troy
Games Reviews

Lead History's Worst Raid Group in 'A Total War Saga: Troy'

Like Achilles, you'll have to do everything yourself in order to win this Trojan War.
August 13, 2020, 1:26pm

If you have ever questioned how you'd make a strategy game based on a war epic that's mostly about violent, depressed narcissists standing around longship parking lots to argue about their violence and colossal egos, A Total War Saga: Troy isn't a bad answer. Long before the Greeks can ever glimpse the walls of Troy or face man-killing Hector, you'll have to bribe, threaten, conquer, loot, and raze your way across the Aegean.

Getting there is the hard part. In fact, the sheer difficulty of the blood-drenched passage across the Aegean and the cat-herding required to unify the Greeks against the Trojans is one of the most impressive features of Troy.

But the trip, just as in Homer's poem, can be a drag—especially when all of it plays out via a slightly bloated Total War design that has a lot more in common with Warhammer and Rome 2 than the more streamlined Three Kingdoms. Troy is a game that does not know how to cut to the chase, but at the same time it's ponderous pacing never feels like wasted time. It is a good slog.

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That's certainly fitting for the subject matter: a war famous not for its battles but for an endless, stalemated siege and the vainglorious feuding of its commanders. To its credit, Troy succeeds at evoking a lot of the stories around the Trojan War: your commanders are, almost to a man, temperamental assholes whose capabilities wax and wane with their "motivation." You're fighting a war between divided nations, and so much of the game is spent shoring up the coalitions and alliances you need to take the fight across the Aegean and bring the Trojan War to a close, which involves you in the politics of non-aligned factions and the ambitions of other Greek or Trojan warlords. The Gods are fickle and require their own steady trickle of bribes and honors, so that your forces can enjoy the buffs and blessings that come with their favor. Troy tries to be "historical" rather than mythological, so you won't see Poseidon actually sinking your ships or Apollo firing plague-arrows into you armies, but honoring the Gods does provide passive buffs and bonuses that put some extra spirit and power into your forces. Finally, the best laid-battle plans can be thrown into chaos when a hero's rage builds to the point that they become the embodiment of arete and basically go berserk in ways that can turn a battle on its head.

But then there is the return of agents, the non-combat spy and caster units who were mercifully removed from Three Kingdoms because managing them was always far more trouble than it is worth. They gain experience by doing missions, and each mission is effectively a roll of the dice. Ergo, to get a good agent, you have to run them around the map giving them missions you don't even necessarily need, just so they can level up to a point where they can knock-out other enemy agents or maybe, maybe hinder an enemy army or commander at a useful moment in the campaign. Or there's the "let's make a deal" diplomacy that requires tending almost every turn, as factions spam each other with offers of gold for food or bronze for stone with a military alliance on the side. It's not a bad diplomatic system but it is a slow system that generates way too much diplomatic administration, a bit like being on a Bronze Age email list. It also means that every time the AI factions are going through their turns, you get hit with countless offers and see a whirlwind of agents and tiny AI armies bustling to and fro.

These are all quality of life issues that were at least mitigated with Warhammer and Attila, and almost entirely eliminated with Three Kingdoms, so it's dismaying to see them return with Troy. Especially because the game already generates a lot of friction that you have to overcome: the Aegean feels huge and requires an island-hopping campaign before any assault on the Trojan or Greek homelands is possible. That means a lot of sieges on far-flung islands, and with the massive defender's advantage Troy gives to besieged armies, your own armies will spend a lot of time recovering from losses and recruiting fresh troops even after victorious campaigns.

Don't think you can afford to skip many of these battles, either. Auto-resolution is very unfriendly in Troy. Even battles you are projected to win easily will result in entire units of veteran troops being wiped out, so there's a lot of pressure to fight every battle. That can get a bit exhausting when you're fighting in three or four places each turn. The battles themselves aren't bad, though they tend to feel a bit scrum-like no matter how hard you work trying to maintain your formations, and armies tend to break down along a few very broad unit archetypes that can make for some repetitive tactics. But these slight issues grow in magnitude as Troy punishes you every time you try to delegate.

The tendency of the AI factions to dogpile you contributes to this: while they generally play decently, they will often begin declaring war en masse the moment you're engaged elsewhere. That's annoying, but maybe a good play. Where Troy gets a bit frustrating is that they don't seem to be quite as committed to fighting anyone else as they are the player, and they don't know when to back down. Supposedly your power can intimidate other factions but what I have observed is that warfare tends to make opposing factions hate you so much that they won't even consider surrender until you are literally knocking down the doors of their last settlements.

It's too bad that Troy so often bogs you down like this because with just a little less of all this workload, you have a great strategy game. The diplomacy system generates a lot of good tension and potential for alliance-building: keep giving someone good trade deals and the odd gift when they need it, and there's a good chance they'll decide to become the strategic ally you need to unlock the next belt of territory you need to capture. Those siege battles are genuinely high stakes, with spear and club infantry pouring through the streets of Greek town and cities, trying to flank and trap enemy forces before they can regroup at the next choke point. Overcoming the asymmetry between factions, especially that between the lighter, less advanced Greek armies and the heavily equipped and impeccably trained Trojans, makes for interesting battles and plans of campaign.

Troy Map.jpg

It’s also a gorgeous game, at least on the strategic map. While the battles don’t have the lush beauty and drama of Three Kingdoms, and unfold so quickly you don’t get much time to savor the detailed character models and combat animations, the strategic map more than makes up for it. With red-figure inspired backdrops and lighting, and a saturated color palette, Troy nails the look of a setting where the line between history and myth is blurred.

Total War: Troy is a good example of a type of Total War game whose time, hopefully, is ending. It undercuts its strongest features with administrative bloat and repetitive action, forcing you into too many rote battles and campaigns rather than letting you focus on the truly epic clashes that characterize Total War games at their best. If Troy just removed the heavy ankle weights it fastens on the player, it might be a series highlight. As it is, it's an interesting and clever variation on a theme that has gotten a little tired. It succeeds in breathing some new life into it, but after Three Kingdoms’ reinvention, it feels like a surprisingly good encore at a show that’s gone on just a little too long.