Thursday 25 May 2023

Total War Franchise Familiariser (revised)

In the last few days British video game developers Creative Assembly have announced their latest Total War video game, Total War: Pharaoh. The Total War series is now one of the biggest-selling strategy video game series of all time, shifting more than 40 million copies of sixteen games and numerous expansions since the turn of the century. Only Sid Meier’s Civilization titles have been more successful among turn-based strategy games, and its lead is now very narrow. A lot of people have recently been discussing the franchise, its history and future, but what if you have no idea what they are going on about? Time for a Franchise Familiariser course.

Note: This is a revised and updated version of an article originally published in 2017.

The Basics

Total War is a video game series which sets out to recreate some of the most notable wars and military campaigns in human history, as well as, more recently, conflicts from the Warhammer fantasy setting. Each Total War game stands alone as its own, self-contained title, although the three Warhammer games can be combined into one larger game.

The earliest setting in the games is the Peloponnesian War of Ancient Greece in 432 BC. The latest setting is the Bakumatsu period of Japanese history, ending around 1868 AD.

Each Total War game works as both a grand strategy and a small-scale tactics game. Every game has a large, turn-based campaign map on which you can assemble armies, construct buildings and engage in diplomacy, technological research and espionage. When armies meet, the game switches to a real-time 3D battlefield where you take direct control of your army and direct the course of battle using realistic and – somewhat – historically accurate tactics.

The Series

The Total War series consists of sixteen stand-alone games, nine expansions and a large number of small expansions and unit packs, sold as downloadable content (DLC). There are also a significant number of fan-made “mods” for the games, doing everything from tweaking unit stats and artwork to adding entire new maps and campaigns.

The series to date consists of the following titles (along with their approximate historical settings and the major expansion packs for each game indented, although not every optional bit of DLC is listed for clarity):
  • Shogun: Total War (2000) – Sengoku Japan, 1467-1603
    • Shogun: Total War – Mongol Invasion (2001) – Mongol invasion of Japan, 1274-81
  • Medieval: Total War (2002) – Medieval Europe, 1087-1453
    • Medieval: Total War – Viking Invasion (2003) – Viking invasions of Britain, 793-1066
  • Rome: Total War (2004) – Roman Europe, 270 BC-14 AD
    • Rome: Total War – Barbarian Invasion (2005) – Roman Europe, 363-476
    • Rome: Total War – Alexander (2006) – Greece, Persia, India, 336-323 BC
  • Medieval II: Total War (2006) – Medieval Europe, 1080-1530
    • Medieval II: Total War – Kingdoms (2007) – various, 1174-1520
  • Empire: Total War (2009) – Europe, North America, India, 1700-1800
    • Empire: Total War - Warpath Campaign (2009), North America, 1783-1825
  • Napoleon: Total War (2010) – Europe, 1780-1820
    • Napoleon: Total War - The Peninsular War (2010) - Portugal & Spain, 1807-14
  • Total War: Shogun II (2011) – Sengoku Japan, 1467-1573
    • Total War: Shogun II - Rise of the Samurai (2012), Genpei War, 1180-85
  • Total War: Shogun II – Fall of the Samurai (2012) – Bakumatsu Japan, 1853-67
  • Total War: Rome II (2013) – Roman Europe, 272 BC-28 AD
    • Total War: Rome II - Caesar in Gaul (2013) - Roman invasion of Gaul, 58-50 BC
    • Total War: Rome II - Hannibal at the Gates (2014) - Second Punic War, 218-201 BC
    • Total War: Rome II - Imperator Augustus (2014) - War of the Second Triumvirate, 32-30 BC
    • Total War: Rome II - Wrath of Sparta (2014) - The Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BC
    • Total War: Rome II - Empire Divided (2017) - The Crisis of the 3rd Century, 270-284 AD
    • Total War: Rome II - Rise of the Republic (2018) - 399-272 BC
  • Total War: Attila (2015) – Roman Europe, 395-453
    • Total War: Attila - The Last Roman (2015) - Gothic War, 535-551
    • Total War: Attila - Age of Charlemagne (2015) - Charlemagne's War, 768-814
  • Total War: Warhammer (2016) – The Old World
  • Total War: Warhammer II (2017) – The New World
  • Thrones of Britannia: A Total War Saga (2018) - The Viking Invasion of Britain, 878 AD
  • Three Kingdoms: Total War (2019) - The Three Kingdoms, China, 190-278
    • Yellow Turban Rebellion (2019) - The Three Kingdoms, China, 190-278
    • Eight Princes (2019) - War of the Eight Princes, China, 291-306
    • Mandate of Heaven (2019) - The Yellow Turban Rebellion, 182-278
    • A World Betrayed (2020) - China, 194-278
    • The Furious Wild (2020) - The Three Kingdoms, China, 190-278
    • Fates Divided (2021) - Battle of Guandu, 200
  • Troy: A Total War Saga (2020) - The Trojan War, 1194-1184 BC
  • Total War: Warhammer III (2022)
  • Total War: Pharaoh (2023) - The Great Bronze Age Collapse, 12th Century BC
There are also a series of spin-off games, either action titles for console or highly-simplified games for mobile devices. These are: Spartan: Total Warrior (2005), Viking: Battle for Asgard (2008), Total War Battles: Shogun (2012), Total War: Arena (2013) and Total War Battles: Kingdom (2015). Aside from borrowing the franchise title, these games are not related to the main series at all.

