Total War has rapidly become one of the most reliable strategy franchises around, and with good reason: Creative Assembly’s long-running series excels at representing large chunks of human history defined by conflict in depth. Moreover, the studio isn’t afraid of exploring often overlooked settings and wars, especially in recent times.
With Total War: Pharaoh, Creative Assembly Sofia’s mission was to bring the historical series back to the massive scope of titles such as Total War: Three Kingdoms (2019) or Attila (2015) after the two Total War Saga games released so far (Thrones of Brittania and Troy) dialed back the size of the experiences to focus on more specific time periods instead of bigger eras. That change also came with lower price tags, but longtime fans’ opinions were all over the place in both instances.
In a way, Pharaoh is also tasked with putting the focus back on the mainline Total War series after the highly successful Warhammer games onboarded tons of new fans. So the first obstacle this installment has to overcome is that of enticing players with the Egypt setting right before the mysterious (and largely unexplored in fiction) Late Bronze Age collapse that affected a big area of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
Meet Ramesses III and his stats.
In typical Total War fashion, the game features two big modes: Campaign and Battles. If you’re simply interested in the simulation and control of enormous battles, you can jump right into Battles either offline or online, but the meat and potatoes of Total War games has always been their gigantic campaigns, where the historical setting and the era’s biggest events play out and players are tasked with rising to power.
The first of Pharaoh’s problems is that the scope seems rather limited given the main subject matter. The factions available, which also house different leaders and starting territories, are strictly the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and the Hittites. Given the unusual setting, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity, especially since this is a full-priced Total War release.
The biggest question mark is that of the enigmatic Sea People, a hypothesized seafaring confederation which attacked ancient Egypt and other regions of the Mediterranean during this era. In the game, they’re treated as a late-game threat which disrupts the ongoing wars and political intrigue surrounding the current pharaoh. However, they aren’t playable right now, and we obviously have to wonder if they’re cut content for later DLC packs or the planned Campaign expansion.
Get used to navigating the Campaign map and studying the other factions.
When it comes to Battles, things haven’t changed much. Those familiar with the Total War series won’t have new major mechanics to learn besides adjusting to the dynamic weather system, which can greatly affect the units’ performance in battle. Sieges also play out largely the same, though the AI of groups seems to be better at finding their way around buildings and through streets this time around.
The turn-based Campaign map and systems, however, add quite a lot of variance to the traditional Total War structure. The most important objectives remain keeping cities and settlements happy and making all the resources flow to support any military or political ambitions, but becoming the next glorious pharaoh and conquering the lands of Egypt is anything but easy.
Civil wars are common and offer the chance to seize power and valuable positions close to the pharaoh, and all the political climbing (as well as the ongoing management of the kingdom and the battles) is affected by the legitimacy points you gather through certain actions, the Ancient Legacy chosen to inspire those who follow your ruler, and how you choose to navigate the unfolding chaos affecting all of civilization. All this works on top of the already dense systems and mechanics that guide Total War campaigns, and while the game’s advisor tries his best to guide veteran and new players alike through most of it, many sub-systems and peculiarities require lots of reading and blind experimentation that can be daunting during the first few hours.
Ramesses III charges into battle.
Regardless, it all ultimately circles back to Battles and how you choose to build your armies and approach each encounter. Being a peaceful faction only gets you so far, and so you must expand your borders and defend your own. During campaigns, there’s the famous option to “auto resolve” conflicts, and this is the recommended choice for any battle that looks like an assured win or defeat (including sieges), since even the easiest of battles can last several minutes and the hours-long campaigns often feel endless.
As for the presentation, the Total War series is known for paying special attention to the units and sceneries’ finer details despite the massive scale of the battles as long as your PC is beefy enough. That still rings true in Total War: Pharaoh, though the graphics and some of the underlying tech are starting to feel a bit outdated in late 2023 even with all the settings raised to Ultra. The final result is oddly uneven, with the Campaign map as well as certain Battle scenarios looking stunning while others feel like they’re missing proper lighting and textures.
Likewise, certain sound effects and barks from leaders can also feel undercooked and even repetitive. Thankfully, the overall soundscape manages to capture the immersive chaos of the fiercest battles, especially when certain weather conditions arrive. One of the highlights of Pharaoh is the original soundtrack, which enhances the calm moments spent in the Campaign map and the more stressful sections of societal collapse and loud violence.
Sieges are the most exciting battles you’ll experience in this game.
Total War games have always been famously taxing even on high-end hardware, but Pharaoh doesn’t seem to be more demanding than its immediate predecessors, though the often less graphically complex setting and units definitely help. Of course, modern cards and CPUs should fare absolutely fine on the Ultra preset through even the biggest battles, but watch out for settings such as anti-aliasing x8, which is a tad excessive and totally pointless if you’re playing at 1080p and above.
For the most part, Total War: Pharaoh executes its vision of the Bronze Age collapse well enough, adding innovations wherever it can without shaking the larger formula and sticking to the series’ strengths when it comes to the actual battles rather than building new foundations. This entry isn’t ushering in a new era for the franchise, and one has to wonder how long it can go on doing the same thing and refusing to expand its borders.
TOTAL WAR: PHARAOH VERDICT
Total War: Pharaoh will surely benefit from the shortage of AAA strategy games with real-time battles, but it may play things too safe for the most demanding fans of the series, and given it’s a full-price release, the overall scope lands dangerously close to that of the Total War Saga entries.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Becoming the next pharaoh through well-executed intrigue and plots against my competitors instead of victories over my enemies on the battlefield.
It’s a Total War game through and through
Better AI across the board for Battles
Lots of information about Egypt and its surrounding areas and peoples
Campaign with a unique identity and lots of small intricacies
Limited scope wastes some of the Late Bronze Age’s potential
The game struggles to guide new players through its many systems
Visual presentation could use a substantial upgrade at this point