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Thank the gods, Total War: Pharaoh will have a dedicated tutorial campaign

Hip hip Horus

The character screen for Ramesses in Total War: Pharaoh
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Sega

"Usually, when a player is going through a strategy game, they figure out how things work by trial and error," Total War: Pharaoh's game director Todor Nikolov tells me at this year's Gamescom. "And once they do, they feel the urge to start a brand-new campaign because they've already figured out that portion of the gameplay."

Sitting across the table, these words ring frighteningly true for me. Unbeknownst to Nikolov, he has just described the exact experience I had playing the 50-turn campaign preview for Pharaoh a week earlier to an absolute tee. Unlike the far more knowledgeable brain of frequent RPS contributor Nic Reuben, I am a complete babe in arms when it comes to the Total War juggernaut machine, and it took me attempting to play two other games in the series (Three Kingdoms and Troy) and several restarts in Pharaoh itself before I felt just about confident that I (very vaguely) knew what I was doing. At the time, I thought, 'Man alive, how is Total War still so rubbish at teaching players how it works?' But when I speak to Nikolov a week later, he has some very welcome news for me: there's going to be a dedicated tutorial campaign where players can (hopefully) find their feet. Music to my ears.

"For Pharaoh, we're introducing a separate tutorial campaign, where you get to play with Ramesses, and the whole thing is story-driven," Nikolov explains. He assures me despite essentially being the same set-up as the main campaign, "it's quite different" to what I struggled through in the preview build, which essentially encourages you to take part in a couple of fights before letting you loose in the plains of Sinai and letting you have at it.

Instead, the tutorial campaign will acquaint you with its various systems "in more of an on-rails fashion" with unique voice lines, interactions and specific events that players will need to complete before proceeding. Nikolov knows full well that most players "don't have the patience" to read the extensive in-game encyclopaedia or, indeed, the tool tips and overlays that appear with a tap of F1, so they'll also be including a suite of customisation options that change the way Pharaoh behaves.

A desert battle scene in Total War: Pharaoh
A desert battle scene in Total War: Pharaoh
A desert battle scene in Total War: Pharaoh
Warriors fight in an intense battle in Total War: Pharaoh
Real-time tactical battles are hectic and require careful planning. Troop stamina is more important than ever, and their armour will degrade over time as well. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Sega

"If you're a new player, you can give yourself more resources, you can make the AI more docile, you can turn down or switch off altogether the end game escalation feature - the boss event of the campaign, the Sea Peoples - and you can just create for yourself this safe space where you just explore the game," he says. "Once you have figured out how different things work, you can play again with the default settings. With this kind of safe space experience, hopefully the player will persevere through the campaign for a longer time."

He and his team at Creative Assembly Sofia experimented with something similar in 2020's Total War Saga: Troy, Nikolov adds, but most of his praise is centred on the work done by his UK colleagues with this year's Total War: Warhammer III. "Warhammer III has an amazing tutorial campaign with a lot of specific art and interactions created entirely for it, so this is sort of what we're going for," he says.

Longtime Total Warham players will be able to tell you much better than I can if Warhammer III was successful on this front, but even in my relative ignorance, it's heartening to hear how CA Sofia have been trying to tackle this clear and obvious problem to broaden Pharaoh's appeal.

The campaign map in Total War: Pharaoh
The campaign map during a prosperous era is bright and colourful, and you'll regularly see lions and hippos nosing around the plains. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Sega

"It's quite a challenge, because we need to create a game that responds to new players, as well as to veterans," says Nikolov. "The basic challenge that we have been facing is how to gate the information, because in Total War, there are a whole load of systems that interact with each other. Most of them are introduced from the get-go, so [new players are] overwhelmed with information. For a normal campaign, we have introduced some gating where features are unlocked over the first 12 turns. For the tutorial campaign, we have gated them even further. So we make sure that the player gets, you know, less of a chunk of information being fed to them."

He tells me there were a lot of different ideas and versions they went through of how they'd go about setting up these gates for newcomers. Eventually, though, they realised that the key to unlocking this particular puzzle of interlocking systems was the story.

