Total War is fracturing. It wasn't so long ago that the series was a succession of titles set in different periods of history, crisscrossing the past in no particular order as the Creative Assembly tinkered with the formula according to the constraints dictated by the technology of each era. That formula, for all the changes we've seen over the years, remains largely intact; players move armies around a region, pausing only to settle real-time battles when two opposing forces meet. And so it was for many years, that is until a recent burst of expansion saw the franchise begin to explore the world of Warhammer, invade mobile devices, and even advance into the realm of free-to-play online multiplayer.
Despite the broadening of the overall brand, you could argue that in terms of historical warfare the series is actually zooming in more closely on key moments in history, and since Rome II we've been getting increasingly focused Total War games. Rome II is a vast strategy game with a huge campaign map, Attila brought players deeper into Europe as the Western Roman Empire started to flounder and populations migrated due to climate change, and now with Thrones of Britannia we're picking things up a few hundred years later in Britain, during one of the defining periods of the island's history: the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
In terms of its place in the series, Thrones of Britannia is a "Saga". That's essentially a new label to describe more focused entries that closely examine a particular period of history. The Saga series will not, for example, include the likes of the upcoming Total War: Three Kingdoms, which is going to be another expansive game with a huge map that spans an extended period of time (more specifically, China circa 190 CE). Thrones of Britannia, on the other hand, has a very specific starting point - 878 AD - shortly after Alfred the Great had come back from the brink and fought the great Viking army out of south-west Britain. The game starts with Anglo-Saxon countries to the south, the Vikings to the north and east, with the showdown between the two framed by Welsh and Gaelic kingdoms to the north and west. And so begins a war that would eventually result in the formation of England, forging the identity of the English people.
As with any Total War, your connection to the period will enhance your enjoyment and we should note now that we're fascinated by this part of the British story. While we concede that we're not experts, we know enough to recognise how some of the quirks of the period have been adapted into interesting mechanics. An obvious example from Alfred's faction is the Witan, a council that met to discuss matters of state. Using this feature the player can issue general edicts that then feed into your overall campaign effort, such as raising or lowering taxes. Another example is the recruitment of new generals and governors to your faction, as you'll often have to throw money at them to keep them sweet, something that can feel annoying at first. However, the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy of the era was dominated by a gift-giving culture, and the most powerful warlords and kings had to make with the presents or risk mutiny among their lieutenants. It was, after all, an age of mercenaries.
Thrones of Britannia's tight focus allows CA to delve deep into the era in a way that the studio hasn't been able to in quite the same way before now, and we think the greater level of detail works really well. The map, for example, is extremely detailed, and despite only including the British Isles it still feels huge (and we booted up Rome II to see the difference in scale and detail, the contrast between the two Britains is vast). Each major kingdom is included, with the bigger towns supported by smaller settlements, and it's actually quite fun trying to work out what the old English place names translate to in modern terms. Once again you earn money from the buildings in your towns, and once again you're leveling them up as you balance productivity with overall stability and building/maintaining an army. Apart from perhaps the removal of powerful agent units, this part of the game is relatively untouched, and it still works nicely.
Another part of the game that remains largely intact is the combat. Over the years we've seen plenty of refinement in this area, but we're mainly talking about subtle evolution rather than wholesale revolution. That remains the case, and if you're familiar with the basic rock-paper-scissors setup of the real-time battles, where hundreds of soldiers smash together on large battlefields, you'll instantly be at home with what's on offer in Thrones of Britannia. Indeed, there's actually not too much here that feels fresh, and the units we controlled don't look particularly different to what we've seen before in recent entries. In that sense, and with regards to the basic structure of the strategy layer, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was just more of the same, but thanks to some refinements made to the progression system and the politics, we found this to be one of the most engaging Total War games we've played in years.
CA has been looking to add more flavour to the turn-based strategy part of the game in recent times. With Warhammer it was made easier thanks to the fantasy lore and the asymmetry of the factions, but with Rome II and Attila the studio tried to add more intrigue by spicing up the in-game politics. While this was a move in the right direction neither game really nailed it. Now, though, the tighter focus of Thrones of Britannia has allowed the studio to more closely explore the personalities of the characters you're interacting with during each turn. Your closest followers have clearer motivations this time around, and an emphasis on traits and abilities makes certain personalities standout and feel more meaningful to your story. Many of these features were there before, but now they're more refined and increasingly prominent, and each turn is all the more interesting for it.
Thrones of Britannia isn't quite at the level of a Paradox game in terms of character depth, but CA has still made a big step in the right direction and this whole part of the game is much more accessible than it ever has been before. As you progress you're leveling up not just your faction leader, but all of their underlings, balancing the needs of your army alongside the needs of the wider kingdom. Importantly, as you do so you can see more clearly how these stats and abilities are feeding into your overall campaign and how the traits of each character are impacting on events. In past Total War games, the interactions with your subjects were never a selling point, but there's much more to get your teeth stuck into here, with little storylines emerging between the battles as the many characters around you scrap and scheme.
Another change that we really liked was the abandonment of the 3D character art in favour of more artistic character portraits. The whole UI has benefitted from a subtle but meaningful overhaul, and it feels relatively simple to access the information you want at any given moment. The icons and menu layouts are all easier to get to grips with, and the notifications also feel more streamlined. There's more detail to take in, certainly, but the enhanced presentation does a great job of keeping the player informed about what's going on, who's doing what, and why certain things are happening around the map.
There are a couple of areas that could do with further improvement though, and Diplomacy could well be the next major system to get an overhaul. Dealing with enemies isn't much of an issue and you're options are usually straightforward and to the point, but we wanted greater control over our vassal kingdoms. You can suggest an enemy for your allies to attack, but in our experience, the various faction leaders mostly did what they wanted. It wasn't a major issue (their conquests were ultimately ours at the end of the day) but we still didn't really feel like we had the authority of a king of kings, and a greater range of diplomatic options when dealing with both friends and foes wouldn't have gone amiss. Something for next time perhaps.
The only other thing that might hold it back for some is franchise fatigue, as we're treated to a lot of Total War these days. If you're more into the history side of things you've had plenty of time to warm up for this next entry (discounting the aforementioned mobile and free-to-play games), but those who pick up each and every game with the Total War name might not find things feeling so fresh. While we've not covered this exact period of history before, in the grand scheme of things it's only a stone's throw away from what we've already seen and played in Attila and in certain Rome II DLC. The deep dive into this one period of history and the emphasis on character progression sets Thrones of Britannia apart, but at the end of the day, it's perhaps not quite enough to make this an essential purchase. Indeed, the score at the end of this review probably reflects our personal interest in the period and our own lack of fatigue as much as it does the refinements that have been made to the overall formula, and we can appreciate why some people might not rate it as highly as we do.
The more detailed focus of this new Saga spinoff series works very well, and the greater emphasis on character progression breathes new life into the strategy half of the campaign. CA has done a great job adding more personality to the turn-based portion of the game, and the more detailed examination of this particular period of history has allowed them to more vividly bring it to life. This key moment in British history is a great pick for a more thorough campaign, and it makes sense given the slow zoom we've been seeing since Rome II, but perhaps next time it would be nice to see something completely different set in a totally new part of the world. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, from the subject matter through to the more personable strategy layer and the greater focus on granular detail, even if we're hoping CA takes a few more risks when it comes to the setting of its next entry in the new Saga series.
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