The 4 Most Authentic Total War Games20 Apr 2018 2
Nobody’s gonna pretend that Total War 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 facts in name of spectacle.
However, the final product is an enjoyable and stunning take on history that manages to capture the feel of the depicted era, even though it eschews a good number of historical facts. Total War gives you a setting, then allows you to do whatever you want within that setting.
Paradox’s titles are amazing sociopolitical simulators, but they lack the visual grandeur and real time battle depth of Creative Assembly’s games. That unique mix of campaign turn-based logistics and real time tactical battles with epic visuals is something so far unparalleled -- no other franchise gives you such a beautifully recreated tactical playground of warring cultures.
As such, we decided to rank the best Total War game based not on historical accuracy, but on historical authenticity; that is, how 'real' and representative of the time period they feel as opposed to “were gladius' 50 or 55cm long?” accurate (neither, they were 60 to 85cm). Check it out!
Total War: ATTILA
Attila continues Napoleon’s and Rome II’s tradition of making the eponymous culture wipe its bottom with the rest of the globe. Clutching to an “end of the world” theme that paints Attila and his generals as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the game sets off 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.
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. Mainly conquering minor tribes while being paid by the decadents Romans to leave them alone, the Huns’ mystic reputation came from hearsay and rumours. The 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 the entirety of non-fortified 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-fueled blitzkrieg was broken, Attila struggled to achieve anything of significance, and that’s why Total War: ATTILA efforts to convince us he was the IS of its time ultimately fall flat.
One thing is certain, though: that fantastic throat-singing soundtrack is amazing.
Shogun 2: Total War
Shogun 2 is unique among Total War’s newest 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.
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 start to meekly use cavalry charges, and even when organised strategies became common form near the end of the Shogunate period, the influence of Bushido's individual mentality was strongly felt. Shogun II’s shoehorning of Japanese warfare into the European moulds of perfectly aligned units and spear walls challenges the era’s authenticity, while hundreds of cavalry flanking armies on the field goes contrary to the historical image of Japan.
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, but it feels less authentic to both historical and public perceptions than other entries.
Napoleon: Total War
The Napoleonic Wars are an integral part of the study of warfare, when the France that said “no” to multiple beheaded absolutist wanna-bes went down on an Italian-blooded Emperor.
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. Guy was relentless, and the (military) world (at least) is better off for it.
Napoleon: Total War -- in addition to having the best naval combat in the franchise’s entire history -- also manages to utterly 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.
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.
The game also benefits from having one of the most realistic campaign movement and weather systems in the franchise, thanks to the short timespans of each turn. In addition, the majestic music, the unbelievable perks of his generals, and the absolutely spot on voice-work of Stéphane Cornicard manage to create the ultimate impression of the legendary leader’s influence, and uniquely capture his legacy and the way it changed military tactics forever.
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
Rome is a favourite subject to a lot of folk, from tactical geniuses like Caesar himself and Napoleon all the way to assholes like Hitler. Every Archaeology and History class in universities is packed full when the subject is Romans, as everyone wants a piece of that sweet little Senātus Populusque Rōmānus.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Rome II ruffles as many feathers as it does with every little stumble it makes. While initially plagued by severe issues during a bad launch, the game has come leaps and bounds since its horrendous release 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. Artillery fires explosive pots of greek fire. Barbarians are equipped with heavy onagers. Anything that is not Rome is significantly misguided.
But that all becomes moot when you play as Rome. As the early Italian civilisation, 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.
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 specialties 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!