"We decided that it's very important to have a sort of scope narrative," Nikolov continues, "so that the player have both the feeling that they're in this area of the game where they're safe, and they're learning. But at the same time, there is a story that drives them onward to the next objective and the next thing that they have to accomplish."

The diplomacy menu in Total War: Pharaoh
Making friends is critical early on, as you'll quickly run out of stone to upgrade your buildings and develop your cities if you don't strike up trade agreements. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Sega

I could feel some of this in Pharaoh's choice of Ancient Legacies, which give you overarching goals to achieve throughout the course of your campaign. You could, for example, chose to emulate the great Pharaoh Kufu from the fourth dynasty, who built great wonders like the pyramids. However, plonking these down on the campaign map yourself will require amassing huge resources to pull them off, which will naturally affect the kind of decisions you end up making versus, say, choosing a legacy in the vein of Thutmose The Conqueror, who (can you guess) was all about expansion and city-sacking.

You can also feel it in the cadence of Pharaoh's Shemsu Hor festivities - a regular window of court jostling where seats that come with powerful buffs attached to them are all up for grabs every sixth turn of the campaign - assuming you've got enough legitimacy to claim it for your own, that is. If you do make it into power, you'll be able to use your influence at court to suss out schemes and threats against you and others, and you can make requests of other court members to earn their trust, or, you know, stab 'em in the back with a well (sometimes literally) executed plot. In fairness, you can still make requests of individual court members even if you don't hold a position yourself, and Ramesses in particular is a great character for exploring how influential the court can become during a campaign, as he gets two court actions per turn, rather than one.

Access to the court unlocks once you've chosen your mode of royal tradition - that is, either becoming a Pharaoh or a Hittite Great King - which came relatively early on in my preview build. Surprisingly, your choice of faction leader won't necessarily lock you into one path or the other. If, as Ramesses, you choose to start invading northern Anatolia, for example, that would open the Hittite tradition to him and allow you to turn your back on his Egyptian heritage, opening up the Hittite court to him and its different set of positions. Alas, your choice royal path is permanent, so you won't be able to change your mind later on.

A top down view of the campaign map and its building menus in Total War: Pharaoh
A night-time scene in the campaign map in Total War: Pharaoh
Building the right outposts in your conquered regions is also important, as these can be used to buff your armies as they travel round the map, extending their reach, or providing vital bonuses. They also tend to be the first thing that gets sacked when invaders come knocking. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Sega

Then there are the Pillars Of Civilisation, which chart the wider stability of the region as time marches forward. You begin in an era of prosperity, resulting in a flourishing campaign map with a brighter, more hopeful colour palette. Eventually, however, the collapse of the Bronze Age begins to rear its head - an event you cannot prevent entirely, I'm told, but which you can try and stave off for as long as possible if you're smart. Even during the course of my 50 turn limit, raiders from the aforementioned Sea Peoples started making their presence known on the map, taking potshots at my coastal cities and raiding the outpost buildings I'd constructed between larger cities. As stability decreases, the Pillars will slide further into disarray. The mood and colour palette of the map will grow darker and more apocalyptic, and natural disasters will start wreaking havoc on the land alongside more frequent raids from your pals across the ocean.

Combine these all together, and Total War: Pharaoh emerges with a much stronger and more robust narrative backbone in tow compared to the other Total War games I tried in preparation for this. I'm still not entirely confident that I'd be able to wield all of them to my advantage, but even I can see that they provide vital support and structure to the rest of its accompanying systems, helping to give some shape to its revamped real-time tactical battles (which Nic explains in greater detail over here) and returning diplomacy options, its extensive religious strands and deity-related buffs and its skill tree-esque royal decrees, as well as the usual business of building up and fortifying your cities and centres of culture.

Yes, it may have taken me a lot of trial and error to get to even this baby steps stage of Total War-ing, but if Nikolov and his team can make good on their promise of creating a safe learning space to dip your toes into its veritable flood of fresh ideas, this might finally be the War that everyone can enjoy, newcomers and old timers alike. I look forward to putting that tutorial campaign through its paces when Total War: Pharaoh launches next month.

For more of the latest news and previews from Gamescom 2023, head to our Gamescom 2023 hub. You can also find everything announced at Opening Night Live right here.

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