Nobody’s gonna pretend that Total War is a pit of historical accuracy. We all know they take several hundred liberties with their subject matter, placing fun above absolute veracity, and often ignore facts in name of spectacle. But nobody's going to pretend that makes Total War bad, because it sure is damn fun -- the final product is an enjoyable and stunning take on history that manages to capture the feel of the depicted era, giving you a setting then allowing you to do whatever you want within it.
That focus on the setting is one of Total War's main strengths, but also what makes it so hard to rank properly. People naturally gravitate towards themes they enjoy and adopt a herd mentality towards titles, so a samurai Total War will always rank higher for most people than a Napoleonic game, even if the latter was better than the former (it isn't).
GameWatcher's List of The Best Total War Games
As such, we decided to rank the Total War games based purely on gameplay and thematic analysis, with none of that pesky herd mentality. Yes, Rome II had a terrible launch, but after nearly a decade of non-stop support, it is also a fantastic game that still consistently outranks every other title in the historical franchise besides Three Kingdoms. So with all that in mind, let's put the debate to rest: what are The Best Total War Games?
- Napoleon: Total War
- Total War: Three Kingdoms
- Shogun 2: Total War
- Total War: Rome 2
- Total War: Warhammer II
Napoleon: Total War
The Napoleonic Wars are an integral part of the study of warfare, when the French that said “no” to multiple beheaded absolutist wanna-bes surrendered to an Italian-blooded Emperor (Napoleon's family hailed from Tuscany and he was born in Corsica, which only became French territory in 1769 -- if Napoleon had been born mere months earlier, he would have been an Italian citizen).
Napoleon is widely recognised as one of the greatest military minds to have ever existed, taking the staunch defiance of Britain and the combined arms of every nation in Europe to take him down. They even imprisoned ol’ Bonnie on an island, but he came back for a while before being exiled to another, more distant isle. The guy was relentless, and the (military) world (at least) is better off for it.
Napoleon: Total War -- in addition to having the best naval combat in the franchise’s entire history -- also manages to utterly perfectly capture the atmosphere and climate of this momentous military period. From the hot sands of Egypt to the frozen tundras of Russia, from the waters of Gibraltar to the hills of England, the game's beautiful graphics and effects for the first time elevated the franchise into a bonafide graphical beauty, best exemplified in naval battles as ships shake and heave with each cannon shot, their broadsides tearing at each other as wood and cloth fly through the air. It was the moment the series at last became a tactical and truly visual masterpiece.
The game also benefits from having one of the most realistic campaign movement and weather systems in the franchise, thanks to the short timespans of each turn. In addition, the majestic music, the unbelievable perks of his generals, and the absolutely spot on voicework of Stéphane Cornicard manage to create the ultimate impression of the legendary leader’s influence, and uniquely capture his legacy that changed the face of military tactics forever.
Unfortunately, the actual campaign and unit mechanics were already a bit dated when N:TW was developed, inheriting many systems from the old Rome and Medieval II Total Wars and the very buggy Empire: Total War. The end result was an opaque and slightly slow title, which looked and performed beautifully, but played badly. For that reason, Napoleon sinks pretty quickly in any modern list of the best Total War games.
(Fun fact: Napoleon was not that short. He was actually 1.69m, which is taller than the period’s average. The confusion comes from the fact that France’s measurement system of feet was different from the British standard, and that the Emperor’s Imperial Guard was composed of gigantic soldiers much taller than normal folk.)
Total War: Three Kingdoms
New isn't always best, and Three Kingdoms proves it. A fantastic game in its own right, the tale of China's most epic period brings all the latest advancements in Total War tech, but also brings some of the most vanilla gameplay in the franchise.
The Three Kingdoms period was an era of advancement and bloodshed -- in the space of 60 years, it is estimated China lost 40 million people and developed technology ranging from wheelbarrows and pump irrigation systems to repeating crossbows and self-directing south-pointing chariots. It was also a period of strategy -- the country devolved into a massive Civil War where several warlords claimed the area formerly ruled by the Han empire, enacting Darwinism in a scale unprecedented in military circles.
While TW:3K captures the unbreakable bond of Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei or the warrior skills of Lü Bu, it, unfortunately, fails quite badly on the strategy part. The title gamefies and simplifies mechanics to the breaking point, making units and commanders unable to adopt simple stances like a cavalry chevron or order troops to loosen up their spacing without a special skill or character in the army. Contrast that to Rome II's unit abilities, which featured half a dozen different stances ranging from defensive and attacking testudos to spear walls and chevron and diamond formations, and Three Kingdom's tactical offering is a drastic step back.
Add to that the reduction of army sizes from 20 to 18 units, the limitation imposed by the retinue system, and the painfully similar roster that manages to be more repetitive than Shogun 2's, and you got a strategic shallower game than its predecessors. Concepts like espionage, the reworked diplomacy system, and the brilliant character-interaction mechanics are things that I definitely want to see back in future Total Wars, but the simplified strategy and tactical gameplay can go away and never ever come back.
Shogun 2: Total War
Shogun 2 is unique among Total War’s newest entries, as it was the last entry in the franchise to feature all factions as even-footed entities. Sure, you have things like better bonuses or starting positions, but all clans feature roughly the same unit roster and buildings that allow every player to match everyone else but the Shogunate from the start.
While every Total War title is accused of catering to Hollywoodian expectations and portrayals, Shogun is actually the worst offender in this category. Black-clad ninjas, full sized battalions of katana units and cavalry, and speared Yari Ashigaru fighting in perfectly rectangular formations are a few of the many, many liberties the game takes that strips the period from its historical particularities, and dilutes it into easily understandable formulas.
