Mu­si­cal chairs

In To­tal War Saga: Thrones of Bri­tan­nia, ten kings en­ter, one king leaves.

PC GAMER (UK) - - REVIEW - By Fraser Brown

Be­set on all sides by schem­ing mon­archs, an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on the king, and our clos­est al­lies im­pli­cated – in its great­est mo­ments, Thrones of Bri­tan­nia al­most plays like To­tal War crossed with Cru­sader Kings II. As vil­lages burn and warriors smash into shield walls, there’s po­lit­i­cal in­trigue and be­tray­als from within and with­out the king­dom. Vik­ings prowl the coast, rebels stir and ev­ery­one seems to need help get­ting mar­ried. It’s tough to sit on the throne.

To­tal War Saga games, of which this is the first, are smaller stand­alone games that hone in on a flash­point in history. This time it’s the age of Al­fred the Great, King of the An­glo-Sax­ons and his­tor­i­cal celebrity. It’s fer­tile ground for a To­tal War romp, with the Bri­tish Isles heav­ing with peo­ple who re­ally don’t like one an­other, espe­cially the kings. And there are a lot of them. How many kings could you re­ally fit in Bri­tain, you’re per­haps won­der­ing. The an­swer is loads. Too many, re­ally. Hence all the wars.

The as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt on my king, Áed of Circenn, splin­tered the al­liance of Scot­tish king­doms that had pre­vi­ously been united against the Vik­ings. All of Scot­land then erupted in war. It ac­tu­ally worked out, giv­ing me – the ter­ri­ble prag­ma­tist that I am – an ex­cuse to swallow up all of my one-time al­lies and con­sol­i­date my power. With

ev­ery­one at one an­other’s throats, I was able to pick them off one at a time, Vik­ings in­cluded.

Each of the ten playable fac­tions is part of a cul­tural group that comes with cer­tain al­le­giances and grudges. The Vik­ings might not al­ways get along, but when the Gaels rise up against them, you’d bet­ter be­lieve they team up, or at least get pressed into ser­vice by the most pow­er­ful king. How long that lasts de­pends on how long the king can keep his vas­sals and no­bles happy, or how quickly he can kill trou­ble­mak­ers.

With ev­ery­one be­ing at a sim­i­lar tech­no­log­i­cal level and field­ing vis­ually in­dis­tin­guish­able bearded warriors, they’re not as ob­vi­ously dif­fer­ent as the Ro­mans and Ger­manic tribes (or the Em­pire and the Orcs), but each has a me­chan­i­cal hook that helps make them stand out in a lineup. Vik­ing Dyflin dab­bles in the nau­se­at­ing slave trade, West Seaxe hosts Wi­tans that de­ter­mine the king­dom’s fu­ture, while Circenn has a le­git­i­macy sys­tem that en­cour­ages lead­ers to pla­cate the north by go­ing out and doing great deeds, usu­ally at the end of a spear.

King’s quest

Unique events and story mis­sions offer up more flavour while hav­ing a knock-on ef­fect, draw­ing in other king­doms. Circenn kings can hunt for the Stone of Des­tiny, for ex­am­ple – a coro­na­tion bauble that Scot­land and Eng­land have ar­gued over for cen­turies. The hunt is a quest that, much like Warham­mer’s, sends armies all across the map in search of glory and trea­sure (and, of course, lots of bat­tles). The quest forces Circenn to oc­cupy sev­eral set­tle­ments, how­ever, kick­start­ing lit­tle wars all over the is­lands.

These events also ap­pear for AI king­doms, cre­at­ing a lively map where ma­jor crises play out whether you’re in­volved or not, though you’ll usu­ally hear about it ei­ther way. While you’re get­ting in fights with the Welsh, the Vik­ing king­doms to the west might be join­ing forces to pay the Gaels back for at­tack­ing one of their set­tle­ments, while ev­ery­one up in Northum­bria is kick­ing up a fuss over their mur­dered monarch.

