After the Total War series took a side-step into the fantasy world of Warhammer, as seen in the excellent and perhaps franchise-best Total War Warhammer II
, developer Creative Assembly decided it was time to go back to the realm of real-world history with A Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia. Saga being the new moniker for standalone small slices of specific history given the Total War treatment. From that description one might think that by using the term ‘small slice’ one is to take that literally. In the cake sense.
No, this first Total War Saga is anything but slight, as Creative Assembly dips its toes, feet, and entire body back into the world of richly detailed historical combat.
As per the title Thrones of Britannia is set during the time when Anglo-Saxons, Gaelic clans, Welsh tribes and Viking settlers all lived in peace. And harmony. Of course, that’s a lie as this is the period where Game of Thrones draws a lot of its inspiration. Where a king needs to manage competing houses, lords, and noblemen as they squabble over land, fight for dominance, and declare war. Whilst shoring up enough food stocks to ensure that a someone with dreams of grandeur doesn’t declare himself king thanks to the backing of a starving group of villagers. Which can be an issue when you find your armies on the southern shores of Britannia trying to fend off a group of Vikings that have decided to raid your coastal towns.
The sheer complexity and nuance poured into the campaign side of Thrones of Britannia, with little in terms of tutorial, make this quite possibly the least accessible Total War to date. Sure, there’s your advisor and an in-game encyclopedia to trawl through to get a better understanding of mechanics, but there’s a sense that what you’re getting is something for fans first and foremost. And hey, that’s not a bad thing. Starting as one of ten different factions the geographically small but detailed map of what we now call Great Britain is still feeling the effects of Viking rule, as Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxons struggles to maintain order. Whilst also attempting to reunify the country.
From a complexity standpoint this means that no matter the faction you choose to play you’ll immediately need to come to terms with the chaos that is a small country split into dozens of pieces. After the usual taste of battle that kicks off every Total War release, surprisingly a large chunk of the first few hours is spent building up forces, expanding regions with new structures, and getting to know the ins and outs of this new Total War. Even if you’ve played previous entries there’s a lot to come to terms with. A simple narrative focused entry this isn’t.
Set during a time steeped in bloodlines, succession, royalty, and nobles, Thrones of Britannia offers detailed customisation of governors, and family members, even letting you go so far as to propose marriage between your son and say the daughter of a neighbouring ruler. Plus, ruling over vassals. By narrowing the focus to a single location this has allowed Creative Assembly to really delve deep into the recreation of Britain and Ireland. From the wonderful weather effects to terrain detail, it all plays a part in telling a story. All the little villages scattered throughout the land, separate to cities, add a new strategic layer to military conquest. Where cutting off food supplies to starve a city to sway them to your cause is more than a viable option.
There are some welcome changes to the Total War formula that suit the setting too, from the way you recruit new armies from a kingdom wide pool of available units to the way that upgraded units and structures are now tied to technology research. One of the cooler features of Total War Warhammer, those being quests to head-off in search of relics and artifacts, make a surprise appearance here and add some weight to the overall story being told.
The only real downside, which is due to the setting and period, is that most armies look and act the same – save for a few variations between Vikings and Englishmen. Thrones of Britannia does feel different enough, and a lot slower and methodical than say Warhammer or even Rome II. There’s a distinct lack of super units, or powerful generals that can make entire formations crumble with a glance. Ranged combat feels more realistic or medieval, as after a few initial barrages is way less important to the outcome thanks all the heavy armour going around.
Things get suitably intense too.
In then end the first Total War Saga is a sign of good things to come, more focused historical releases that don’t sacrifice complexity for the sake of brevity. Although not the biggest or most expansive release in the franchise Thrones of Britannia surprises in its depth and commitment to building an experience specific to an era and place. From the warring houses and backstabbing and ever-changing map, to the war-hungry Vikings looking to cause one last moment of chaos. If medieval history is your thing, then this is the Total War for you.