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Total War: Pharaoh may not have war hippos, but it has fire, shoving, and deep history

Creative Assembly Sofia "wanted to make a game about the collapse of the Bronze Age”

Ramesses going into battle on a chariot in Total War: Pharaoh
Image credit: Sega

Despite a name evoking the opulent leaders of one of history's most famous (and, as I’d soon learn, famously misunderstood) civilisations, Total War: Pharaoh's aspirations don’t start and end with ancient Egypt. Moreso, the next mainline historical Total War aims to capture the struggles and instability of a time period for which ancient Egypt simply had the best seat in the house. “We wanted to make a game about the collapse of the Bronze Age,” Creative Assembly Sofia’s Milcho Vasilev, lead battle designer on Total War: Pharaoh, tells me. “There’s a lot of mystery surrounding it, and we wanted to uncover it.”

Egypt, as the only large empire that survived the collapse, represented a natural lens through which to portray this tumultuous era. Pharaoh won’t constrain players to just the four Egyptian lords it offers, either. There’ll also be two lords from the Hittite empire, a heavily armoured but rigid presence, and two from the Canannite underdogs of Northern Anatolia, wiedling a flexible array of diplomacy and subterfuge to keep their heads above water, stuck as they are between two empires. Some liberties are to be expected, of course, but Sofia seem just as excited about busting pop culture myths as they are about bringing to life such a lavish and storied time period.

“We wanted to bring the bronze age to historical Total War for a long time,” says Maya Georgieva, CA Sofia’s creative director. “We dipped our toes in the era for Troy, and solved some of the issues there. But to fully do it justice we needed a wider scope. A classical Total War historical game, and this is what Total War: Pharaoh aspires to be.”

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Speaking as a long term fan, loving the Total War series also means learning to accept a lot, like small iterations as huge positives, steps backwards to match those forward, and the whiplash that comes from jumping through time, between reality and fantasy. As tactical options from one era become unviable or impossible, they take entire dimensions of battle with them. Sometimes, their replacements fail to captivate. Sofia’s last title, Troy, could feel frustratingly limited on launch, and while the dedication to an era with scant ranged troops, scanter cavalry, and scantest artillery was commendable, battles could be bland affairs. Sofia aren’t giving up the commitment to Bronze Age tech, but if the new additions they’ve made work as solidly as hinted at in the three preview battles I played, Pharaoh could well end up being a landmark title in terms of revolutionising the flow of Total War’s battles.

These battle changes begin with high level tweaks. Sofia have lowered the pace of battles so things become more reliant on decision making, and less on fast reaction time. Both flanking and stamina are now even more important, and the armour system from Troy has been expanded on. One brand new mechanic is armour degradation. Armour in Pharaoh has not just a value, but a quality which will determine how much fighting it can withstand before losing effectiveness. “This allows us, for example, to have heavily armoured troops in the lower unit tiers, which we couldn’t really do before,” says Vasilev. “Units with low quality armour that’s only effective against the first few hits. And now light troops can do more hit and run tactics.”

The city Men-Nefer under seige in Total War: Pharaoh, during a sandstorm
Image credit: Sega

Another big new feature is dynamic weather and terrain. In one of the battles I played, I was beset by a sandstorm, reducing the effectiveness of my ranged troops, increasing fatigue gain, and even causing gradual attrition damage. This new weather can manifest as anything from sweltering heat that knackers heavy troops rapidly, to rainfall that transforms dry terrain into mud. And then there’s the fire; fire that not only spreads depending on the weather, but can gut forests, and even sections of a settlement.

“The forest burning is going to remove the forest terrain. Same goes for the tall grass. If you think there might be ambushing units, you can set it on fire, and of course, if there are units there, they will suffer damage,” Vasilev tells me. “It plays an especially huge role in terms of settlements.” In settlement battles, fire can block off choke points, or open others, and the damage it causes will translate to the campaign map, necessitating repair costs and quick measures to deal with an angry populace.

“You can order some of your units to push forward, not just kill the enemy, but actually push them out of their position - maybe into a burning forest!”

Those choke points, though, might not end up offering the easy wins they have in previous titles. Special maneuvers, from shield walls to mixed formations, have existed in the series for some time. What’s brand new for Pharaoh is the option to have certain units retreat or push forward without disengaging from combat in the traditional sense. With the right training, some troops can push a defending unit right out of a chokepoint, allowing allies to sweep in from the sides. Or, they can fall back without turning tail, perhaps luring enemies into a trap. It’s a relatively minor sounding set of options on the surface, but the ramifications here for battlefield control are huge.

“You can order some of your units to push forward, not just kill the enemy, but actually push them out of their position,” says Vasilev, “maybe into a burning forest! Or, away from the gate of the settlement they’re trying to defend, so your other troops can swoop in from the sides and flank them.”

