I’ve been playing A Total War Saga: Troy for a little over a week now. As a long-time fan of the Total War series (since the first installment, Shogun: Total War, twenty years ago), a lover of Greek mythology, and a history buff, there’s a lot for this game to measure up to. Does it live up to those lofty expectations, or are they as impenetrable as the walls of the fabled city of Troy itself?
All media courtesy of Creative Assembly unless otherwise noted.
Playthroughs so far:
75 turns each as Agamemnon and Hector of Troy.
30 turns as Sarpedon.
First and foremost, let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way. How does it run? I’ll preface these remarks by saying that my rig is a potato. I’m running Troy on a laptop with an AMD Ryzen 3 processor and embedded Radeon Vega 3 graphics chipset. It’s intended as a multimedia/business machine, so when it comes to gaming, I’m not pushing any limits. So, you won’t see any Ultra graphic setting benchmarks here. But for the average or budget PC gamer: how does it run?
As you can see here, I have the character graphics cranked up and the terrain graphics on medium, with most of the “special effects” set to low or turned off. Even at large unit size and with persistent bodies, I’ve gotten through full dual-stack engagements (40 units on each side) with no frame rate issues. I actually think I could bump up the terrain settings a little, but so far I haven’t been trying to push my luck. These are the types of settings I usually run “newer” Total War games on (Atilla, Warhammer I — no, I haven’t played Warhammer II or Three Kingdoms), and I have to say Troy runs better than usual.
When it comes to the more number-crunchy aspects like load screens and A.I. turn time, I’ve been absolutely blown away. Creative Assembly has done an amazing job optimizing things under the hood for Troy. On Rome II, even in vanilla, I find myself skimming social media while I wait for my turn on the campaign map. Heavily modded, as I generally play it, I’ve got YouTube running on my TV while I wait. The A.I. turns in Troy go by in less than thirty seconds in the early game, and even around turn 75—with a lot of allies revealing a broad portion of the map and animating A.I. movements—it still only takes a couple of minutes.
The game is much more stable than I’ve become accustomed to from Total War games, as well. I can minimize the game, run half a dozen other programs for work, and come back to it later without a hiccup. I’ve even left it minimized, put the PC to sleep, come back and gotten some work done, and gone back to the game—for several days in a row—without it crashing. I even think about doing that with an older Total War game and my laptop weeps with dread.
Style & Atmosphere
This isn’t normally a section you see in game reviews, and not one I would readily think of adding in most cases. But with Troy, this has to be pointed out. The game is absolutely dripping with style. The user interface has stone carvings reminiscent of the bronze age ruins on Crete. Hellenistic pottery art permeates every layer of the menus. Quotes from the Iliad appear regularly on loading screens. And Homer himself is your advisor throughout your journey. The music is engrossing. The armor and weapon designs on the characters is evocative of the bronze age. Overall, at every turn, I’ve felt immersed in the setting.
A quick note for the uninitiated. Total War is a series of strategy games with two major aspects: A turn-based grand campaign and real-time battles. While the two are connected (your armies on the grand campaign map clash, and then you play a real-time battle), they’re essentially two very different faces of the same coin (and if you ask me, this dichotomy is what makes the franchise amazing).
As a purely single-player Total War gamer, this is the make it or break it aspect of these games for me. I have to say the thrill of the battles are what really draw me into these games, but it’s the grand campaign stakes that makes me care about those battles. And from army recruitment to empire management, if that campaign isn’t “fun”, I’m not going to be thrilled about slogging through hours of tedium to experience twenty minutes of excitement.
As any Total War veteran could come to expect, the campaign gameplay at launch for Troy is a bit of a mixed bag. This is built on the Total War: Warhammer II engine, and there’s a lot about that chapter of the series I’m not a huge fan of. I have to say I’ve only played Warhammer I, so I’m not sure how many of the changes were implemented in Warhammer II or for Troy.
One big change that definitely is new for Troy is a completely new theory on economy management. In every Total War game so far, you’ve had a single monetary value (gold, essentially, no matter what it’s called in each game). In Troy, you now have a multi-layered economy to manage consisting of food, wood, stone, bronze, and gold. Early game units only require food, but as you progress bronze and gold becomes more important. Buildings mostly rely on wood and stone, although some —mostly recruitment buildings—also require food. And gold comes into play in a variety of ways, from trade to faction special features and unlocking techs.
