The first thing I noticed, as a long-time fan of this series, is that A Total War Saga: Troy is extremely and unabashedly stylish. The world is ringed by surreal, soaring mountains that suggest ancient Greek pottery. The battle resolution animation shows the opposing generals fighting theatrically under a heavenly spotlight. The color palette is perfect for making me feel as though I’ve been transported to the Bronze Age world. And this personality seeps over into a fairly satisfying campaign as well. There are some cracks in this ornate amphora, particularly when it comes to AI, but unlike the previous Saga game it’s not a black sheep of the Total War family.
Creative Assembly has been getting better and better at faction design with almost every game and DLC pack it’s released in the last few years, and Troy’s playable campaign factions are no exception. As Achilles, you have the invigorating task of defending your title as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Aegean, with a roster of aggressive, mobile melee units to back you up. As Hector, you have to constantly compete for your dear father’s affection with your annoying kid brother who got us into this mess in the first place, in hopes of eventually inheriting the city of Troy. The tough, tanky spearmen in his roster play great with defensive terrain and holding cities against assault. Each leader I played felt distinct and interesting, in terms of goals, campaign abilities, and fighting style.
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These heroes also have their own dramatic, story-based win conditions called Homeric Victories that walk them through some of the highlights of their role in the Iliad, such as Menelaus having to reclaim Helen and Hector having to make sure the city of Troy does not fall. This is a great nod to the source material, and helps further differentiate each campaign – and it’s great that it doesn’t get in the way if you want to pursue a more traditional Total War victory instead. Sometimes answering Agamemnon’s call to war can be a bit more trouble than it’s worth. There are also some special, discoverable objectives with unique rewards, like becoming Anax – basically a tribal king – of one of the map’s several geographic areas.
The map, as I mentioned, is absolutely stunning. From the lush, hilly valleys of the Peloponnese to the rocky, rugged islands of the Cyclades scattered across the wine-dark sea, every corner is a joy to explore. Undiscovered areas are covered in a beautiful weathered texture like baked clay, with ancient writing floating across the surface forebodingly. Sailing into this unknown causes the edges to visually burn away in a fantastic, subtle effect. Everything about this world and this interface radiates personality. And on the ground, when battle is joined, period-accurate mud brick houses and simplistic farms remind you just how far back in time we’ve travelled. Most historical strategy games act like nothing before Alexander the Great is even worth mentioning, so the novelty of a Bronze Age setting is refreshing and effective.
Interacting with other leaders is often not as pleasant, though. While the convenient Quick Deal feature from Three Kingdoms makes a return, foreign leaders make a nuisance of themselves by spamming requests for absurdly lopsided trade deals, or constantly asking for free gifts of resources while offering nothing in return. It’s an issue that used to crop up in older Total War games, but I had thought we were past it by now. No, Lycomedes, you can’t have 250 bronze for free. And you can’t have it when you inevitably come back next turn, either.
It’s not that I can’t afford it, though. In Troy’s economy it’s possible to be producing enough food by Turn 50 to easily trade for whatever else you need. The flexibility of the barter system, which replaces money with other resources like wood, stone, and bronze, is great in theory; especially with the stronger infantry requiring relatively scarce bronze to train and upkeep, I can see what the designers were going for. But as the game goes on, scarcity decreases to the point that everyone can have everything they want, more or less. And having practically infinite resources takes a lot of the tension and decision-making out of the strategy layer.
These kinds of AI quirks extend to the battlefield as well, particularly with ranged units set to skirmish mode. All too often it results in them getting stuck on the terrain, or suicidally charging into the enemy melee troops for no clear reason instead of attacking and falling back like they’re supposed to. Epic heroes, likewise, will sometimes get stuck in an animation loop and be rendered useless, or do a 180 in the middle of the fray to launch a powerful area attack that only hits grass. Along with a handful of crashes to desktop when opening certain interface windows, this all makes it clear that this odyssey could have used a little more polish.
When the AI isn’t being a bugbear, though, field battles can be great fun. Bows and cavalry, staples of most other Total War games, are more of a novelty in this distant era, which has forced the designers to get creative in creating a new battlefield ecosystem. Even more so than usual, Troy’s clashes are all about maneuvering, with lighter and more nimble armies able to gain the advantage against heavier, slower ones by being able to decide the where and when of the fighting. And the battle maps are excellently designed for this, with the best choke points and flanking routes usually located a brisk march away from either side’s starting zone. Being able to get to them first can make a huge difference in how the battle will play out.
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Siege battles are a bit less enjoyable. Most of the time, the only siege weapons you’ll have access to until much later on are battering rams, so you can’t punch a hole in the walls without actual divine intervention. Scaling the walls with ladders can be borderline suicidal, inflicting hugely disproportionate casualties on the attackers even when using high quality assault troops. If you have the luxury of time, it’s almost always better to surround a city and wait for them to starve themselves into submission. This is accurate for the era, but it can also take away from the drama and momentum of a campaign as your conquests turn into waiting games.
There are several other things I found counter-intuitive as a long-time fan of the series, but they fell into place nicely once I could see past my preconceptions. Two-handed spearmen, for example, are essentially the replacement to heavy shock cavalry and should be used for rear and flanking charges – not at all like how we’re used to using spearmen in other Total Wars. Likewise, managing the positioning of skirmish troops while keeping an eye on everyone’s stamina bars can turn the tide in big ways. It definitely takes some getting used to, but is plenty satisfying once you do. And despite being so infantry-focused, the diversity between factions and even within a given faction’s roster offers plenty of options to pursue different playstyles.
Troy’s battles also suffer early on from an issue that’s also prevalent in Three Kingdoms: Low-tier units are simply too easy to rout. Until you have the buildings and the bronze to start hiring higher-tier line troops, a lot of battles can feel like more of a joust than anything. One side will simply crumble before you really have any time to maneuver. I find these kinds of engagements very chaotic and unsatisfying, and it had me wishing for a game setting to tweak the base unit morale or make the overall battle tempo to be a bit less hectic. Mods usually come along to fix stuff like this eventually, but that’s not a great excuse for the developers to ignore it.