Total war Saga: Thrones Of Br itannia
Smart new direction for an old series gets Offa on the right foot
Back to a time when men were men and Vikings were everywhere.
Being a king is simple, right? Shiny, pointy hat to wear, special important chair to sit on, steady supply of feckless peasants to torment. Simple and fun. But nobody ever mentions the betrayal, or the demands, or the crushing and constant requests for equitable wealth distribution. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. It seems Creative Assembly has employed a specialised coronetbolstering department to make that crown even heavier. And it’s a good thing. Thrones Of Britannia does something no Total War has done before, which is make you feel like an actual king, miserable man-management and all. Instead of being an omnipotent and unquestionable monarch, you muddle through a febrile peace in one the most tumultuous periods in British history – 878 AD. The Vikings have been stopped but not defeated; Britain is still occupied; and various hungry powers tear at the flesh of a kingdom too small to share. And, as the leader of one of the game’s ten playable factions, it’s your job to carve yourself a healthy slice. Every success is shared. Every failure is your fault.
That all sounds very Total War, and it looks familiar, too. At first glance, nothing much seems to have changed. We’re back in the British Isles, where we’ve been in so many previous games in the series: Medieval, Attila, Kingdoms, Rome. But it only takes five minutes with the new campaign map to appreciate the differences. This is the richest Total War map to date, densely packed with walled cities and satellite villages, featuring focused, engaging points of conflict. Places you never dreamed would make it into a videogame are here, and there’s a specific thrill in seeing your own naff town demastered for a bygone age. Forget Stamford, hello Steanford!
The density is intimidating at first. There’s almost too much information to parse, and spending money upgrading vulnerable villages seems frivolous. Whereas your main cities are garrisoned and can repel an invading army, the smaller settlements are completely helpless. Unless your army is nearby, they can be sacked or occupied without a fight. But this is one of the game’s many clever tweaks, and it forces you to play differently. Instead of a network of neatly-defended towns, you’re encouraged to range across your borders with an agile, reactive force. Fight on too many fronts and it’s impossible to defend your lands. This forces you to consider every conflict, expand carefully, and be constantly wary of your neighbours.
“makes you feel like an actual king, miserable manmanagement and all”
It also leads to another first for a Total War game: being locked in constant conflict is a terrible idea. There’s a war fervour meter, which will decrease as you spend time locked in fruitless campaigns. Your subjects will start to crave peace, and become dissatisfied. Unlike previous games in the series, it’s not merely a case of balancing your wealth against the size of your army. Being at war is stressful. Food supplies will diminish if managed badly. Far-ranging campaigns require supplies, which can only be restocked in your own regions. These thoughtful, almost punitive touches force you to consider everything before committing to a campaign. It also resembles the more nuanced mods available for classic Total War games; hardly a surprise, since game director Jack Lusted started off as a modder himself. ‘Occasional War Saga’ might have been a more accurate name.
Another layer of realism comes from the way units are recruited and upgraded. Military buildings are completely gone. Instead, you upgrade your troops via tech trees. It’s a sharp departure from the way things have previously worked in Total War, but an intriguing one. Your settlements become hubs of commerce or religion, rather than spawning pools for fighty men. And when you do recruit troops, that works differently, too. You can’t just conjure a giant army because you’ve got the coin to pay for all those soldiers. Instead, recruited units start in a depleted state and gradually grow to full strength. It’s a sensible, evocative tweak, which makes you feel like you’re slowly mustering a force rather than filling in slots on an army card. It’s also more enjoyable to play, with less chance of a previously defeated army rocking up on your borders with a slavering 20-stack horde they magicked from nowhere.
Tech trees, too, have changed. You now earn the right to research new technology by upgrading the right buildings or recruiting the correct number of units. It sounds like a backwards way of doing things, but it works – and it also crystallises the differences between factions. You won’t find the same disparity between forces as in Total War: Warhammer, but they are all different. Some factions have to expand into new territories before they can unlock tech trees. Irish factions, for example, don’t have access to the same trading buildings as English ones (ignoring for the moment the fact that neither Ireland nor England technically existed during this period). Elsewhere, sea-based Viking factions can earn extra money by trading slaves, and don’t suffer the same attrition penalties as other factions while at sea. It makes for a rich and varied game that never feels limited by the realistic setting.
It’s not all new, however. Battles still feel very similar. Sieges have been upscaled after the reductive city engagements in Total War: Warhammer, and capturing a garrisoned settlement feels like more of an achievement. But if you didn’t love the combat in previous Total War games, this won’t convert you. And Thrones lacks the wild variety of units seen in the Warhammer spin off. But truthfully, it barely matters. The significant changes here happen on the campaign map, and they’re almost all welcome. The main conquest is no longer just set dressing, but a real, reactive, exhilarating story that lives up to the ‘saga’ element in the title. It’s not always easy, and the constant appeasement of needy nobles might frustrate those who just want a clean path between battles, but if you’ve ever craved a Total War game that does intrigue as well as it does excitement, this is a welcome new direction for Sega’s venerable strategy series. Wearing the crown might be uneasy, but it’s worth every sleepless night.
You can have a hat in any shape and colour you like, as long as it’s gold and spiky. Kingship is hard.
Nothing lifts the spirits like seeing an enemy king fleeing in terror. Except maybe seeing him in pieces.
Creative Assembly ETA Out now Players 1-4
Format PC Publisher Sega Developer