The Most Authentic Total War Games

By Marcello Perricone 14 Dec 2018 2

Forget about the best Total War game, which game is the most authentic? Which games capture the essence and history of the time the best? Nobody’s gonna pretend that the series is a paragon of historical accuracy. We all know they take several hundred liberties with their subject matter, placing fun above absolute veracity, and often ignore history in name of spectacle.

However, the final product is usually always an enjoyable and stunning take on history that manages to capture the feel of the depicted era. Total War gives you a setting, then allows you to do whatever you want within that setting. That unique mix of campaign turn-based logistics and real time tactical battles with epic visuals is something so far unparalleled.

So, without further ado, here's our take on the most authentic Total War games...

Total War: ATTILA

Clutching to an “end of the world” theme that paints Attila and his generals as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, this game sets unleashes the fearsome Hun hordes upon Europe and minor Asia. Extremely overpowered horse archers and fireball-hurling onagers all work together to recreate the unbelievable historical effectiveness of the Huns in battle, and gives them all the tools to raze every single nation in their paths.

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While the feeling of dread and fear that surely haunted the Roman Empires is masterfully recreated, Attila goes a bit too far with how widespread that sentiment actually was. Historically, a combination of conquering minor tribes and being paid-off by the Romans fuelled a lot of the hearsay and rumour that became the Huns’ mystic reputation. Reports of their many conquests allied with the constant fear of an invasion created a deep seated terror in Christian hearts, which quickly jumped to the conclusion that “God hates us”, like religious people are prone to do.

However, The Scourge of God was hardly invincible, and was in fact unable to take Constantinople, Rome, or even exposed France. Once he got his ass kicked in one area, he would usually turn around and hightail his army out of Dodge, going for greener (and hopefully unaware) pastures. It was a parasitic existence, and relied heavily on speed, surprise, and shock value to work. Once the momentum of this horse-fuelled blitzkrieg was broken, Attila struggled to achieve anything of significance. This is why Total War: ATTILA's efforts to convince us he was the unstoppable force of his time ultimately fall flat.

Shogun 2: Total War

Shogun 2 is unique among Total War’s newer entries, as it was the last entry in the franchise to feature all factions as even entities. Sure, you have better bonuses or starting positions, but all clans feature roughly the same unit roster and buildings that allow every player to eventually be on equal footing with anyone but the shogunate.

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While every Total War title is accused of catering to Hollywoodian portrayals and expectations , Shogun II is actually the worst offender in this category. Black-clad ninjas, full sized battalions of katana units or cavalry, and speared Yari Ashigaru fighting in perfectly rectangular formations are a few of the many, many liberties the game takes that stripes the period from its historical particularities and dilutes it into easily understandable formulas.

While accuracy is not the subject matter of this article, Shogun II’s authenticity suffers from those changes as well. The popular view of the samurai period often doesn’t involve large scale battles, and the few ones that pierce the cultural veil tend to be a myriad of scattered soldiers in the woods fighting not as units, but individuals. Curiously, that is actually how it happened -- warfare in feudal Japan was severely less centred in tactics and division formation, and instead placed a critical focus on single combat and individual honour. It took them over 200 years to consider cavalry charges.

Nonetheless, the game’s atmosphere is wonderful. The visuals, art, and especially music are gorgeous, and it all ties together to create one amazing experience. It is easily one of the best and most engaging Total Wars available, Shogun II’s shoehorning of Japanese warfare into the European moulds regimented units challenges the era’s authenticity.

Total War SAGA: Thrones of Britannia

We're calling in help from our sister website The Wargamer for this one - our grog-minded brother in arms Bill is notorious for his dislike of the Total War games. "Hollywood history", as he calls them, and yet he was surprisingly taken aback by Thrones of Britannia, Creative Assembly's sandbox set within Anglo-Saxon England at the time of the great Viking invasion. Alfred the Great, The Lothbrok brothers... England is a power keg of different cultures all vying to be the ultimate ruler of the British Isles.

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While it's place in the Total War pantheon is a bit troubled, give that it's attempting to do new things with an old engine, Bill was very pleased with how authentically the game captures the tactics and military concerns of the day. Bill comments:

"... [Thrones of Britannia] does a very commendable job of recreating the flavor and detail thereof. Yes, the tactical game still works the same way, but there are some significant differences. First and to me most significant, the armies opposing each other, regardless of which of the 10 factions owns them, are practically identical in terms of weaponry, tactics and organization. This means little to no cavalry or archers, but lots of very close order infantry and lots of shields. Shields and decreased spacing for warriors play a big part in this game because you can recreate the vaunted shield wall, and this turns infantry formations into miniature forts that move, totally impervious to projectiles zipping around except for the rare critical hit (think King ‘arrow in the eye’ Harold at Hastings). Likewise, cavalry in the game actually stops dead and rears up when confronting one of these things, then walks into contact, totally negating any charge bonus."