Franchise History

The Creative Assembly was founded in 1987 in Horsham, West Sussex, UK. The company originally worked on porting games from the Amiga and Spectrum formats to the PC, as well as developing numerous games with Electronic Arts under the EA Sports brand. The company gained a great deal of financial success from the unglamorous but profitable job of porting games like the FIFA series to PC.

In 1999 the company began work on its first original project. The first proposal had been for a hack-and-slash action game set in ancient China. This shifted after the team began playing a samurai-based board game, which quickly made them rethink the game with a Japanese title with a more strategic focus. The small scale of the game, with several very similar sides, shared units and a relatively small map based on Japan, allowed the game to be developed quickly. The breakthrough moment in development came when a designer decided to move the battle camera from a fixed overhead perspective to a 3D viewpoint and found this worked very well and improved immersion. However, it did cause issues with the 2D units moving across a 3D environment. It was ultimately decided that this was a worthwhile price to pay for the improvements to gameplay.

Shogun: Total War
Released on 13 June 2000, Shogun: Total War took much of the gaming press by surprise. Coming from a publisher with no strategy track record, the quality and depth of the title was remarkable. The setting is Sengoku Japan, the lengthy period running from roughly 1467 to 1603 when Japan was almost constantly at war with rival clans battling for the title of Shogun.

The strategic map was presented as a tabletop planning session, with units presented as beautiful wooden pieces being pushed around like a general planning his next move. The map is divided into provinces and units are moved from province to province one square at a time (a key difference to later games in the series). It is also possible to undertake naval operations (by putting ships in to sea squares to form an effective bridge) and send agents including ninja assassins to kill enemy generals rather than having to face them on the battlefield.

Many of these ideas would make their way into later versions of the games in more sophisticated forms, but it’s surprising how much of the core Total War mechanics and feel is already in place with this first game.

The game was released to critical acclaim, catching the eye of reviewers in a period noted for its numerous, excellent strategy games (HomeworldGround Control and Hostile Waters would all come out within a year of Shogun’s release). It also sold well, despite some early fears that the non-European setting would put some buyers off.

A year later the game was given an expansion, The Mongol Invasion, which chronicled the Mongol Empire’s two ill-fated attempts to invade Japan between 1274 and 1281. Whilst neither invasion got very far in real life, the expansion posits a “What if?” scenario and asks what would have happened if Kublai Khan’s forces had successfully landed.

Medieval: Total War
Given Shogun’s success, Creative Assembly began work immediately on two follow-ups: one using the same engine and an all-new and far more powerful engine that would ultimately take four years to bring to fruition. In the meantime, Medieval: Total War was announced and got people very excited.

