Total War: PHARAOH PC Review

Total War: PHARAOH just doesn't impress as much as it should have.

By RON, Posted 14 Oct 2023

Real-time strategy is perhaps the most difficult genre for video games. Not only does it require in-depth gameplay features to please the strategy fans, but the accuracy of the ear the game is based on and its replayability. Except for a few games that came out in the past few years, like the Knights of Honor II: Sovereign, games like Total War: Warhammer III, Company of Heroes 3, and Victoria 3 all have failed to satisfy the fans despite their new features and innovative gameplay. Then came the announcement of Total War: PHARAOH in May 2023, and fans of the Total War series hoped that PHARAOH would signal the end of a dry spell for the franchise. But has it?

Total War: PHARAOH is the newest major release from Creative Assembly in the Total War series. The team behind it, which consists of members from Creative Assembly Sofia and Feral Interactive, is responsible for games like Total War: ROME II: Empire Divided and Rise of the Republic, A Total War Saga: THRONES OF BRITANNIA, and the recently released Total War Saga: Troy. Long overdue, Total War: PHARAOH finally gives us the first Total War game rooted in the ancient Near East. The question is, however, whether it delivers a rewarding and historically accurate challenge.

Total War: PHARAOH, PC, Review, Real Time Strategy, RTS Game, Screenshots, Ramesses

Total War: PHARAOH is set during the collapse of several civilizations, including the Maya and the Hittites, during 50 years at the end of the Bronze Age. While the game's concepts and mechanics are generally sound, the limited breadth of the campaign is a major flaw. The campaign takes place decades too late, and the battles have the same problems as in every other Total War game. These issues add to a game that desperately needs tweaks and updates to feel complete and well-balanced. There have been far too many Total War games with this same issue. After spending over half a day with Total War: PHARAOH, I felt like the game needed more time in the oven before its release.

Ramesses; our protagonist, Seti; heir to the Egyptian throne; his wife and allegedly future king Tausret; and Amenmesse, eldest Royal heir and Viceroy of Kush, are four of the eight playable factions that come with the Egyptian culture. Suppiluliuma, the final Hittite ruler, and Kurunta, the Usurper, are included in this game as playable characters. When we begin the campaign, we are placed on a narrow but visually stunning map, reminiscent of Total War Saga, that stretches from just north of the Black Sea in the lush green of Anatolia to the Arid desert lands of Kush or Nubia.

The Canaanite factions are led by Bay, the political schemer, and Irsu. The eastern Mesopotamian kingdoms are missing from the map, and neither is the westernmost part of Anatolia (or even Greece). Both experienced the downfall of their prosperous cultures and dynasties at the end of the Bronze Age, despite their major roles during that era. If you're expecting a game from the Bronze Age, their absence is, at the very least, a major letdown.

The story begins with the death of Egyptian Pharaoh Marineta, who leaves a power vacuum that sparks various civil conflicts within your first 60 rounds, the winner of which will assume the throne as Pharaoh. The focus here is on legitimacy, a form of reputation that may be acquired in various ways, including winning battles, erecting monuments, and taking a stance on the new court system. And as far as newer features in Total War: PHARAOH goes, this was a nice breath of fresh air, and I found it enjoyable enough on my first playthrough to figure out how to exploit it to my advantage. This is another great example of how Creative Assembly Sophia's new campaign mechanisms enrich the game's overall design.

Total War: PHARAOH, PC, Review, Real Time Strategy, RTS Game, Screenshots, Garrison

The multi-resource system introduced in Total War: Saga Troy and serves as the game's central loop is new to Total War: PHARAOH. Your primary motivation for focusing on expansion in the campaign map is the production of food, wood, Stone, bronze, or gold, all of which are produced by every town. Everything else in the game is based on these five resources and how much you own, produce, and spend. This includes the court, the technological tree, and diplomatic interactions.

The core gameplay loop revolves around these four elements: territorial expansion, resource accumulation, army construction (both in terms of size and strength), and army deployment. On the campaign side, however, CA Sophia excels at introducing new gameplay elements to divert attention from these looping patterns. Ancient legacies and unique quests are available to all civilizations, from erecting landmarks to completing certain tasks with your ships. It can become complicated, but there are gods you can pray to for various buffs to your stats.

Battles take significantly longer than in recent games like Troy and Three Kingdoms. There is no more room for strategic maneuvers, and the tempo is right: neither too quick nor too slow. How you battle, the size of your army, tactical maneuvers, and other factors play a role. However, if your army composition heavily relies on missile units, for example, and a sandstorm is on the horizon, you can be in trouble. There may be room for improvement, but this is a positive beginning toward improving the battle system.

Total War: PHARAOH's battles are also less of a click fest than in previous games, contributing to the game's new rhythm. Similarly, damaged items don't always reappear as quickly as they did in Troy, which was frustrating on numerous occasions. The effect of the units colliding looks somewhat better but not great. When zooming in, the animation of units fighting in matched combat improves over prior games.

Total War: PHARAOH, PC, Review, Real Time Strategy, RTS Game, Screenshots, Army Units

Everything looked great during my first campaign, but the glow of Total War: PHARAOH quickly faded during my second campaign. And I saw none of the choices had significant trade-offs or long-term consequences. The game's small scope and area pushed me to fight over the same region, fight the same individuals, and defeat the same groups, and the mechanics that first kept me intrigued became tedious. Having multiple playable factions, each with a distinct playstyle, might be a big assist. This, however, is also not the case. There is no inherent variety between the factions; without a stake in playing differently, there is no reason to do so.