When Thrones of Britannia first came out, many disliked it for being too simple in terms of the strategic and tactical options that it offered. As Bill hints in his feature, these were simpler times. Updates since release have done what they can to improve the game on all fronts, but it's still a great homage to Dark Age warfare, in a time dominated by uncertainty and a generation-spanning conflict between cultures.

Napoleon: Total War

Napoleon is widely recognised as one of the greatest military minds to have ever existed, taking the staunch defiance of Britain and the combined arms of every major nation in Europe to take him down. They even imprisoned ol’ Bonnie on an island, but he came back for a while before being exiled to another, more distant isle. This guy was relentless, and the (military) world (at least) is better off for it.

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Napoleon: Total War -- in addition to having the best naval combat in the franchise’s entire history -- also manages to capture the cold and damp battlefields of European warfare. The cold fog sweeps over the frozen grass as columns of soldiers march towards a gently sloped hill. Between the ragged edges of the summit and the flatland below, lines of riflemen take position in perfectly arranged formations and face the incoming army, artillery watching silently over them on the rocky ridge. As the opposing troops come into range, thousands of rifles roar into life, muzzle flashes piercing the smoke of gunpowder that suddenly fills the battlefield. Cavalry manoeuvres around the enemy and crashes into their flanks, frontline troops charging over the bodies of their fallen brethren. As the rank and file close quarters and engage in bayonet combat, the hidden battery of cannons open fire enfilade, sweeping hundreds of troops with each shot, dealing devastating casualties and rolling the enemy line. The opposing army flees, routed and shattered, while the victorious riflemen kneel and start to fire at their backs, cavalry rushes after the stragglers, cannonballs lifting up tons of dirt around them as they strike the ground. That is Napoleon: Total War.

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From the hot sands of Egypt to the frozen tundras of Russia, from the waters of Gibraltar to the uplands of England, the game perfectly captures the atmosphere and climate of this momentous military period. Beautiful graphics and effects for the first time elevated the franchise into a bonafide graphical beauty, exemplified in naval battles as ships shake and heave with each cannon fired, their broadsides tearing at each other. It was the moment the franchise at last became a tactical and visual masterpiece.

Fun fact: Napoleon was not short. He was actually 1.69m, which is taller than the period’s average. The confusion comes from the fact that France’s measurement system of feet was different from the British standard, and that the Emperor’s Imperial Guard was composed of gigantic brutes much taller than normal folk.

Total War: Rome II 

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Rome is a favourite subject for a lot of folk. Archaeology and History classes across Europe are packed full when the subject is Romans, as everyone wants a piece of that sweet little Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. While initially plagued by severe issues during a bad launch, the game has come leaps and bounds since those dark days and by this point stands proudly among the top three Total War games in existence.

That is not to say it is perfect. Carthaginian, Libyan, Greek (and by a certain extent, Egyptian) troops feel like copy pastes of each other. Barbarians are equipped with heavy onagers and as before a lot more significance is given to Rome and its place in the world, although things are always getting better and more diverse.

But that all becomes moot when you play as Rome, where every enemy becomes a difficult yet surmountable obstacle. The maniple is expertly shown in all its glory, and placing infantry formations in accordance to historical tactics proves extremely rewarding. Lines of hastati engage incoming hordes with their hastaes at long range before closing in and holding them back in close combat. Where opposition is strong, principes can be ordered forward to provide support or around the flanks to pincer foes, turning the previous line of battle into a proper killbox. If everything else fails, it comes down to the triarii. These experienced troops can easily hold many times their number, and if positioned behind opposing infantry, can instantly cause them to break and rout. It is an amazing display of Roman ingenuity and tactical brilliance, and it reflects the spectacular way in which they conquered their foes in the early period.

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When the Marian Reforms happen, legionaries take the place of manipular legions, and the game becomes significantly less focused on infantry. The transition to fully fledged all-around soldiers reduces the strain of maintaining several types of infantry, and allows legions to start branching out in the variety of specialities that made them so noteworthy. Cavalry, auxiliary troops, and artillery start to be a meaningful part of your armies, and the expansion of Rome finally reaches it’s peak.

More than the technical side of it, what the game really nails is the atmosphere. There is nothing like watching 12,000 troops clash on the field, while hundreds of cavalry charge onto their flanks and plow through ranks of soldiers. Artillery is thoroughly breathtaking, regardless if you’re raining death on charging columns of barbarians or unleashing hell with a full 20-stack legion of onagers laying siege to some city’s walls. The graphics, politics, and music all work together to create an amazing take of what the mighty of Rome feels like. It’s extremely undeserved reputation comes from a bad first impression coupled with mob mentality, but once you get past that, Rome II’s balance between historicity and fun stands out as one of the best Total Wars and Ancient Rome titles around.

What would your list of the best total war games look like? What measurement do you use? Let us know in the comments!

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