Shogun: Total War was noted for its tight focus but Medieval was epic and sprawling. The entire continent of Europe, the north coast of Africa and parts of the Middle East were now on the map and instead of the variations on a theme of Shogun, the game now had over a dozen very different factions. Spanning the period 1087 to 1453, the game featured countries such as England, France, the Holy Roman Empire, Castile, Aragon and the Byzantine Empire fighting for control of Europe, all the while trying to keep the Pope happy. The game played very similarly to Shogun, but the theme had a wider appeal. Medieval: Total War was released in 2002 to rapturous reception and outsold its predecessor significantly.

A year later, once again, the game was expanded. The Viking Invasion added a new map to the game, an expanded one of the British Isles, and Scandinavia, and focused on the Viking raids on the British coast between 793 and 1066, following up by settlements and invasions. The expansion was a big success and once again showed that Total War could be both a sprawling, epic title and a very focused one with equally strong results.

Rome: Total War
After two games built on the same, slightly archaic engine, Creative Assembly decided to change things up. Rome: Total War was released in 2004 and saw the biggest shake-up in the series to date. The battlefield maps were now full, proper 3D environments with proper 3D units: each soldier in each legion was a full, detailed 3D figure: the game used some exceptional scaling technology to make it possible to get thousands of such figures on screen at once without destroying players’ computers.

More striking was the campaign map. Formerly a 2D tabletop image divided into provinces, it was now a 3D environment in its own right. Armies now have to march across territory rather than just hopping from province to province and where your armies meet on the map determines the terrain of the battlefield. So whilst the previous two games had only one battle map per province and town, Rome has thousands of possible maps to fight on.

The game’s strategic layer now had a full overhaul. Although still straightforward, it had a more complex trade model under the hood and a greater focus on diplomacy and things to do in peacetime. The game also had a nice endgame situation where your faction, if it became too powerful, would be declared traitors by a fearful senate and attacked in a brutal Roman civil war. The game also allowed you to play other factions, such as an ahistorical version of Egypt, one of several Greek factions or a “barbarian” faction such as the Britons.

The game was also given a fresh UI, a welcoming tutorial mode and a lot of advice so newbies, put off by the game’s perceived complexity in the past, could now get stuck in with little problem.
Rome: Total War was the best-reviewed game of the series to date and outsold its predecessors significantly, and managed to do well despite coming out just a few weeks ahead of one of the biggest behemoths in PC gaming history, Half-Life 2.

As usual, the game was joined by expansions. In 2005 Barbarian Invasion is set at the end of the Roman Empire and sees the player controlling either the faltering Western or strong Eastern Roman Empire, or one of the invading migratory tribes. The expansion was noted for its extreme difficulty compared to the base game. More importantly, Barbarian Invasion fixed some niggling AI and control problems the base game had shipped with.

Released in 2006, Alexander was a mini-campaign focused on the adventures of Alexander the Great. A very tightly focused campaign, given a dramatic voiceover by actor Brian Blessed, the expansion required the player to use Alexander’s actual tactics to win enormously lop-sided battles, with a few hundred elite Macedonian and Greek soldiers attacked by thousands of Persians or Indians. The campaign was an experiment by Creative Assembly in creating digital-only content for one of their titles and charging only a modest amount for it, and it was a success.

Rome: Total War was also noted for shipping with completely open and modifiable game files, allowing fans to adjust unit stats, replace 3D models or even completely replace the campaign map, leading to a popular, sprawling and inventive modding scene.

Rome later became the first game in the series to be ported to smartphones (in 2018) and then remastered fully for PC (in 2021), the latter released to acclaim as Total War: Rome Remastered.

Medieval II: Total War
Released in 2006, Medieval II did pretty much what the title suggested: it updated the Medieval: Total War paradigm into the Rome engine, allowing for a much more visually spectacular game.

