At its best, the Total War series casts a spell over you. Your empire rises from nothing, surrounded by enemies who are poised to trample it into the dust. Each decision on the strategic level is a gamble on the immediate future, where “one more turn” isn’t just a stepping-stone to a new upgrade, but a perilous step onto thin ice. Each time you take to the battlefield is another do-or-die moment, a possible Hastings or Austerlitz that can open the road to conquest or plunge you into a desperate fight for survival.
But the Total War series has also been defined by massive, abrupt swings in quality. While the series has been on a linear trajectory in terms of graphics, the quality of the games underlying those vivid battlefield vistas has varied wildly. Total War at its best is interactive Kurosawa and Kubrick. At its worst, it’s a middle-school history textbook as told by Drunk History and filmed by the cast and crew of The Patriot.
So before the series (temporarily) leaves history behind for the grimdark faux-history of Warhammer fantasy, let’s put into order the times that Total War was at its best… and why sometimes its lows were so very low. We’ll save the worst for last, because if there’s one thing that every Total War fan loves, it’s an argument over which games were the biggest disappointments.
Total War: Shogun 2
Claim to Fame: Of all the Total Wars, it’s the Total-est.
Hidden Flaw: Secretly conservative and unambitious
If you could only play one Total War, if you could only have one for your desert island exile, it should be this one. Shogun 2 is where all the series’ best ideas have been gathered into one game, and married to a gorgeous aesthetic inspired by its setting. And with its Fall of the Samurai expansion, Shogun 2 also turned into the best gunpowder-era Total War.
All Total War games have had impressive graphics for their time, but Shogun 2 remains beautiful even today. Its look owes more to films like Kurosawa’s Ran and Kagemusha than to reality, and gives each battle a vivid, dreamlike quality that’s unmatched by any other Total War. Once the battle is joined and the last reserves have been committed, Shogun 2 is a game where you can just zoom to ground-level and watch individual sword duels play out amidst all the lovely carnage.
The series’ return to Japan and its self-contained strategic context also solves a lot of other problems. The factions are all roughly balanced because they are from the same civilization and share the same level of development. The narrow and mountainous geography of Japan also gives the perennially hapless campaign AI a chance to succeed.
No other Total War game does a better job combining the fantasy, the history, and the game design. This is the series at its very best, its arrival at a goal it started chasing with Shogun and Rome.
Total War: Attila
Claim to Fame: Tries (and succeeds!) new ideas
Hidden Weakness: It’s about as balanced as Caligula
After Rome 2, it was hard to be optimistic about the future of Total War. Shogun 2 succeeded because it took a couple good ideas from Napoleon Total War and ignored just about everything else the series had tried since Rome. Was the future of Total War just going to be repackaged hits?
Attila takes a look at that trend and veers off in a new direction. It changes the basic rules of the Total War series in order to do justice to the death of the Roman world. Cities burn, regions are devastated, and an endless onslaught of nomadic tribes attempt to burrow their way into the Roman empire and carve out a place in the sun. Meanwhile, Roman generals turn against successive emperors, and the Huns hit like a tsunami.
Attila might be the most inventive and exciting design Total War has ever had, particularly at the strategic level. For once, dynastic politics don’t feel like a waste of time, and the different types of factions give the game a real “clash-of-civilizations” feel. And unlike the original Barbarian Invasion expansion for Rome, Attila gives the non-Romans their historical due so they aren’t just interchangeable hordes descending on the fading light of civilization.
That said, there’s no other Total War game where you can feel the darkness drawing-in the way it does in Attila. It lends a real sense of gravity to those battles. Lose a battle in earlier Total War games, and you suffered a setback. In Attila, a lost battle likely means that a city and its inhabitants are about to disappear. No pressure.
Medieval: Total War
Claim to Fame: Perfects the early Total War design
Hidden Weakness: There’s not all that much to that design
In its second outing, the Total War series attained near-perfection. I’m still not sure a more balanced Total War game has ever materialized. The Risk-style map is easy for the AI to manage, and the different starting positions of each kingdom and empire allows for some true AI superpowers to form and challenge players late in the game.
To this day, I have an almost Pavlovian distaste for all things Byzantine because of an especially painful game in which they slowly, inexorably rolled my English empire back from Poland and Egypt all the way to the Channel. Yet those bitter memories are tempered by all the apocalyptic battles we fought along the way as my increasingly beleaguered armies fought a doomed holding action across Europe against the tide of imperial-purple death.
The other thing Medieval did brilliantly was portray a world completely torn to pieces by religious strife. Jihads and Crusades marched back and forth across the Mediterranean, each a terrible force in the right hands but driven by a ceaseless need for conquest that almost invariably led them to disaster. The logic that governs other military campaigns (most importantly, knowing when to stop) doesn’t work with militant religious expeditions. So huge armies of zealots march to their death repeatedly over the course of this game, throwing the game into chaos.
The role of the Pope in Medieval: Total War also deserves special mention as one of the most enjoyably infuriating villains of any strategy game. Just when things are starting to go well for a Catholic ruler, the Pope can always be trusted to screw things up for the next ten years, which makes Medieval a pretty good argument for the Peace of Westphalia.
Medieval is a triumph of simplicity, and it took a decade for Total War to come close to matching it.
Napoleon: Total War
Claim to Fame: The greatest hits of the horse-and-musket era
Hidden Weakness: Has very little to do with actual Napoleonic warfare.
On the heels of the disappointing Empire, Napoleon did two things to right the listing Total War ship. First, it got specific about its era. Rather than being a vague pastiche of 18th century warfare, it focused on the armies of the Napoleonic wars and the career of the man who gave the era its name. That makes for a better and more manageable strategy game than Empire but, it also means something far more important: extravagantly detailed military uniforms!
Napoleon still doesn’t completely come to grips with warfare in the horse-and-musket era. When the campaign begins, none of the foremost powers of Europe have figured out that you can have two and even three ranks of soldiers firing simultaneously if the guys in front take a knee. It takes years of research for someone to have this idea, apparently. Grenadiers also throw grenades at close range, which is Total War at its most endearingly literal.
But it doesn’t matter because Napoleon is such a beautiful, wistful game. The lighting is more dramatic than in Empire, giving all the action the look of the great oil-paintings that memorialize many of the pivotal moments of the Napoleonic Wars. Smoke billows and hangs over lines of blue-coated French soldiers, soldiers march into battle to the sound of fife and drum, and waves of cavalry dash themselves against dense squares of infantry.
After the unfocused Empire, Napoleon gave people what they wanted: huge, bloody battles between fabulously-dressed European armies and the chance to play through one of the most astonishing military careers in history. With its Peninsular War DLC, Napoleon also helped establish a trend of odd, experimental expansion campaigns that would eventually help the series to break new ground with games like Attila.