As the undis­puted ruler of Scot­land, I was get­ting ready to en­joy the fruits of my labour. Some of my sub­jects didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate be­ing con­quered, how­ever, and a small band of rebels man­aged to cause a ruckus and take over a town. In the battle to re­claim it, the king died carv­ing a path to the heart of the set­tle­ment. The re­bel­lion was crushed, but only a few turns later the whole king­dom im­ploded as no­bles rose up against his heir.

Hold­ing onto my king­dom proved to be a lot trick­ier than build­ing it. Thrones of Bri­tan­nia’s king­doms and bor­ders are fluid, with wars, up­ris­ings and pol­i­tick­ing forc­ing the ar­chi­pel­ago to con­stantly shift. Old king­doms once thought long gone

Hold­ing onto my king­dom proved to be a lot trick­ier than build­ing it

can reap­pear, while pow­er­ful na­tions can be shat­tered in a few years. In the early game, when there are still five kings for ev­ery per­son, the cav­al­cade of events and bat­tles means that it’s never not in­ter­est­ing, in stark con­trast to the vic­tory con­di­tions that be­come the fo­cus later.

To the vic­tor

There are seven vic­tory con­di­tions in Thrones of Bri­tan­nia. Long and short con­quest vic­to­ries re­turn, task­ing play­ers with gob­bling up a spe­cific num­ber of prov­inces, but they’re joined by two types of fame and king­dom vic­to­ries, as well as an ul­ti­mate vic­tory that can only be achieved once you’ve com­pleted an­other long vic­tory and de­feated an in­vad­ing fleet that’s de­ter­mined by your fac­tion. The new ad­di­tions aren’t great.

Fame vic­to­ries are espe­cially hol­low. All you need to do is gen­er­ate fame by sim­ply play­ing the game, and not even well. Fight, build stuff and just gen­er­ally en­gage with To­tal War and you’ll end up win­ning. King­dom vic­to­ries, on the other hand, are ba­si­cally the same as con­quest vic­to­ries, but in­stead of con­quer­ing ev­ery­one, you’ve also got to con­quer some spe­cific prov­inces, their num­ber de­pend­ing on the fac­tion.

As the An­glo-Sax­ons, I achieved two vic­to­ries by turn 30. In turn 20, the King of Miede died and I in­her­ited the en­tire king­dom, in­stantly giv­ing me a king­dom vic­tory. I’d done noth­ing. Ten turns later, I also got a fame vic­tory, though I’d not been aim­ing for it. It means that if you’re play­ing as a large, es­tab­lished king­dom al­ready, you’re only a few turns from tech­ni­cally win­ning, ab­sent any sat­is­fac­tion. The so­lu­tion, you might think, would be aim­ing for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory.

With two vic­to­ries be­hind me, I found my­self in a rut. I had count­less vas­sals, more money and food than I could waste, and no­body who could stand up to me. There were still up­ris­ings, but they were just small things com­pared to the wars I’d al­ready fought. I started man­u­fac­tur­ing prob­lems. I adopted an am­bi­tious noble, who started caus­ing trou­ble be­cause he thought he also de­served to be the heir to the throne. I was mak­ing pur­pose­fully ter­ri­ble de­ci­sions just to oc­cupy my­self. This wasn’t the case with ev­ery fac­tion, though. I spent well over 200 turns lead­ing Circenn be­fore I ran out of en­gag­ing things to do. Even that’s a prob­lem. There was no im­pe­tus to con­quer the rest of Bri­tain.

The events and unique mis­sions that should have been spurring me on and fir­ing me up to go on an­other war-ben­der dried up, leav­ing me wait­ing for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory and the prom­ise of one last, ti­tanic clash. My en­thu­si­asm had pe­tered out by the time the ships ar­rived.

