Total War: Troy will attempt to split the difference between Homeric myth and Bronze Age history, taking the poetic and mythic license of Greek literature and portraying a plausible underlying reality that might be the source for the metaphor. So in the battle I played during for a video conference press session with the team from Creative Assembly’s Sofia studio, the Minotaur is not a half-bull giant, but a Burly Lad wearing a bull’s skull who can go crashing through enemy lines and scaring the hell out of everyone around him. Achilles is not an invulnerable demi-god whose skin was washed in the waters of the Styx, but a preternaturally, heroically skilled warrior.
That also makes Troy a slightly odd game for Total War. In general, this is a series where units fit broad archetypes of infantry, cavalry, and artillery-like ranged units. But as Game Director Maya Georgieva pointed out, that doesn’t quite fit the time period.
“In the Bronze Age, in the time when the Trojan War could have been fought, it was a time when horses weren’t bred into breeds that could actually carry a fully armored person, and they were not used as warhorses and normal cavalry. We knew were were going to have to deal with this problem of having just infantry, and we decided to have not just infantry but a lot of infantry. And to try and spice up the variety as much as possible.”
The solution, at least in the battle I played, seemed to be a game where there are a lot of startlingly fast infantry who behave a lot like skirmish cavalry, while heavily armored units clomp around like mobile castles. The battle I played was an fight on some rolling scrubland between Achilles and Hector, each hero accompanied by the archetypal units of their faction. Achilles led a fast, maneuverable force of Greek troops built around his elite Myrmidons, while Hector’s Trojans were super-heavy infantry who were almost impossible to break if they were in formation, in a good position.
The emphasis on formations, using them effectively on your side and breaking them effectively on the enemy’s, is a regular feature of any Total War game, but senior designer Milcho Vasilev indicated it would be particularly acute in Troy.
“This is even more important here, though it depends on which faction you play, as they have different strengths. Some factions really rely on those formations, while other factions like Odysseus for example thrives on chaos, and tries to create chaos on the battlefield. He’s a master tactician. He plays a different way. But with more traditional factions, you need to try and maintain those formations as much as you can. Because now being flanked is much more impactful. And with the maps we’ve designed, having a lot more obstacles and terrain features, play an important role in that because they give players more opportunities to exploit those natural defensive points, or places to do a flanking attack.”
Vasilev was particularly excited by the addition of tall grass and mud, both of which serve to increase the potential for skirmishers to turn the battle and reduce the advantages enjoyed by the game’s heaviest units. With limited slots for different units in every army, most Total Games end up rewarding armies who overload on heavily armored elites, because even if they absorb more punishment due to their disadvantages, they are far less likely to break and are more durable than the light units who run rings around them. Eventually the skirmishers run out of ammo or space and then they get smashed by even depleted assault units. Most Total War games have addressed this by making heavy units prohibitively expensive early in the game, or by introducing faction or commander abilities that massively buff skirmishers above their statistical strength. Some of this sounds like it will feature in Troy as well (Milcho’s description of Odysseus certainly calls to mind the Wood Elves or Skaven of Total War: Warhammer 2) but the new terrains will also provide further dangers for armored units.
With tall grass, even open ground becomes dangerous, which it almost never is in Total War games. Forests can conceal troops but as a rule if you can see open fields, you can see any enemy units that might be lurking there. Now, there is always the possibility that lighter units are concealed somewhere in there, ready to unload devastating flanking fire if they’re not scouted. Furthermore, muddy ground will hit heavy units with massive speed and fatigue penalties making it harder for them to maneuver to face threats and making them less effective once the battle is joined. Taken together, ambush and hit-and-run tactics sound like they will be much more viable in Troy than they’ve been in other games in the series.
Which is well and good, but will the AI be able to take advantage of all this? As much as it was exciting talking to Georgieva and Vasilev about their plans for the game, I have to admit that the battle itself unfolded in the familiar, haphazard fashion of most Rome 2 battles. I could keep a rein on my units and keep units from chasing skirmishers to the ends of the earth, but the AI’s grip on its formations unraveled as units reacted to immediate threats. When I played as Achilles, the mighty Trojan guards were baited toward every point on the compass, making it easy for Achilles and his Myrmidons to swarm poor Hector to death. But when I played as Hector, it was simply a matter of arranging my troops in a strong formation and putting them in “guard mode” so they wouldn’t chase defeated enemy units automatically. The Greeks broke against this formation like a wave. Hopefully this AI simplicity is mitigated in the game’s final release, but there’s a long track record of otherwise promising Total War games getting dragged down by haphazard, scrum-like battles.
That track record weighs particularly heavily on Troy because the Total War Sagas remain an unproven concept. Thrones of Britannia was a poor opening salvo for the new spinoff series, and the bar for Total War has been raised pretty substantially by the combination of terrific expansions for Total War: Warhammer 2 and overall excellence of Total War: Three Kingdoms. The Saga series has been pitched as a place to have more focused campaigns that fit with previous games’ designs and mechanics, but it’s easy to be cynical and say these are budget Total Wars. The fact that Troy will be given away free on the Epic Store when it launches is unlikely to dispel that sense.
This is the first full Total War game developed by Creative Assembly Sofia, and their ideas for Troy reflect a great understanding of what makes a good Total War tick. If the combat AI can avoid chasing all the bait put in front of it long enough to show off the game’s focus on formations and unit specialization, and it’s paired with a great campaign structure, Troy will be a saga worthy of the name. But the history of Total War, with all its ups and downs, suggest those are big “ifs.” Given the complete dearth of Bronze Age strategy games and the possibilities the setting holds, there are a lot of reasons to hope for Total War: Troy’s success when it comes out this August.
You can listen to further discussion of Total War Saga: Troy as well as Xenoblade Chronicles, Valorant, and more in the podcast episode below.