Shogun: Total War
Claim to Fame: Laid the groundwork for everything to come
Hidden Weakness: Not a lot built on those foundations here
It’s appropriate that Shogun lands in the middle of this series. It’s the founder of a great strategy game empire, and I have an affection for it that goes far, far beyond the game itself. What Shogun did was almost unimaginable at the time it came out. It let you control an entire strategic campaign, from any side, but also take command of epic real-time battles? It was a dream made real.
Shogun is also a beautiful, elegant game in a way that few of its descendants have managed to replicate. The hand-drawn map with its miniature figurines representing armies and agents deployed in the field, the throne room from which you conducted your diplomatic affairs, the traditional music that played during battles… Shogun does everything possible to make you feel like you’d been transported to another place and time. On the battlefield, where each province has its own unique map, armies wage war over a mythic topography of Japan, where armies fired arrows from sheer mountain slopes and cavalry rolled like thunder down through deep valleys.
It has its flaws and strange touches like little movies showing ninjas dying tragicomic deaths while on missions, or geisha murdering your rivals with the same delicate fastidiousness with which a cat attends its litterbox. The strategic layer itself is very thin, and the near-identical factions were interchangeable. But those issues are nothing compared to how new and amazing this inaugural Total War was.
That Shogun rates so low on this list is a testament to the ways in which the Total War series grew beyond its origins.
Rome: Total War
Claim to Fame: The first “modern” Total War
Hidden Weakness: How much time do you have?
Wait, what the hell is Rome: Total War doing down here? It’s the game that made the Total War series a blockbuster franchise, so how is it one of the low-points of the series?
Simple: Rome is the snake in the Total War garden. It was seductive and promising, but it also introduced a raft of new ideas and complications that were either poorly-conceived or poorly executed. New Total War games came and went, but the rot behind the edifice remained.
Yet there was undeniable greatness here. The sprite-based armies of the first two games were replaced by unbelievably detailed and lifelike armies of individual 3D models that brought history to life as never before. Watching legionaries go leaping over the ramparts of a Greek citadel and into hand-to-hand combat with dense rows of archers, or seeing lines of infantry and cavalry marching across a European plane towards the last army of a barbarian king gave me chills. The Roman endgame, with its sudden plunge into civil war between the Roman faction, may also be the best finale that any Total War campaign has ever managed.
But Rome is also the game where the series developed AI problems that it would consequently prove unable to solve despite repeated efforts. While the gorgeous 3D battle maps were a revelation, the 3D strategic map proved to be a millstone around the neck almost every subsequent Total War game. The AI factions couldn’t use it effectively, nor could they build the kind of advanced empires needed to support high-level units. The strategy half of the Total War equation was practically lost.
Rome was impressive for its time, but it left a legacy of mediocrity. Rome was a huge success in part because it was so gorgeous and atmospheric that nobody noticed the game didn’t work.
Medieval 2: Total War
Claim to Fame: Medieval again but like Rome this time
Hidden Weakness: Medieval again but like Rome this time
This is a tough game to rank because it shares almost all of its flaws with Rome: Total War but without the novelty and freshness that Rome could boast. On the other hand, it does work ever so slightly better than Rome.
That’s partly down to the setting. Rome tells its story from a position of Roman supremacy. The Romans can keep upgrading cities and units until nobody can stop them. The barbarian factions, on the other hand, are operating with a huge series of handicaps, so a lot of the wars are lopsided. Medieval assumes rough parity between the various medieval kingdoms and their armies, and so at least the fighting tends to be good. Toss in some early pike-and-shot warfare in the late stages of the game, and Medieval features a pretty good tactical game by the end.
Still, it’s all stuff that the series had covered in its recent past, but tied to the terrible design for Rome. While it may be a better game than Rome, it’s not memorable like Rome. Rome is a tragic hero, fatally flawed and hugely ambitious. Medieval 2 is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Empire: Total War
Claim to Fame: Total War attempts grand strategy
Hidden Weakness: It fails
This may be the strangest Total War ever made. On the one hand, it’s wildly ambitious. The action takes place across the Americas, India, Europe, and the sea lanes in between. There is technological progress as the Enlightenment paves the way for Industrial Revolution. It’s the first Total War to really try and represent historical complexity, to wrestle with the double-edged swords of progress and imperialism. No, the campaign AI never really got a grasp on the game or the multi-region world map, rendering a lot of this new complexity dead-on-arrival, but Empire gets credit for trying something new.
On the other hand, there may not be another Total War that gives less of a damn about the era it depicts. Regimental uniforms? Empire has never heard of them, but instead imagines 17th century warfare to be something conducted by a bunch of guys wearing identical wool coats dyed different colors. They carry muskets and rifles, but aren’t too clear on their purpose, since the AI just charges with everything it has the moment it spots the enemy. Sailing ships? Empire thinks they, and the wind that powers them, are too complicated, so it reimagines the Age of Sail as a more sluggish version of Sid Meier’s Pirates. A community theater Gilbert and Sullivan revival shows more care and concern for historical detail than Empire. The jury is still out on which is more fun, however.
Rome 2: Total War
Claim to Fame: Remember how much you liked Rome?!
Hidden Weakness: Yes, we do.
Credit where it is due: the Emperor’s Edition made Rome 2 a lot better than it was at launch. On the other hand, when you’ve hit rock-bottom, up is the only direction you can go.
Rome 2 may no longer be the worst Total War game ever made. It works better than Empire does these days. But it remains uninspired, full of systems that don’t really work well together and held hostage by a sprawling map that’s full of empty space and endless delays. Want to sail a fleet from the Adriatic coast of Italy to the tip of Sicily? That will be three turns, please. Want to make like Caesar and invade Gallia? Hope your legion brought their walking shoes, because that’s all they are going to be doing for a while.
Rome 2 somehow dumps everything that made Rome memorable while also losing the refinement that made Shogun 2 the pinnacle of the series. Dynastic politics remain a feature, but without any engaging systems to help manage them. The Roman Civil War strikes like a bolt from the blue, devoid of any feeling that old allies and friends are somehow turning against one another. Even the battles themselves feel like cartoon versions of history, as flaming arrows turn into 2nd century B.C. cluster bombs, and the Rome 2 version of Egypt appears to be on loan from Age of Mythology.
Rome and Empire may have been flawed, but those flaws stemmed from ambition that went beyond “old game, new engine”. Rome 2 aims low and still falls short. If anything can be said for it, it is that Rome 2 is the game that seemed to shake the series from its torpor, leading to the beautiful, series-salvaging chaos of Attila. Ironically, then, the weakest Total War in the series’ history may be the most important one since the first Shogun.