It’s dis­ap­point­ing to end a game on such a sour note, espe­cially when

Thrones of Bri­tan­nia brings with it a lot of pos­i­tive changes that I hope will be con­tin­ued through fu­ture

To­tal War games, and not just the

Saga se­ries. For all of its tweaks, it often drills down into what’s great about To­tal War as a se­ries. For a long time To­tal War has been stuffed to the gills with sys­tems that can some­times get in the way of a good scrap. Leader pro­gres­sion, build­ing chains and agents have con­sis­tently be­come more elab­o­rate and di­vert­ing.

Thrones of Bri­tan­nia is com­par­a­tively neater. Cre­ative As­sem­bly has lib­er­ally sheared off agents, trade and mil­i­tary build­ings, weaving the me­chan­ics once at­tached to them into other sys­tems. It’s both slicker and more co­he­sive than any of its pre­de­ces­sors, though the stream­lin­ing does make some parts of the game feel per­func­tory.

Most of Thrones of Bri­tan­nia’s in­ter­min­gling and stream­lin­ing of sys­tems feels like progress, though. Pour one out for agents, be­cause they’re com­pletely gone. Only in

Warham­mer has it felt like agents – or he­roes – of­fered enough to make it worth putting up with what ter­ri­ble pests they are. But even though they’ve been cut, agent abil­i­ties are now repli­cated by lead­ers.

Es­chew­ing both Rome II and

Warham­mer’s skill trees, lead­ers now develop ex­clu­sively through traits and fol­low­ers. Traits once again ap­pear over time, based on how a leader acts (or doesn’t act), as well as their en­vi­ron­ment. Keep a leader in­side a set­tle­ment with a li­brary, and they’ll be­come more schol­arly. If they win a de­ci­sive vic­tory, they’ll be able to com­mand more re­spect and throw their weight around more.

Fol­low­ers, on the other hand, are dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent. In­stead of be­ing random hang­ers-on that lead­ers col­lect, they are man­u­ally un­locked when a leader levels up. If you want them to be more loyal and less likely to start a civil war, for in­stance, then you should give them a priest. Much like an agent in pre­vi­ous

To­tal War games, the priest will also de­crease pub­lic or­der in en­emy ter­ri­tory. This re­moval of su­per­flu­ous units from the cam­paign map makes sense for a faster-paced To­tal War such as Thrones of Bri­tan­nia, although I’m not con­vinced that this al­ter­na­tive to agents is quite a one-size-fits-all deal.

While agents are out, there are still plenty of other units just itch­ing to be re­cruited, a process that has changed con­sid­er­ably. Wait­ing for an army to fin­ish re­cruit­ing is not a par­tic­u­larly fun way to spend a few turns, so Thrones of Bri­tan­nia gives

Lead­ers now develop ex­clu­sively through traits and fol­low­ers

you one in­stantly. If you’ve got the cash and food to sup­port 20 units, then you can get all of them straight away. They won’t, how­ever, have a full com­ple­ment of troops. It’s the skele­ton of an army, fill­ing up over time as new troops ar­rive. In­stead of be­ing stuck in a set­tle­ment, it can move around, get in fights and even go off and do a spot of con­quer­ing.

So much busy­work is cut out. There’s no more con­struct­ing the same archery ranges and bar­racks over and over again, or trudg­ing armies half way across the map to re­in­force a vil­lage where, for some rea­son, no­body can learn how to hold a bow with­out this one very spe­cific build­ing. There’s def­i­nitely an ar­gu­ment that some of the need to plan out a long-term strat­egy is re­duced when you can sum­mon an army al­most any­where in your ter­ri­tory, but there’s still a sig­nif­i­cant cost, both up­front and in the main­te­nance of the army. And since it takes a few turns for them to muster enough men to get to full strength, they won’t be tough enough to han­dle an an en­emy force that’s ac­tu­ally pre­pared.

