of ever-declining PC games sales the series' impressive sales performance is enviable. What the CA really need to do with the franchise now is to stop pissing off the fans, allow modding once again and look at fixing the long-standing problems with AI in the games. If this can be achieved, the series could regain its place as one of the better PC gaming franchises around.
June 2010 Update
The next full game in the series will be Shogun 2: Total War.
The Total War Series
Shogun: Total War (2000)
Shogun: Total War - The Mongol Invasion (2001)
Medieval: Total War (2002)
Medieval: Total War - The Viking Invasion (2003)
Rome: Total War (2004)
Rome: Total War - The Barbarian Invasion (2005)
Rome: Total War - Alexander (2006)
Medieval II: Total War (2006)
Medieval II: Total War - Kingdoms (2007)
Empire: Total War (2009)
Empire: Total War - The Warpath Campaign (2009)
Napoleon: Total War (2010)
Napoleon: Total War - The Peninsular Campaign (2010)
Shogun II: Total War (2011)