The Creative Assembly pulled out all the stops for this title, increasing the graphical fidelity of the models, giving players more stuff to do on the campaign map and adding gunpowder and cannons to the game. It also made the 3D maps more interactive and more complex, with castles and cities now sprawling over hills with multiple layers of fortifications. A late-game development also allowed players to send ships to the New World and land on the coasts of North and South America for the first time in the series.

Medieval II was easily the biggest and most visually spectacular game on the market when it shipped and it was highly praised for this. It was also somewhat bugged when it shipped, with the game’s AI often stymied by sieges and unexpected tactics. These problems were eventually fixed and Medieval II is often, even now, cited as the best game in the series for its mix of visual splendour, tactical complexity and its excellent modding scene.

Medieval II was the last game in the series with open source files, allowing players to modify the game any way they wanted. Given the greater variety of troop types and superior graphics, the Rome modding scene moved almost entirely over to Medieval II, and soon “total conversion” mods were appearing for franchises including A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), Lord of the RingsWarhammer and even Zelda. It’s likely that fears over copyright claims led CA to dropping the open modding in later games (which only permit modest tweaks to unit stats).

Medieval II was expanded by Kingdoms in 2007, a major expansion which was divided into four sub-campaigns. One fleshed out the New World, featuring the player establishing colonies in the Americas and fighting off hostile natives and rival colonial powers. Another focused on the Crusades and the battle for control of the Holy Land. Another focused on Eastern Europe and the battle for control of the region by the Teutonic Knights. The final campaign focused on the British Isles in the 13th Century.

Medieval II became the second game in the series to get a smartphone port, released in 2022, with a possible PC remaster to follow.

Empire: Total War
For the next game in the series, Creative Assembly decided to go big. The success of the gunpowder and cannon units in Medieval II and Kingdoms had encouraged them to move the time period further towards the present. They also accepted the frequent player complaints that having naval battles being auto-resolved was dull. Finally, they felt that players had outgrowing the map of Europe they’d used for three games in a row and wanted something bigger and more expansive.

Empire: Total War was released in 2009, after the biggest delay in the series to date, and featured a new engine, the “Warscape Engine” (which has powered all Total War games since). The scale of the game was jaw-dropping. Spanning the 18th Century, the game had three campaign maps linked together, allowing players to sail from North America to the far east of India if they wished, as well as fighting more focused, smaller campaigns in North America (including the War of Independence). It was the first (and, to date, only) game in the series to focus on North America and to feature the United States as a playable faction.

The battle maps were more impressive than ever, with even more detailed figures and changes to accommodate the greater user of rifles and cannon. The strategy map featured a more complex economic and political model, to reflect the more tangled web of family and diplomatic ties in this period, and, most striking, naval battles were now present, featuring massive galleons destroying one another with broadsides.

It was all very impressive, with a scale that was incredible, but there was one slight problem: it didn’t work. Or at least, it didn’t work very well. The game shipped with a large number of bugs, AI problems and technical issues. CA had normally been quick to fix the immediate problems with patches and the bigger issues with the expansion, but with Empire for some reason the problems were more persistent and weren’t cleaned up for some considerable time.

More frustrating for players, the game was not moddable in the same way previous titles were, and “total conversion” mods like the popular Middle-earth game, Third Age: Total War, were simply impossible to create in the new engine.

A digital-only expansion, The Warpath Campaign, was released, focusing on the struggles between the American colonists and the Native American tribes, but that was it. No big expansion, which traditionally would fix the game’s bigger technical problems, was released, surprising and frustrating many players.

Napoleon: Total War
Napoleon: Total War (released in 2010) started life as Empire’s big expansion pack, but the scale of the game soon led CA to turn it into a (more expensive) stand-alone title. The game focuses on the Napoleonic Wars, with the player taking on the role of either Napoleon or one of his many enemies and fighting for control of the continent. The vast scope of Empire was reduced to just Europe (with sub-campaigns focusing on the Italian and Egyptian theatres) and the game was applauded for bringing back focus and a more constrained scope to the franchise. The game also had its own expansion, The Peninsular War, focusing on the military campaign of the Duke of Wellington across Portugal and Spain.