While Ramsey is advertised as having a fast campaign movement, any group with the right outposts, abilities, and deities can achieve the same results. Amon Mess is notorious for its gold production, but this doesn't mean he can't get his hands on whatever he needs. Considering the Nile's location in the middle of the desert, he has plenty of opportunities to do so. The Irsu are portrayed as a hostile, anti-Egyptian group. Still, the Canaanites have no judicial system, no unified kingdom, and no incentive to prioritize resource cultivation above cattle herding and plundering. There's nothing concrete that can make you play in a certain manner. Consequently, Total War: PHARAOH is a one-and-done experience.

On my second try, all the pleasant characters of Hales had vanished into thin air, leaving me with a bland and uninteresting storyline. This is how I always felt during fights, too. Battles in the Bronze Age don't feature many unique units or strategies. Even still, CA Sophia has used all resources in an unsuccessful attempt to diversify the impression given by rosters. The fact that we keep recycling the same engine means that we still have the same old problems and fights.

Since we still have major collision difficulties, chariots frequently become stuck in opponent units, making movement difficult. We still have problems like unit responsiveness, wherein troops ignore orders and instead perform an entirely different action. Pathfinding is also an issue in smaller towns, where units are more likely to clip into buildings, spread out, and battle ineffectively.

Total War: PHARAOH, PC, Review, Real Time Strategy, RTS Game, Screenshots, Battles

The pace of battles has been slowed, improving the game's initial impression of realism. However, one factor has slowed them down and is not well-balanced. Your frontline units now last significantly longer thanks to their eroding armor feature, which functions similarly to Warhammer Shields. While it's great to know the front lines will hold as long as all that armor percentage work is being done, a more powerful and effective morale system is desperately needed but is currently nonexistent. Losing a settlement or getting flanked and rear-charged should be more demoralizing than the death of a commander.

The significance of a victory point may be greater, but it isn't. This results in conflicts lasting 15–20 minutes, during which an entire army might be destroyed with heavy fatalities, yet individual troops fail to crumble quickly enough to prevent further damage. And if they do, they'll return until you chase them away. It's annoying when almost no units in the game are capable of doing it. As a result, there is a pressing need to rebalance the combat effectiveness of the game's numerous troops, unit kinds, and faction rosters.

Another well-known example is the Total War battle AI. Once, things got so terrible that I had to wait for a message calculating when AI reinforcements would come, and when they did, they were standing exactly next to my army. They sought to bypass my army as they flooded into the map and made their way to the colony. The garrison of the settlement did nothing while I massacred them.

Considering the variety of unit types present in Total War: PHARAOH and their relative positions, the AI army often finds itself in situations like this one. The age-old problem of Total War AI is as awful as it gets, and dealing with it is a hassle. This includes anything from snipable Garrison infantry to AI chariots self-destructing into two spear barriers. After a certain point, I was forced to resort to auto-resolving everything, a significant letdown in a game that prides itself on its battles.

Total War: PHARAOH, PC, Review, Real Time Strategy, RTS Game, Screenshots, Egyptian Religion

The battle maps are wonderful, which is a plus. The music is pleasant, and the background noises of marching soldiers and churning chariots are well-executed. The fire effects, storms, deserts, mountains, and forests in Egypt and Anatolia are stunning. They all seem different enough from one another to spice up the fights with new aesthetic elements. Compared to other Total War games, this one has the most visually appealing city maps I've ever seen. Creative Assembly Sofia has really excelled themselves with these.

Everything does a respectable job of transporting you to the era in question. While the graphics and soundtrack are impressive, the action is essentially reduced to who possesses the heavier and more elite units and who uses melee attacks first. There's no variety in the gameplay at all. And as we've established, obtaining excellent units at the outset of your campaign is not hard. Fighting manually rapidly becomes tedious, especially when pitted against a mindless AI.

The new features introduced in Total War: PHARAOH don't offer much, and some felt pointless due to their lack of usefulness in the game, such as the court system, where you can choose alternatives that annoy others for influence. At the same time, there appears to be no point in the religious system. As your gods level up, you earn passive benefits for your empire. There might be some historical influences behind his, but it doesn't really benefit the gameplay. 

The technology tree did not offer any thrills. It turns out to be monotonous soon enough that it might force you to select random options. It's easy to see that the developers care deeply about the world of Total War: PHARAOH and that care shows in the game's many strengths. Unfortunately, I must issue a current disclaimer based on pricing and limited content options. Maybe the DLCs may breathe fresh life into the game, but until then, I wouldn't recommend spending $50 on the game's first campaign.

Total War: PHARAOH, PC, Review, Real Time Strategy, RTS Game, Screenshots, NoobFeed

On its own, Total War: PHARAOH just doesn't impress as much as it should have. Great mechanics, but not enough immersion or replay value; character-driven factions; a gorgeous campaign map covering just half the Bronze Age planet; slower-paced battles with only half the balance or AI intelligence they should have. Everything here is just a lost chance. I would only buy the game at a very high discount. 

The flaw lies only with the magnitude and scope of the game and not with the game's choice of a Bronze Age or ancient Near Eastern setting. The game's atmosphere is what you'll remember most. Still, its mechanics are shallow, the level of replayability is low, the artificial intelligence is useless, and there's no opportunity for strategy in the battles. If a top-notch total war game is what you seek, you've come to the wrong place.

Sarwar Ron (@SarwarRon)

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General Information

Platform(s): PC
Publisher(s): SEGA, SEGA of America
Developer(s): Creative Assembly, Creative Assembly Sofia, Feral Interactive
Genres: Real-Time Strategy
Themes: Tactical, Strategy
Release Date: 2023-09-29

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