Troy: A Total War Saga Is The History Channel of Video Games and I Love It

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The Total War Saga series has felt, to this point, somewhat lacking an identity. Thrones of Britannia received a middling response from genre fans because it never felt different from traditional Total War. The historical specificity was there; the sense of place was there. Yet the systems were firmly grounded in Total War history, not that of Brittania. I think Total War Saga: Troy is different. While it doesn’t do anything too radical, it does know to take risks. Troy feels like at the cusp of defining the identity of its series to the broader public. Even so, it can’t quite escape its older siblings’ shadow just yet. I don’t think anything encapsulates this better than the game’s driving design principle: the truth behind the myth.

The Trojan War is a muddy period of history. Our knowledge of it is informed as much by legend as “real” information. The main Total War series is no stranger to complex histories, though. The recently released Total War: Three Kingdoms had two separate modes to split the difference between the heroic text of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the likely historical reality of the Three Kingdoms period.

Both Three Kingdoms and Troy present a tension between the stories they’re born from and the historical aesthetic of the mainline Total War series. I say a “historical aesthetic” because these are sandbox strategy games. You aren’t playing through scenarios to recreate history as it happened. You mess around in a playset themed around a particular era. This isn’t a dig at Total War by any means! This structure really works for most of the series. But they emerge from the same idea of history that fuels the ever-strange History Channel: not quite drama, not quite reenactment, all under a thin film of claimed legitimacy.

Three Kingdoms did this perfectly by making all of its legendary heroes feel… well, legendary. The generals of Troy are no different. Menelaus feels like Menelaus should. He’s big and strong and good at applying pressure to allies and enemies alike. Paris is cunning and flexible, ever obsessed with Helen — often to the detriment of his own ambition. Achilles’s only weakness is not his heel, as fun as that would be. This is due in part to the game’s messy engagement with the more mythical parts of its story.

I suppose it’s time to address the Minotaur (and other monsters). You cannot talk about the Iliad and the Odyssey without acknowledging the elephant-sized monsters in the room. As I said above, the Total War and Saga games like to stick close to a historical aesthetic. That is to say: these sadly aren’t actual minotaurs, cyclops (Cyclopsi? Cyclopses? Cyclopi?), gorgons, and satyrs. You need to check out Total War: Warhammer for those.

Total War Cyclops
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However, Troy has human stand-ins. This is very silly and I kind of love it. The minotaur for example is a “Bandit King” who wears a bull skull for a helmet. He towers over his fellow troops — and I do mean towers. He is like, double the height of the person next to him. In the attempt to maintain the assertion that there is no magic in mainline Total War, Creative Assembly has made a 10-foot tall man. That whips, in my humble opinion.

The satyr, meanwhile, is just a dude who is really good at partying and promoting good harvests! Gorgons are just women who are really good at scaring the shit out of entire armies. This is all so dumb and so good. And I think it may give the Saga series a real identity — by walking right up to fantasy without crossing the threshold.

Being weird in service of an already compromised sense of historicism is what makes Troy work. That, and the willingness to experiment. The game sports a five resource economy instead of the usual, flat currency. It’s another great example of the series making tiny adjustments for the setting. To “accurately” reflect the period, Creative Assembly introduced a multi-resource economy. It just so happens to make Total War so much better. I was able to actually understand the global strategy layer when I had a real economy to play with and fight over.

The same goes for unit composition. To reduce the reliance on cavalry, infantry have been broken down into three weight classes: light, medium, and heavy. This is a huge and welcome change. Infantry units, even those using the same weapons, feel genuinely distinct from one another. It isn’t just the spear unit and The Better Spear Unit. There’s the more defensive Medium Spearman, as well as the flanking Spear Militia. These distinctions matter and make the game so much easier to understand at a tactical level.

Total War Saga: Troy is not a history textbook. It’s a playset that someone made after reading a history textbook. That’s perfect! That is exactly what I want: something focused and experimental and messy. I am so excited to play more when it emerges from a big, wooden horse on Aug. 13, 2020 (when it will literally be free on the Epic Games Store. Just get it if you like grand strategy! You have no reason not to.

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