Even if you’ve got fat cof­fers and a pop­u­la­tion that’s hun­gry for a fight – peo­ple can get tired of con­stant warring, even­tu­ally, re­duc­ing pub­lic or­der – you’re not go­ing to be able to keep all of your set­tle­ments safe. Thrones of Bri­tan­nia’s map is in­cred­i­bly dense, with po­ten­tial tar­gets rarely more than a cou­ple of turns away from each other. Armies can rapidly swallow up ter­ri­tory, espe­cially since most set­tle­ments are un­de­fended vil­lages that sup­port the main for­ti­fied towns. These places make for par­tic­u­larly tempt­ing morsels for raiders, as the lack of a gar­ri­son makes them easy to sack. It’s the­mat­i­cally rather ap­pro­pri­ate for a game rich in musky Vik­ings, but more than that, it cre­ates new ways to put pres­sure on an en­emy, deny­ing them much-needed re­sources. If they’re oc­cu­pied, they can also be­come po­ten­tial stag­ing posts where armies can gain a foothold and seek shel­ter dur­ing win­ter.

Rein­vent­ing history

Thrones of Bri­tan­nia doesn’t quite go back to the draw­ing board when it comes to the real-time brawls, but it

does re­con­sider sev­eral things, along with bring­ing back wel­come fea­tures like guard mode and for­ma­tions. Shields get a lot of time in the spot­light this time around, and they can be used to com­pletely halt cavalry charges and more ef­fec­tively pro­tect against as­saults of pesky, eye-goug­ing ar­rows.

Once the ini­tial cavalry charges have been re­pelled, how­ever, the bat­tles largely play out the same way they did in At­tila. Crit­i­cal hits mean that a lucky shot can kill an en­emy out­right, while warriors will now stand closer to­gether so they can hud­dle be­hind the shield wall. But these, much like sev­eral other tweaks to com­bat, don’t no­tice­ably change the tempo or tac­tics.

The sub­tler dif­fer­ences be­tween At­tila and Thrones of Bri­tan­nia may be­come more ap­par­ent in mul­ti­player, but there’s less of an im­pe­tus to get into the nitty gritty when play­ing against the AI. On the de­fault dif­fi­culty the com­puter is a bit overzeal­ous, com­mit­ting al­most ev­ery­thing to a big push, only oc­ca­sion­ally hid­ing units in forests or em­bark­ing on sneakier strate­gies. On the cam­paign map, the AI is quick to take ad­van­tage of the weak points in your king­dom’s de­fences and re­treat when it’s bit­ten off more than it can chew, but it strug­gles more when it’s on the de­fen­sive.

In sev­eral bat­tles dur­ing my first game, the AI got rather con­fused and let me walk to vic­tory. In one case, the en­tire en­emy force got so spooked by the cavalry that ap­peared be­hind them that they started pac­ing on the spot un­til they de­cided to charge at my army, one unit at a time, un­til they routed. In an­other, an in­de­ci­sive fleet couldn’t pick be­tween two land­ing ar­eas and, in­stead, sailed be­tween them for the en­tire battle, al­low­ing me to con­quer a city nearly un­op­posed. Sev­eral of these AI cock-ups hap­pened in quick suc­ces­sion, but haven’t ap­peared since, after sev­eral days of play­ing.

Thrones of Bri­tan­nia is the most un­usual his­tor­i­cal To­tal War in­stal­ment since 2010’s Napoleon. Though it’s still a his­tor­i­cal To­tal War right down to its core, it feels like ev­ery fea­ture must have been on the chop­ping block at one time or an­other. It’s bold and sur­pris­ing, but it’s also a game that’s often at odds with it­self. It at­tempts to con­dense the To­tal War ex­pe­ri­ence, throw­ing ev­ery­one into con­flict and crank­ing up the pace, but it does lit­tle to stop the sig­nif­i­cant lulls that can hap­pen in the mid and late game. In­deed, while the events and busy map ini­tially make this one of the most en­gag­ing games in the se­ries, it can sud­denly de­volve into one of the dullest once some of the pieces have been knocked off the board.

On the de­fault dif­fi­culty the en­emy AI is a bit overzeal­ous

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.