Don’t let the new title fool you. Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is still a fully-fledged entry in Creative Assembly’s long-running series of historical strategy games. But where older Total War titles have selected a particular real world empire or historical era to focus on, Total War Saga narrows its scope. It focuses not on the rise and fall of the British Empire (they’ve actually done that one before) but on a specific historical flashpoint: King Alfred the Great’s desperate bid to stop the Viking invasion of Britain at the Battle of Edington in 878 CE, and the years of massive social instability that followed.
You’ll know if Total War Saga is for you or not just be hearing the title — if it’s for you then you’ve likely been playing games in this series for years. The game illustrates this by having virtually no tutorial whatsoever. What passes for a tutorial in Total War Saga is a kind of refresher course at the start of the campaign. This refresher course assumes a huge amount of prior knowledge on the part of the player, asking you to perform certain actions to move your progress forward but not actually show you how to accomplish these tasks or even what to click on to get started. It’s all well and good to tell me I need to garrison a unit but that order means nothing in the sea of menus and numbers and buttons that make up the overworld screen. I understand that Total War is playing to a very niche crowd at this point, and there is an in-game encyclopedia you can refer to, but for new players this edition feels like its going to be particularly hard to break into.
For those that already know how to play Total War, you’ll be off to the races immediately. The game’s campaign gives you the choice of playing one of five armies — English, Welsh, Gaelic and two flavours of Viking, sea-faring and overland, each with their own pros and cons that will affect your ability to win battles and take new ground. Fans of Game of Thrones will recognise a lot of the real history that inspired George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series — a put-upon king desperately trying to keep numerous houses happy in order to maintain an uneasy peace and fend off would-be usurpers, while at the same time trying to prepare all of them to deal with an imminent menace from the frozen north.
Total War Saga is broken up into the same three tiered system for play as previous entries in the system — at the top tier, you have the Civilization-esque 4X-style turn-based overworld, the middle tier is a complex city and population management sim and the bottom tier is the massive scale army-to-army real-time strategy game that most have come to associate with the series. So chances are there’s going to be parts of the game you’re better and parts you’re not. The challenge lies a lot of the time in attempting to master these disparate elements to maintain a strong, cohesive empire.This is good news for fans because while the game narrows the scope in terms of its setting and campaign, it hasn’t sacrificed the series’ trademark depth of gameplay to do it.
The first thing you’ll have to contend with is getting the lay of the land and the utter chaos that is a Britain divided into numerous, grudge-holding factions. There are bloodlines and royalty, lines of succession and governors and family members and all of it requires careful management. Proposing the marriage of one of your family members to a member of a competing house’s family is a great way to shore up diplomatic relations for a while but you’ll need to keep observing the niceties if you want to stay alive.
There are a few changes to the long established formula mixed in, like the recruiting of units to your forces from an available pool sourced from across the entire kingdom and the new (and sensible) tying of unit upgrades to technology research. There’s also the side quests pulled in from Total War: Warhammer that have you hunting artifacts and treasures to put a bit of extra meat on the bones.
If Creative Assembly a have genuinely difficult problem to solve here its that almost all of the armies in the game come from the same area and so they all kind of look the same. This is historically accurate but it does have an impact on overall readability when in trying to work a land battle to your advantage.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is neither the largest nor the longest title in the series’ history but it is the most focused. It’s difficult to get into if you’re new to the series but it pays dividends if you have both the patience and considerable attention span to learn its ins-and-outs.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
Higlights: Wonderful detail; Deep, multilayered strategy; Cool new vision for the series
Lowlights: Doesn’t care about new players at all
Developer: Creative Assembly
Platforms: Windows PC
Reviewed on Windows PC with a pre-release retail code provided by publisher.