Throw in extra focus on keeping combat animations matched and visceral, and I can say confidently that even if the campaign map doesn’t offer any real surprises, Pharaoh is doing some real heavy lifting in terms of bringing historical Total War forward with the times. Both Georgieva and Vasilev grin when I suggest that they’re having fun keeping the UK branch of CA on their toes. Although, for their part, it’s clear OG CA welcome and support this kind of experimentation. To look forward though, Sofia had to first look back to really understand the time period they were working with.

A shot of a sunset behind palm trees in Total War: Pharaoh
A pitched battle in Total War: Pharaoh with infantry meeting on a plain, and palm trees and grasses burning
Image credit: Sega

“For me and a lot of the designers, the research phase is the most enjoyable, because this is where we really immerse ourselves in the topic,” Georgieva tells me. “One of the takeaways for me was, despite ancient Egypt being one of the most famous cultures, it’s still not thoroughly understood and known to the general public, because it’s a mix of things that are spread apart by centuries. Between the building of the pyramids and the time of Ramesses, it’s been almost 2000 years! And this is one empire that actually stayed relatively stable throughout all that time. It's amazing.”

“It was fun to also uncover the different tribes and nationalities around the different realms,” continues Georgieva. “The map control here is much more important. In, say, Warhammer, the dwarfs in every region are still the same dwarfs. But here, we wanted to have it so when you enter a new region, you can discover the deities of that region, you can discover the new units that you can recruit. It’s not just about painting the map, but also discovering what lies there.”

“One thing we wanted to improve on Troy, and maybe Total War in general, is to space out settlements more so we don’t get settlement battle fatigue.”

In terms of that map, the three distinct landmasses in the game collectively cover a larger area than Troy, although Georgieva tells me there’s actually less settlements - but this is deliberate. “One thing we wanted to improve on Troy, and maybe Total War in general, is to space out settlements more so we don’t get settlement battle fatigue.” Having more space between settlements, says Georgieva, helped alleviate that. “We really wanted to make the desert, like, a desert,” adds Vasilev. “Yeah, attrition is a big thing, we wanted to make you mindful of where you go,” continues Georgieva.

There are some cultures, though, you might be better off avoiding entirely. Namely, the Sea Peoples: dangerous raiders that sound like they represent Pharaoh’s version of a crisis mode. Sofia calls them “the single greatest threat to your empire”. As nasty as they sound, the team’s exploration into history also resulted in a few fun surprises. “A lot of people think about vikings with their horned helmets, because of the operas. And historians say: That’s useless! It’s a myth!,” grins Vasilev. “And that’s true - for vikings! But the Sea Peoples actually did! You can imagine what it was like for the ancient societies to see those horned helmets. The Hittites too, used to put antlers on their helmets to look more imposing.”

“There is some crazy headgear going on!” adds Georgieva, although both her and Vasilev are quick to point out that, no, they’re “not selling hats”. They’re also keen to clarify that a few bits of historically odd headgear is as wild as Pharaoh is ever likely to get. “Characters are not these larger than life supernatural beings that we’ve seen for example in, Troy or in fantasy games,” says Georgieva. “There are still faction leaders, they do not fight alone on the battlefield, they’re generals that are leading units in armies.”

A shot of the ancient city Men-nefer in Total War: Pharaoh, under a blue sky with the great pyramids in the background
Image credit: Sega
A wide shot of the peaceful city of Men-nefer at night in Total War: Pharaoh
A capture point in a square in Men-nefer in Total War: Pharaoh
Image credit: Sega

They also have “absolutely no plans” for an expansion in the same vein as Troy’s Mythos, which brought fantastical creatures and magic to the setting. “Not that it's not possible, but I can tell you that the tone of the game we’ve selected is history first and foremost,” says Georgieva. “With Troy, the game was based on a mythological period,” clarifies Vasilev, “here, we want to show the real history of Egypt and the Bronze Age.”

This also means, absolutely devastating as it is, the wonderful bathing hippos we were shown gallivanting in a river will likely remain a terrain feature. “I am not sure where exactly everyone is getting those war hippos from,” says Vasilev. “You are by far not the first one asking about it, and I’m starting to enjoy the idea more and more.”

I can’t fully say at this point whether the changes coming to Pharaoh will make it a Total War worth getting excited about for those that don’t already play every entry habituality. As interesting as the weather and tactical changes were in the preview battles I experienced, it's difficult to get a real sense of the game’s flow playing those battles ripped out of context. Either way, it’s clear the series is lucky to have a team like Sofia, who may have spent a long time thinking about sacred cats recently, but evidently have far less time for sacred cows.

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