While accuracy is not the subject matter of this article, Shogun II’s authenticity suffers from those changes as well. Popular view of the samurai period often doesn’t involve large scale battles, and the few ones that pierce the cultural veil tend to be a myriad of scattered soldiers in the woods fighting not as units, but as individuals. Curiously, that is actually how it happened -- warfare in Feudal Japan was severely less focused in tactics and division formation, and instead placed a critical focus on single combat and individual honour. It took them over 200 years to start to meekly use cavalry charges, and even when organised strategies became common form near the end of the Shogunate period, the influence of bushido’s individual mentality was strongly felt. Shogun II’s shoehorning of Japanese warfare into the molds of perfectly lined units forming spear walls challenges the era’s authenticity, while hundreds of cavalry flanking armies on the field goes contrary to the historical public image of Japan.
Nonetheless, the game’s atmosphere is wonderful and so is its gameplay. Unit fights are a joy to behold, and I've had epic siege defenses where a single surviving samurai made a last stand diligently cutting down dozens of enemies scaling the walls for an unbelievably hard-fought victory. Furthermore, the use of agents like ninjas and geisha on the strategic map change the course of the campaign like no other Total War game, and the technological gap brought in the mid to late game by allying with European powers with access to gunpowder is unmatched in the rest of the franchise. It is easily one of the best and most engaging Total Wars available, and the visuals, art, and especially music help it all tie together to create one amazing experience.
Total War: Rome 2
Rome is a favourite subject to a lot of folk, from tactical geniuses like Caesar himself and Napoleon all the way to assholes like Hitler. Every Archeology and History class in universities are packed full when the subject is Romans, as everyone wants a piece of that sweet little Senātus Populusque Rōmānus.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Rome 2 ruffles as many feathers with every little stumble it makes. While initially plagued by severe issues during a bad launch, the game has come leaps and bounds since its horrendous release, and by this point it stands proud among the top three Total War games in existence.
That is not to say it is perfect. Carthaginian, Libyan, Greek (and by a certain extent, Egyptian) troops feel like copy pastes of each other. Artillery fires explosive pots of greek fire. Barbarians are equipped with heavy onagers. Anything that is not Rome is significantly misguided.
But that all becomes moot when you play as Rome. As the early Italian civilisation, every enemy becomes a difficult yet surmountable obstacle. The maniple is expertly shown in all its glory, and placing infantry formations in accordance to historical tactics proves extremely rewarding. Lines of hastati engage incoming hordes with their hastaes at long range before closing in and holding them back in close combat. Where opposition is strong, principes can be ordered forward to provide support or around the flanks to pincer foes, turning the previous line of battle into a proper killbox. If everything else fails, it comes down to the triarii. These experienced troops can easily hold many times their number, and if positioned behind attacking infantry can instantly cause them to break and rout. It is an amazing display of the Roman ingenuity and tactical brilliance, and it reflects the spectacular way in which they conquered their foes in the early period.
When the Marian Reforms happen, legionaries take the place of manipular legions, and the game becomes significantly less focused on infantry. The transition to fully fledged all-around soldiers reduces the strain of maintaining several types of infantry, and allows legions to start branching out in the variety of specialties that made them so noteworthy. Cavalry, auxiliary troops, and artillery start to be a meaningful part of your armies, and the expansion of Rome finally reaches it’s peak.
More than the technical side of it, what the game really nails is the atmosphere. There is nothing like watching 12,000 troops clash on the field, while hundreds of cavalry charge onto their flanks and plow through ranks of soldiers. Artillery is thoroughly breathtaking, regardless if you’re raining death on charging columns of barbarians or unleashing hell with a full 20-stack legion of onagers laying siege to some city’s walls. The graphics, politics, and music all work together to create an amazing take of what the mighty of Rome feels like. It’s extremely undeserved reputation comes from a bad first impression coupled with mob mentality, but once you get past that, Rome II’s balance between historicity and fun stands out as one of the best Total Wars and Ancient Rome titles around.
Total War: Warhammer II
This is a special mention since it's a fantasy spin-off of the main franchise, but Total Warhammer's success and popularity is simply inescapable -- it has twice the playerbase of Three Kingdoms, and to many, it actually tops all historic titles due to its sheer size and varied roster.
Indeed, Total Warhammer II is a beast of a game -- boasting dozens of different faction, hundreds of different units, and more heroes than you can throw a stick at, Total War's second attempt at a spin-off franchise makes for a very engaging game to play.
The actual campaign is worse than the historical campaigns, thanks to atrocious mission design and terrible balance -- most of them revolve around chasing MacGuffins in the map for 30 hours, before being beset by magically spawning gigantic armies whose sole existence seems to revolve around pissing the player off. It's like the Skaven unbalanced ambushes, but somehow even more frustrating and unfun.
Tactically, however, the game shines. Each faction has a unique roster of units and heroes, giving you multiple choices in the campaign and even more choices in battle. Units differ not only in tier but in niche, allowing you to tackle battles in a myriad of ways against a vast roster of enemies. The only bad thing about tactical battles is the MOBA-like speed with which units die and the unfortunate tendency they have to get stuck against each other without delivering a blow, but those are hopefully things WIII could fix. But even as it stands right now, Total Warhammer II is one of Total War's most accomplished titles, and it rightly dominates the list of many players out there.