Across the burning sands of the Levant and the rich banks of the Nile, there is only war.
Total War: Pharaoh is a strategy game that seeks to put players in pole position for the collapse of the Bronze Age. As Ramesses and other potentials heirs to the Egyptian empire ready themselves, longstanding grudges from rivals across Canaanites and Hittites are inflamed into thirsts for ambition and conquest.
I recently had the chance to try three battles from Total War: Pharaoh through an online preview event, giving a taste of what's in store from the latest historical title in the works at Creative Assembly and Sega. After playing and winning all three over the course of an hour, I'm left more excited than before for this new strategy title, but still needing a few important questions answered before I'm completely sold on the setting.
Earth, wind, fire, and air
The three battles were set roughly in the beginning, middle, and endgame of a playthrough, with the number of high-quality units and the overall difficulty level increasing with each fight. All three were fought from the perspective of the Egyptians using Ramesses as a leader, giving the fights a sort of rough continuity, even if lacking the dozens of hours of playtime that would almost certainly fall between each particular encounter.
Running on the latest in-house technology at Creative Assembly, Total War: Pharaoh introduces a number of new features to shake up the flow of battle. Particularly notable are some new formation options, allowing you to have your troops retreat in an organized fashion, holding their weapons forward while slowly moving back. It's a simple but excellent ability, one that has been much needed in prior games.
Gone are the horrible moments where you realize your troops are horribly outmatched in melee but you can't have them retreat without them being further slaughtered. Now, they can hold a defensive stance while getting out of the fray. Across all three battles, I even used this stance to lure heavy troops into a trap, opening up otherwise well-defended infantry for arrow volleys and chariot charges.
The armor system has also been reworked, with units now having a set amount of armor that slowly degrades as they take damage throughout a fight. More heavily-armored units will retain armor for a longer period of time, but they can still eventually have their defenses shattered, meaning that choosing where to place heavy infantry and which units to target with archers is now even more important than in past games.
Obviously, some heavy axes can decimate lightly-protected javelin throwers, but is it really worth pushing them up to that position if their armor integrity will be low once they've finished that skirmish and they have to fight similarly tough infantry? Combat also feels slower as a result, with stronger units taking time to cut through each other's armor before soldiers start dying.
By far the biggest addition, however, is the enhanced dynamic weather system. Past Total War games have included different types of terrain — fire could spread in Total War: Attila, while the shallows in Total War: Warhammer 3 slow down non-aquatic units — but this is far beyond anything previously included in the series.
In Total War: Pharaoh, the weather can turn suddenly, from raging sandstorms and heat drying out the land, to heavy rain and thunderstorms setting the night sky alight and turning the ground to mud. This then has an effect on the gameplay that can punish both armies, but also be exploited if you're quick and clever enough.
Rain turns sand to mud, slowing down heavier units and making it far harder to mount an offensive charge or retreat. Sandstorms lower visibility, reducing the range and accuracy of any missiles such as archers. Finally, scorching heat will drain the stamina of soldiers and make fire catch and spread rapidly.
In the second battle I played, I was able to use the mud to secure a far easier victory, pinning the enemy leader and their bodyguard against a marsh, which in turn blocked off their ability to reinforce any lines I hit on drier ground. In the final battle, a desperate siege in defense of the Egyptian city of Mennefer, the use of flaming arrows in the heat of the day quickly blocked passage through chunks of the city, making it easier to keep the invaders at bay as I slowly worked my chariots through the streets.
It's worth noting that through all three battles, I maintained excellent performance on my computer, with uses an NVIDIA RTX 3070. There were no framerate drops, even when the fire effects got extremely intensive toward the end of the fight. The game should run great on any of the best gaming laptops. Running at mostly Ultra settings, Total War: Pharaoh looks alright, even good at times, but with large stretches of desert and more simple buildings (at least compared to some of the prior games in the series), nothing stood out as a big leap up graphically. Still, this wasn't a final build, and the focus is clearly on gameplay improvements, which is fine by me.
Questions buried in the sand
While this was a satisfying preview, there are many questions that I have remaining. Will the other factions feel as satisfying to play as the Egyptians? What is the campaign map like? Is it dense enough to be meaningful but large enough to not be cramped? What does the inevitable post-launch support roadmap of DLC factions look like?
I don't expect a preview to reveal the details that resolve every single possible question, but this is the next big game, not a small "Saga" spinoff, meaning that questions of scope should be answered sooner rather than later.
Total War: Pharaoh is currently slated to launch on Windows PC in October 2023, and I hope that Creative Assembly addresses these questions in the months ahead before the game arrives. It's available for preorder on Steam right now.
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