Napoleon was well-received and free of the technical issues that had plagued Empire but also criticised by fans for not being a cheaper expansion to the base game, and also for not porting its bug fixes and technical stability over to the older game.

Total War: Shogun II & Fall of the Samurai
Released in 2011, Total War: Shogun II (the titles were now reversed so all the games in the series would be listed next to one another on online services like Steam) was seen by some as a soft reboot of the series, despite having the same engine as Empire and Napoleon. Returning to the setting of the original ShogunShogun II has a very small, tight and focused campaign map and focuses on presentation, with beautiful period Japanese artwork informing the game’s interface and animated sequences. The focus this time was on interesting battles, with the AI able to far better-handle the more limited avenues for advancing across Japan compared to wide-open Europe.

In this regard, Shogun II was successful and won back some fans to the series who’d been concerned by the situation with Empire and Napoleon. The game’s expansions were also well-received, the digital-only Rise of the Samurai depicting the emergence of the samurai faction in the years prior to the outbreak of war and Fall of the Samurai depicting the Bakumatsu Period of the mid-19th Century, when Japan was forced to modernise at a rate that appalled traditionalists. This expansion, which is the most recently-set Total War game, is also the first to feature automatic weapons such as gatling guns and led to speculation that CA was preparing to move into more advanced times, with the next game focusing on either the American Civil War or even World War I.

Total War: Rome II
As it turned out, CA had other plans. Rome: Total War had arguably been the most popular Total War game released to date and CA decided to return to its setting with their new engine to create an even bigger and more enthralling game. There was a much greater focus on historical realism than the original Rome and the game was going to have a complex strategy mode which required the organisation of provinces into regions, with each region granting specific bonuses and units.

The result was an unmitigated disaster. Released in 2013, Rome II was released in a heavily bugged state, with major graphical problems and near-non-existent AI. The technical problems were deeply embarrassing, forcing CA to release no less than seventeen major patches to try to desperately fix the problems (with only moderate success). The game was also fiercely criticised for its stupendously enormous map, which meant it took half a dozen turns just to walk up the coast of Italy, and the resulting slow pace of gameplay.

Rumours spoke of a rift between CA and Sega (who had published every game in the series since Rome: Total War’s expansion), who had forced CA to release the game before it was ready. This was fiercely denied. CA did swing into action, eventually releasing an entirely new version of the game complete with a new, elaborate campaign based on the War of the Second Triumvirate (the civil war for control of the nascent Empire following Caesar’s death). The “Emperor Edition” fixed most of the technical and AI issues and was given free to every owner of Rome II, but CA’s reputation was badly damaged. Could the series survive its worst launch to date?

Total War: Attila
As it turns out, yes. Released in early 2015, Attila had started life as a Barbarian Invasion-style expansion for Rome II but had grown substantially in the planning into its own title. Unlike Napoleon, which never quite escaped its “overblown expansion pack” feel, Attila easily did so. It was enormous, with an immense scope which was increased further by its own expansion, Age of Charlemagne, which meant the game could now depict the entire Dark Ages period of European history.

The game was critically acclaimed on release. It was free of the problems that had blighted Rome II and was inventive and impressive.  Total War had gotten its mojo back.

Total War: Warhammer, Warhammer II & Warhammer III

Since the beginning of the franchise, fans had suggested that the game’s engine would be a great fit for not just historical battles, but also epic fantasy ones. The mods for Rome and Medieval II had showed the potential of this, particularly the spectacular and popular Third Age: Total War mod which provided a strategic map of Middle-earth and recast the factions as Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, the elves of Lorien etc, all fighting the War of the Ring.

Sega, which had bought CA in 2005, had also recently acquired the rights to the Warhammer fantasy world from Games Workshop. They suggested that CA shift gears and make a game based on the Warhammer world for its next title. CA were keen to do something fresh that would completely invigorate the franchise, and relished the challenges that would come from introducing elements such as flying units and magic to the series. However, they were also concerned about losing fans who were not interested in fantasy games. When Total War: Warhammer was announced, they made it clear that the historical games were going to continue as well, with Warhammer as a side-project, albeit an ambitious and lengthy one.