I’ve really enjoyed this new system, and it creates a lot of new strategic layers to the empire management end of things. I’d like to point out what I think are the two best things about the implementation of this system, and the one worst. On the up side, you’re no longer beholden to a single number to determine what you can build, recruit, and sustain. Just because you’re fielding a huge army doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade buildings anymore. Sure the army is chewing through all your food, but you still have wood and stone pouring in to build with. You can also trade with other factions for each resource—both in one-time deals and in long-term barter agreements—so you can chuck off that surplus of stone you’re not using for more food to feed the aforementioned host of soldiers. On the down side of how this plays out is that resources are bound by settlement. Even though you have a town on what looks like a fertile plain, if there’s a wood icon next to it’s name, wood is the only resource it can produce. This does add another strategic element, as you may find yourself invading settlements not just to expand, but to grab a precious resource you’re lacking in. But, it limits the flexibility and player agency when it comes to empire management. Instead of deciding to focus a certain region on a particular purpose like food production or mining—or diversifying the settlement with an agricultural base and a little mining or logging on the side—you’re beholden to what’s already on the map. Choice has always been one of the best things about Total War campaigns, and this is a big slap in the face when it comes to that.
On the subject of economy, another thing that stands out as a thorn in the side is the logistics system, which was something I was not at all a fan of in Warhammer. Back in Rome II and Atilla, the number of armies you could recruit was limited by the size of your empire. I felt this worked well. In Warhammer and Troy, you can recruit as many armies as you want. But, there’s a big but here. For every additional army, there’s essentially a “tax” on your upkeep to represent the logistics of managing multiple forces. The tax, just in food cost, is 18%! The bronze tax is much lower, and hasn’t been a problem for me. In theory, this is a good abstract of this concept. In execution, it’s absolutely punishing, especially when you’re on the offensive. With city garrisons fielding some stiff opposition, plus a full stack standing in said city, you better bring two armies to any siege. Once you start fighting wars on multiple fronts (and this is going to happen whether you plan for it or not), it’s almost impossible for any economy to support an army.
I also have to add that specifically, I’ve found food-producing settlements to be far too few in number. Many a times I’ll have a surplus of bronze, stone, and gold (you’re constantly using wood to build almost everything), but dealing with food shortages has dominated so far the span of two different 75-turn campaign playthroughs—even with limiting my number of armies to the absolute minimum.
One of the biggest new features to be found in Troy is the faction mechanics. Each of the eight factions available at launch has two mechanics that totally change the goals, abilities, and play style of each of them. I’m on the fence about this to a certain degree. On one hand, playing as Agamemnon with the goal (and ability) to subjugate other Achean kingdoms under your rule, then switching to Hector of Troy and trying to unite the Pelasgians into a confederation of equals, makes playing as each faction a unique experience. On the other hand, some of these features limit what you can do or put you on a set of rails that you must follow if you want to be successful. Want to inherit the entire Trojan domain as either Hector or Paris? You have a honey-do list from Priam that is expansive and demanding, and if you don’t make daddy happier with you than your brother, you can kiss your inheritance goodbye. As mentioned above, choice is a big think in Total War, and while these mechanics add unique flavor to each faction, it’s another thing taking choice away from the player.
I’m going to be honest—I had to come back and add this paragraph as an afterthought. That in itself is an indictment of one aspect of campaign gameplay in Troy: Divine Favor. In short, the Greek gods don’t walk the map, but they do live in one of the menus. And you have to spend food (AKA sacrifice 100 bulls), perform rituals with agents, or pray to them if you want certain campaign and battle stat bonuses. The official spin is that if you don’t keep them happy, they will punish you, but I’ve had Zeus wreck a town with lightning several times no matter how much I spent on raising his favor, so I think those disasters might just be random events to remind you there’s a whole gameplay mechanic you’d rather forget about. Altogether, it feels more like another thing on the honey-do list rather than an opportunity to develop your faction, especially since the favor automatically decreases every turn and you have to constantly work to maintain it.
