by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
TOTAL WAR SAGA
Back when Creative Assembly released Age of Charlemagne as an expansion for Total War: Attila, a campaign dealing with, in part, the kingdoms of Britannia (a period of interest to me), I was skeptical to say the least. Exploring an entire historical period as an expansion, jumping forward hundreds of years from the period in which the base game is set, is a recipe for reused content. So I was pretty pleased when CA announced their new series of Total War Saga games; episodic titles based around specific periods of history, the first of which being Thrones of Britannia. Many historical fans disliked CA’s focus on the Warhammer games, but it’s an irony, that the quality of this new historical title is quite obviously a direct result. The idea of faction specific mechanics, which CA cultivated in the Warhammer games, is centre stage in this new title. It adds diversity and exploration to a historical period that could have otherwise been quite easily generic, as I believe Age of Charlemagne was.
The year is 878AD; the Vikings have settled the lands they previously pillaged, establishing the Kingdoms of Northymbre, East Engle and the Viking sea kingdoms. Following the Saxon victory at Edington, Alfred the Great looks to unite all Saxons under one banner. Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Gwynedd seeks to unite Wales and push back against their ancient enemies. And in Scotland and Ireland, Circenn and Mide look to do much the same. You take the role of one of these factions, and through diplomacy and war, unite your people and conquer the British isles.
SLOW, BUT GOOD SLOW
Thrones of Britannia is slow. Reflecting the nature of conscription at the time, units don’t start at full health, but instead must replenish over time to reach full strength. Units also require quite a bit of food to maintain, so improving infrastructure is a must if you wish to improve armies. This does create quite a refreshing experience in terms of battles; the AI don’t constantly come at you with full 20 unit stacks and throughout the game you’ll fight battles of varying sizes. Armies also require supplies, which only regenerate in friendly territory, meaning your armies can’t indefinitely stay in enemy lands. There is also winter attrition, war fervour (which confers negative penalties if you’re losing) and influence, which will decrease due to losses, allowing political opponents to plot betrayal. So Thrones of Britannia is slow, but it’s a slowness that reflects how warfare was back then, contingent on so many varying factors.
Also the new mechanics don’t feel unwieldy the way Attila’s did; the entire interface of the game is very streamlined and has a favourable simplicity that harks back to Shogun 2 and Rome. Also the settlement management is very similar to Shogun 2; a limited roster of buildings and the introduction of small resource producing settlements (farms, mines, churches) is very similar to that games special province specific buildings. It also reflects the nature of warfare at the time and one of the reasons the Vikings were so hard to stop; with so many small undefended settlements, Kings couldn’t just sit behind their walls and watch their infrastructure burn and their people turn against them (and that is an issue you’ll face in the game). In terms of faction specific mechanics, there are a variety, but my favorite was the Viking Sea Kings ability to send an expedition out into the world. This would function like a little text based game that would reward you with victory and plunder, or defeat, depending on the choices you made.
I didn’t realize what I’d done until it was too late. My gruff voiced advisor shouted “Theeeirr Generaal iss deeeeead!” and it occurred to me; I’d just killed Alfred the Great. What impact would this have on history? Would England never be united? Would there never be a British Empire? Without the aftermath of our colonialism would the world be some kind of beautiful utopia? And all because I wanted to sack that village for 800 gold to build a slightly improved herring fishery. But I must admit, I was worried for the period combat. TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom make an absolute mockery of shield walls, showing Vikings forming testudos and claiming it was the Vikings who introduced shield walls to Saxons. But CA has done a fairly good job; unit formations are more compact and all shielded infantry units can use ‘Shield Castle’. My favourite period feature is that two handed axeman can form a wedge (or a swines horn) to break through enemy shield walls. This combat is also bolstered by a dramatic original soundtrack.
The units are things we have seen before: swordsmen, axemen, javelin men, bowmen, cavalry, dogs, but the models are well detailed and far less generic than Attila’s Vikings and Saxons. The naval combat and the siege maps are also far more varied. My only complaint with the combat is that there are way too many archers available for recruitment, considering archers were fairly rare at the time and their quality completely negates the use of spear throwers (who were common at the time). Also that the retinue infantry is a bit too good and will absolutely slaughter levy infantry (I had one unit of swordsmen regularly kill 300 men a battle) yet their upkeep has minimal difference. Other than this, Thrones of Britannia is a strong installment in the Total War series, the best British based campaign I’ve seen. Also considering the faction variation and period specific mechanics, a pretty hopeful statement for future saga installments and Three Kingdoms in the Autumn.
Gorgeous campaign map (especially the highlands and islands), history-based and faction specific mechanics
Combat isn’t quite as period focused as it could be.