Feature Article

Total War: Pharaoh Hands-on Preview - War Like An Egyptian

Creative Assembly Sofia is exploring familiar territory but tweaking the Total War experience to be more grounded and provide more flexibility.

A new historical Total War is an exciting prospect for the franchise. As a Warhammer fan, I've been well catered to with Total War: Warhammer 1, 2, and 3, but for those virtual generals among us who prefer history books over Games Workshop's Black Library, the pickings have been much slimmer and mostly in the form of Total War's Sagas. After a demo of some of the new elements coming to the campaign, as well as a few hours hands-on with battles, it feels as though with Total War: Pharaoh, Creative Assembly Sofia is aiming to bring the feature experimentation and development that has been traditionally delivered through its new historical titles, while also aiming to deliver a much deeper, more fleshed-out Total War experience.

The setting of the 1200 BCE New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt in the late Bronze Age was an interesting pick, as, broadly speaking, Total War is double dipping into this period of history, having previously explored the same century with Total War Saga: Troy. While some of that Troy DNA is visible and the time period feels a little like treading familiar ground, overall, Total War: Pharaoh looks like a different beast.

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Now Playing: Total War: Pharaoh - Preview & Battle Hands-On

Pharaoh aims to showcase the most extensive empire in Egyptian history, mixing the beauty of the setting with the brutality of the Bronze Age. This combination is poised to deliver new gameplay and mechanics, while also exploring this period in depths previously unseen in the franchise.

From a campaign perspective, the issue at hand for the armchair Pharaoh will be the Late Bronze Age's collapse. This was a historically devastating period of time that was culturally disruptive, violent, and led to the economic downfall of many regions. It's this event that you as ruler will eventually need to delay, battle against, or weather the storm of to see what awaits you on the other side.

In order to immerse you in these cataclysmic events, players will need to manage their Pillars of Civilization, with elements like stability and prosperity caught in the balance as you work to prevent your kingdom from falling into crisis. Higher prosperity comes with benefits like boosts to production, and the game will become brighter and lusher visually. However, if you slip closer to chaos the whole visual aesthetic becomes darker as natural disasters and aggressive nomads increase in frequency.

The pantheon of Egyptian gods is of course a key element of ancient Egypt that goes hand in hand with its history, so I was curious if there would be any of the history-behind-the-myth information that was included in Troy. But during an interview with game director Todor Nikolov, he made it clear that while the gods are an element in the game that can affect gameplay, Total War: Pharaoh is a much more grounded, authentic game than Troy, so we won't be seeing any mythical beasts on the battlefield.

From what I saw, authenticity and immersion are key to Creative Assembly Sofia's vision of Pharaoh, and while some liberties have been taken with historical accuracy either for gameplay considerations or due simply to missing historical records, those considerations and liberties are being implemented and balanced to broaden player choice. But it's not just Egyptian rulers that make up the roster of Bronze Age leaders, with eight leaders hailing from three different cultures: the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Hittites. Each of these three has their own unique traits, units, identities, and varied faction leaders. While Egyptians may favor lightly armored units, utilizing chariots and archers with hit-and-run tactics, the Hittites are experts in metallurgy and can field slower but more robust armored units. The Canaanites, meanwhile, are a uniquely flexible combination of Hittite and Egyptian cultures, favoring stealth tactics and adaptable troops.

Unit choice and variety was surprisingly in-depth, and while the battles I played were pre-made, I was left feeling that army composition is an even more impactful consideration than in previous games, with many of the new gameplay elements that Pharaoh introduces making your choice of army all that more impactful.

First among these elements is the new dynamic weather system. Battles take place across three main geographical areas that will dictate the terrain and potentially the changing weather considerations in battle. Skirmishes in deserts may fall victim to violent sandstorms that chip away at unit health slowly while adding extreme penalties to your archer's range and accuracy. Thunderstorms may result in the landscape becoming muddy and slowing your units, with claps of thunder being seen as omens from the gods and reducing morale. Or extreme heat may sap units of their stamina, preventing fatigue recovery and drying out the surrounding flora, thus increasing the risk of fires spreading throughout the battle as embers are carried by the wind.

As the weather system is dynamic, the considerations of a map's terrain and your units are more vital than ever. Warm, sunny weather can dry up a muddy creek, opening up a potential flank; a piece of high ground can be made useless with a blinding sandstorm; or if rain is forecast, you can use lightly armored units to your advantage and further sap the speed and energy from slower, armored foes as you force them to wade through a bog, with the troops often reacting accordingly to their changing environment.