The result was highly successful. Released in 2016, Total War: Warhammer (alas, they were unable to call it Total Warhammer) was the fastest-selling game in the series and brought in a whole load of fantasy fans who had never sampled the series before. The traditional Total War rules and structure was tweaked to better fit the setting and the four main races (plus the numerous other ones introduced in DLC) gave the series its most diverse roster and feel to date. Some fans complained about the focus on “hero” units, but there was little doubt that the game had reinvigorated the series.

More was to come. In 2017 Total War: Warhammer II was released, expanding the story to incorporate the western continents of the Warhammer world. An optional mode, Mortal Empires, was also released which combined the Warhammer and Warhammer II maps into one massive campaign map, the largest ever officially supported by Creative Assembly. The game had even better reviews than its predecessor, and likewise sold well on release.

After a fairly hefty wait, Total Warhammer III was finally released in 2022, completing the trilogy. A further optional mode, Immortal Empires, combined all three games into one mega-map covering the entire globe of the Old World, making easily the largest game in the Total War series to date.

Total War: Three Kingdoms

Although the Total Warhammer trilogy had brought the series to a massive new audience - lifetime sales of the series would double in the seven years after Warhammer's release, compared to the sixteen years prior - Creative Assembly were keen to assure fans that the historical games would continue.

In 2019 they released Total War: Three Kingdoms, based on the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history. The new game was marketed heavily in China, where the series had relatively little traction beforehand, and picked up huge sales as a result. However, traditional fans of the series were concerned about the introduction of "hero" units into a historical title, with some complaining of "fantasy content" creeping into what should have been a historical-only title. Despite these concerns, the game sold well and generated a significant amount of minor expansions and DLC.

Total War Sagas: Thrones of Britannia & Troy

Due to the critical acclaim given to some of the shorter, focused games in the series, CA decided to develop a spin-off series - Total War Saga - which would feature much more focused conflicts. This resulted in Thrones of Britannia, based on the conflict between the native British kingdoms and the invading Danes in the 9th and 10th centuries, and Troy, based on the Trojan War.

Both games attracted only modest acclaim, and Troy's sales were muddied by a deal which saw the game given away for free during its first 24 hours on sale, resulting in 7 million downloads. Thrones of Britannia may have also suffered from featuring an over-exposed period of history in the series, with both the Viking Invasion expansion for Medieval: Total War and the Kingdoms expansion for Medieval II: Total War featuring extensive campaigns based on the British Isles. Troy's critical reception was again muted by fans of the historical games again noting the creeping onset of fantasy elements into a historical game (although the mostly-mythical nature of the Trojan War makes that more understandable in this context).

The Future

The healthy sales of the Warhammer games have assured that CA will have the freedom to continue the Total War series for many years to come.

In late 2023 they will release Total War: Pharaoh, set during the Great Bronze Age Collapse period of Mediterranean history and focusing on Egypt. The game appears to be operating at a smaller scale than the likes of Warhammer III or Three Kingdoms, but at a larger scale than the Total War Saga titles. It may represent an attempt to gauge sales interest in a purely historical title and to see if these can match the enormous sales of the fantasy games. Fans have frequently requested Medieval III or Empire II as the next game in the series, but these titles would require a significant investment that CA may not feel comfortable making until they know they can match the sales of their other games.

Although the Warhammer trilogy is concluded, Creative Assembly are keeping their eye on further opportunities to exploit fantasy properties. In a documentary made by Noclip in 2020, CA representatives voiced both J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium and Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books as possible properties they could look at developing in the future as Total War titles, and between properties such as Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time, there's no shortage of possible franchises that could be exploited (and almost all of these have appeared in the form of mods for the existing titles).

Whatever the case, the future of one of PC gaming’s longest-lived gaming franchise seems very bright.

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