Other than these big features, things pretty much feel like the Total War experience that we’re used to. There’s a tech tree (they call it “Royal Decrees”, but we know what it is). You have to build and upgrade buildings. You’re marching your little dudes around the map and smashing faces. Diplomacy with other factions is more or less a struggle against unseen and unfathomable forces. And by the time you feel like you’ve grown enough to be one of the major players, all your neighbors will decide they hate you and declare war.
If you haven’t played a Total War game before; all I can say is after reading this, pick what time period floats your boat and go find the entry in the series that is the best match to that. Then, the rest of this will make a lot more sense, because it’s going to be absolutely comparative.
I’d say the battles in Troy feel about how one would expect if you’ve played anything from Rome II or later. Long-story-short, here’s the big differences: Light infantry is really fast, heavy infantry is quite slow, and there’s infantry dudes with some cavalry-like charge bonuses. Morale is more important now than killing, and flanking imposes some crushing morale effects. So in adjusting from what you already know, treat your light infantry like slow cavalry and FLANK THE ENEMY! Also, missile weapons are even more useless against the front of shielded units than before, so you better flank with those as well.
But, is it fun? Hell yeah. I’m an infantry guy. I don’t care what era Total War I’m playing, I’d rather have a huge infantry clash than a bunch of cavalry skirmishes. The more boots on the ground, the better. So I’m absolutely loving Troy’s focus on infantry gameplay.
But… (You knew this was coming, right?) Chariots. By Poseidon’s soggy balls, the friggin’ chariots. I’ve been lucky that the AI hasn’t used more than a unit or two against me at a time, but even one unit showing up on the field makes me cringe. I played a battle yesterday with two units of light archer chariots, charged them into six of the enemy’s skirmisher units like a line of Norman knights, and wiped out half the enemy army before they even got within range while only losing around 25% of the chariots. Now, I know chariots should have a devastating charge, but this feels like it’s a bit much. (I also saw a video on YouTube where a guy took a doomstack of 19 chariots and wiped out a 50-ish unit strong Trojan army of mid-to-elite units with barely a scratch and absolutely no strategy.)
The wicker carts of genocide out of the way, let’s spend a moment on the “mythic” units in the game. Centaurs, minotaurs, cyclops, harpies, giants…
From the early announcement on development, Creative Assembly laid out a design philosophy of mixing together the myth, legend, and history of the Trojan War. (Maybe history—archeologists and historians are still digging for answers to this, pun very much intended). As such, they’ve included mythic units to the game with a truth behind the legend take on them. The minotaur is a huge, burly dude wearing a bull-skin cloak, complete with it’s head as a hood. Centaurs are simply cavalry—the only non-chariot cavalry in the game. Harpies are very badass women skirmishers. And giants are just really big dudes (albeit extremely big dudes). Recruiting these units are—just like how resources are handled—limited by map location. Again, this has two results. While their availability is appropriately limited, the player can only work towards recruiting them by conquering certain provinces and building up unit-specific buildings, as opposed to having the agency to, say, research a tech and/or build a place to recruit them from in a location of their choosing.
Now on to the stars of the story: Heroes. Heroes in Troy, much like in Warhammer, act as the general of your army. Unlike other installments, they aren’t part of a bodyguard unit. They’re single entities free-roaming the battlefield. I think this works great for the narrative aspect of the game, as the heroes of the Iliad were larger-than-life figures that were mythical in their own right. The skill progression for the heroes on the campaign map offers a bit of flexibility, and there’s a wide range of classes for the heroes that each have their own specializations. On the battlefield, you can use your hero more like a traditional general, activating abilities to buff your units or debuff the enemy, or they can wade into the front lines. They won’t wipe out entire units like the heroes in Warhammer though. Rather than turning the tide of an entire battle in melee, it feels more like they might turn the tide of a single clash of two units. They seem a little overpowered for a single person, but not grossly so. And when two of them engage in a duel, the other warriors around them will spread out and give them space to fight in an epic, mostly well-animated clash. Overall, I think heroes were handled very well here.