With Total War: Pharaoh, Creative Assembly Sofia is aiming to bring the feature experimentation and development that has been traditionally delivered through its new historical titles, while also aiming to deliver a much deeper, more fleshed-out Total War experience

All of the battles that I played used this weather system in one way or another, with one instance sticking in my memory as especially satisfying. I was defending my capital city of Mennefer (modern-day Memphis… not the one in Tennessee) from a siege during sweltering heat, while all units were being sapped of energy as the sun beat down on them. The fact that my army wasn't having to push battering rams or siege towers increased my advantage, but on top of that, my enemies were having to push said engines through patches of dry grass, an element I was able to take advantage of with my archers loosing fire arrows.

Later in the battle, I retreated further into the city to make use of the bottlenecks in the streets. My enemy used parks and open areas still filled with trees and bushes to chase my troops, but that greenery was also similarly engulfed in flame, engulfing the inhabitants of these spaces with fire or cutting off an avenue of movement. It was only when I saw the fires had spread to my own buildings that I realized I wasn't quite the master general I thought…

While units have familiar abilities, such as shielded fighters forming a wall, they also have new stances that go hand-in-hand with utilizing the map's terrain, as well as their own size and weight. Troops can now advance and slowly push a line forward, hold position and maintain their formation as well as the ground they are on, or use the Give Ground stance, allowing your units to retreat while still facing the enemy and remaining in combat so they may slowly fall back without suffering the additional damage that always came with manually moving your units and being shot, stabbed, or slashed in the back.

Your leader's unit and their bodyguards have always been some of the most powerful and pivotal units in Total War games, Pharaoh is also building on this element, allowing for more unit flexibility. These bodyguard units will follow their leader into battle, but will also mirror their discipline. Equipping your Pharaoh with a bow and chariot will change the unit as a whole to one of chariot archers. Or, if you wish your leader to take to the frontlines, you can equip them with a sword, shield, and heavier armor and the troops that march alongside them will follow suit. Nikolov said that while there is some evidence of Pharaohs being trained in multiple disciplines, this gameplay element was mostly designed to further player choice and flexibility. While we've had some control over our leaders and generals in previous games, it has never been to this degree of depth. This new layer of flexibility also extends to how players are able to prepare for a battle, allowing them to define if they want an extra unit of archers for an upcoming siege or a hit-and-run chariot unit if their approaching enemy is the slow, armored sort.

That armor is also a more in-depth consideration as it can now degrade as a battle progresses and a unit takes damage. It took some time before I could get my head around the impact this had and forced me to be smarter with my armored units, and the result was that I was better able to wear down the enemy's using lower-ranked troops equipped with hammers and maces. On paper, it may look like a small change, but I think every veteran of Total War can remember one time or another where a particularly stubborn squad of heavy infantry became an immovable nuisance on the battlefield, so in practice it could be something that will make that kind of situation less prevalent.

One element in army composition that returning generals will have to consider is the lack of cavalry as, in this time period, there were no traditional cavalry units. Instead, chariots have been tweaked to make them more diverse in their function and utility than they were in previous titles.

Altogether, the reworked elements and new gameplay have really slowed the pace of the battles, but so far I think it's for the better. A slower pace means that high-speed micromanagement is less important, especially when it comes to the precise use of timed skills and abilities. I was told that this was supposed to feel like a classic Total War experience, while also being simpler and more natural, with battles that feel authentic. I was left wondering if this element could be a dividing one within the community or a stumbling block for new players or those who have come exclusively from the Warhammer titles, but for me, so far, I think this is how the historical titles should feel.

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As it stands, sound tactical decisions feel more impactful, while a strategic slip-up doesn't feel so devastating. Reacting to the dynamic weather during battle and twisting it to your advantage feels rewarding, and the idea of having to plan around the elements in the campaign layer is both exciting and daunting. It does mean, however, that the game has more tools in its arsenal to ensure that skirmishes remain varied and engaging.

I really do feel more engaged and immersed, too, as the game creates more opportunities for you to tap into your strategic thinking, with more aspects like troop type, weather, armor, and fatigue to consider. That immersion is certainly helped by the game looking gorgeous. The landscapes of the battlemaps look incredible, with sand dunes looking appropriately arid, riverbanks offering pleasant strokes of green against the desert, or rocky crags all reacting to the ever-changing light and colors of the game's weather system.

All of this space is host to the most detailed units to ever feature in a historical Total War title, and since all troops--not just your heroes--have matched combat animations where individuals can meet blade to blade or deliver a precise killing blow, it was hard at times to take my eyes off the landscape and combat and instead focus on winning the battle.

There's much more of Total War: Pharaoh to see, as my hands-on was confined to a few battles rather than any turns in a campaign. But from everything I've seen so far, my excitement for a new historical Total War has only been accelerated by my time with the Pharaohs.

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Dave Jewitt

Dave Jewitt is a Senior Video Producer on the UK video team making shows like Expert Reacts and Loadout, as well as being GameSpot's resident Warhammer nerd.

Total War: PHARAOH

Total War: PHARAOH

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