Not-So-Total War

asks if the Total War series has shifted to style over substance

Copyright: Creative Assembly

Copyright: Creative Assembly

There have been a few trends in video games over the past few years that have somewhat perturbed me, but as primarily a strategy gamer, they’ve rarely seeped over into my favourite series. At least, until recently, where some of those features have cropped up in the Total War series.

The Total War series is one of PC’s most popular strategy game franchises, which started with Shogun Total War in June 2000, and the tenth iteration of the game, Total War: Warhammer, is set to release on May 24th. The series combines a detailed birds-eye strategy map with an RTS battle map, on which hundreds of individually modelled soldiers fight, in a style that has become a signature of Total War. As new iterations of the title have been brought out, the breadth and complexity of the game has been added to, including naval battles, fleshed out family trees and full-on political wrangling.

However, there have been some developments that have detracted from that grand scope of warfare and empire-building that Total War seeks to engender. The first is what I would label ‘needless challenge’, or more accurately, ‘time-wasting’. In the earlier iterations of the series, once your empire got going, it could feel like it had become a steamroller; your revenues went up with every city taken, allowing more troops, financing more conquest, a pretty simple cycle of expansion.

However, starting with Shogun 2 through to the latest game Attila, where it really began to bite, Total War has added a supply system, as well as making certain buildings produce negative malus towards public order. So where before one simply added buildings into a province to unlock additional troops or expand revenues, now there is a constant balancing act of ensuring food supplies, adding entertainment buildings and unlocking new troop types, in a sort of ‘spinning plates’ system that has only become worse as newer editions have come out.

The problem here is that now players have to spend most of their turn managing internal issues, creating a sort of artificial difficulty to shadow the fact that Total War’s AI has always been sub-par, and rather than improving it and thereby making the game actually challenging, the devs have instead created the simulation of difficulty by hampering your efficient campaigning.

Added to this are other limitations, which slow progress and just artificially extend play. Even though the spinning plates of domestic management serve to curtail your army’s size anyway, Creative Assembly have taken it upon themselves to ensure it anyway by limiting the number of armies your nation can field. The tech tree, which was previously useful to reflect the developments of warfare throughout the eras the games reflected, now also serves to inhibit expansion through limitation, essentially leaving you with a feeling of incompleteness at the start of the game rather than satisfaction when you finish the tree. Having to play the first twenty hours of Attila with only basic legionaries was a chore, not a joy.

But the last and worst trend that Total War has adopted is the idea of style over substance. There’s no denying it’s a beautiful game, even if you need a beast of a PC to run it, but if there’s nothing beneath it, it’s not a good game. Rather than fixing the serial issues of the series, such as terrible AI, poor optimisation and unit balancing, it seems that Total War is fixated on being a beautiful series instead. The in-engine trailers for Total War: Warhammer might draw you in, but remember that beneath that sweet, detailed exterior, its predecessors had to be patched a huge number of times post-release just to be playable.

These changes are not unique to the Total War series, and are relatively common in the gaming industry at the moment, particularly in large franchises. They reek of the padding-out and polishing of games in order to rush them to mass-market that you can easily see in series like Assassin’s Creed, and it’s a worrying trend, because it seems to say that the deadline or the brand is greater than the experience. This is why, despite my excitement, I’ll be waiting till after Total War: Warhammer is released to choose if I’ll bother purchasing it.

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