My #1 gripe about the battles though? The pacing is FAR too fast. It seems almost as soon as units start fighting, one side freaks out and runs away. With the gameplay designed around flanking and unit movement, there’s hardly any time to enact a strategy here. And those units that run away will often rally and come back, so you’re left with a cycle reminiscent of Attila where units are constantly rubber-banding away from and back to the battle. None of this is surprising though, as since Medieval II, I’ve had the same complaint about every Total War game. But, those complaints usually find a solution down the road…
The Future of Troy
Anybody who’s already a fan of the Total War series will know that there’s one overwhelmingly massive aspect of these games that keeps us playing them for years after they launch (Rome II is still my go-to Total War game, with exactly 658 hours logged as of the writing of this article): the modding community.
All Total War games have a certain life cycle we’ve all come to know and expect. The game is good at launch, but there are serious issues. Then, a few mods come out to patch those holes. After a while, Creative Assembly will fix many of the issues on their own, and we’ll also get a major overhaul mod that completely transforms the game into the “what it could have been” version (ie: Stainless Steel for Medieval II or Divide et Imperium for Rome II). And finally, there will come along total conversions that transform the game engine into something else entirely (ie: Third Age (the LOTR conversion) for Medieval II or Medival Kingdoms 1212ad for Atilla).
As we can see above, Creative Assembly already has plenty of additional content planned, and we’ll likely see a slew of bug fixes, balance patches, and feature tweaks along the way. The most exciting thing there is the full mod support in September. As Troy launched on the Epic Games Store instead of Steam, we don’t yet have the support of the Steam Workshop. I’m hoping this mod support on Epic comes close to that functionality, but I’m not holding my breath. (Troy will be on Steam in late 2021, so some players are holding out for that).
As of right now, there are a few mods available out there. You just have to do the old-school method of installing them, which in the case of Troy is a simple matter of dumping a file into a folder. You can’t change the load order though, so other than minor tweaks I wouldn’t try anything crazy until there’s a mod manager available (there could already be one since I haven’t checked in a week, and depending on when you’re reading this, a lot of these predictions may have already come to pass). Here’s what I’ve got running so far though:
Those insanely fast battles? I found a mod that adds +10 morale to every unit. This does slow things down and reduces the number of times units run away and then come back. It’s not the slow clash I really prefer, but it doesn’t feel totally broken either. I’ve also found a slight fix to diplomacy that reduces the “great power” penalty that makes everybody hate you because your empire is growing. And best of all there’s a mod that reduces that logistics “tax” from 18% to 8%. It still feels a bit like an artificial penalty for having multiple armies, but it’s at least playable now.
So, I’m cautiously optimistic about the mod support on Epic. I got Troy for free on launch day (they gave it away for 24 hours), so if the mod support sucks and my interest level is still there after the Steam Workshop starts filling up with mods that can’t be found elsewhere, I’ll probably buy it on there just for that. I always play Total War games heavily modded to tweak the features to match my preferences, so limited mod availability would definitely be a deal-breaker for me about a year after launch. Considering I found the above-mentioned mods only three days after the release though, I think the community is going to jump on this like Agamemnon jumping on the excuse to start a war.
Overall Impression and Ratings
I had very high hopes for A Total War Saga: Troy since it was first rumored to be in development—tempered by a long history of being mildly enthused with Total War games at launch and not really diving in until they were heavily modded a year or more later.
Despite what turned out to be an unexpected amount of griping above, I have to say I’m not disappointed. I had my grain of salt ready from the beginning, and I think the results are about in line with what I expected. The overall design and style of the game, and the base framework that’s been built, is overwhelmingly amazing. The execution of some of the features, balance of things like economy and battle pacing, and the usual issues we expect see (I’m looking at you, diplomacy system) leave a lot of room for improvement.
If I were to rate the game as it exists in its vanilla state, just on gameplay, it would be mediocre. The style of the design and the technical performance both give this outing a huge boost, though. If I look at it’s potential—accounting for the limitations of what I feel are some disappointing campaign mechanics—and consider what I expect will be happening over the next year with both patches and mods, I have to say it’s a stellar outing from the Total War franchise. With that in mind…
And the ultimate question: What am I going to do when I finish writing this article? I’m going to go play A Total War Saga: Troy. I say that on this subject, let that be the final word.