It Should Have Been Perfect – Total War Troy Review

Total War Troy, which takes inspiration from The Iliad and retells the story of the Trojan War, releases today after months of anticipation. Is the game a good game, however? Does it offer a compelling strategy experience and immersive gameplay in the world of its inspirations? Or does Total War Troy come close but ultimately fail to deliver? This Total War Troy review has the answer. Disclosure: A copy of the game was provided to me by the developer.

An Encounter With The Iliad

I first read the Iliad nine years ago. I was a student of English literature, but I had always appreciated the Greco-Roman classics and wanted to enhance my appreciation of the foundations of Western civilization. I therefore took a class in the classics, in which we read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and other great works of Greco-Roman literature. The Iliad was at once gripping and evocative. Meant for an audience entirely alien to me – that of ancient Greeks living in an Iron-age Aegean environment – the work still evoked emotions from me. It was a story of pride and honor; greed and duty; fate and tragedy. I had always heard the names Achilles and Hector – now, I had met Achilles and Hector – as well as Briseis, Andromache, Priam, and Ajax. Ever since that spring, I have always held a deep appreciation and love for the work of the great poet, Homer.

Video version of this review

So, when I opened Total War Troy for the first time, I was delighted to find that same love and appreciation engulfing the entire project. In my previous article, I expressed fear that the game would attempt to rationalize and make material sense of what is ostensibly a work deeply embedded in an enchanted realm. When I did finally open the game, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The “truth behind the myth” was no where to be found. Instead, I was wrapped by motifs and callbacks to The Iliad. There are small details that litter the landscape of Total War Troy. For example, when I loaded up the game as Achilles, I was greeted as “swift-footed Achilles,” the most common descriptor given to Achilles in The Iliad. In another playthrough, clicking on Hector initiated the line “Hector of the Shimmering Helm,” another epithet used frequently in the original work to describe its character.

The game also draws inspiration from The Iliad for its mechanics. The three main characters of the game – Achilles, Paris, and Hector – have gameplay elements directly inspired by the Greek literary tradition. Achilles, for example, was considered an immensely emotional figure who was greatly influenced by his passions. Troy reflects this by making the player’s battle and campaign decisions effect Achilles’ mood, which in turn provide bonuses and penalties to the faction. Hector, the leader of the Trojan warriors, has to collect the Trojan heroes in a grand league to defend Troy, reflecting his staunch regard for his duty towards his city. Paris, on the other hand, has a mechanic that directly ties his – and his wife’s – emotions to their physical distance to each other. This is incredibly reminiscent of Hector’s dismay that Paris refuses to fight and instead stay at his wife’s side in Book VI of The Iliad.

These kinds of inspirations abound in Total War Troy. From the aesthetic, which is based on Grecian pottery art, to mechanics, to small touches like voice lines and nicknames, the game is inspired almost entirely by the Greek artistic tradition and its interpretation of The Iliad. So what, then, of the “truth behind the myth” design philosophy? It turns out, it was, more or less, a red herring, and referred only to the role of mythical units.

Taken in its totality, however, the game is a love letter to one of the foundational surviving texts of the Western literary canon and a testament to the way The Creative Assembly and its developers truly immerse themselves in the world of their source texts.

Revolutionary Design

Total War Troy is not just an aesthetically pleasing and emotionally inspirational game, however. For a Saga title, it truly pushes the envelope in terms of mechanics – both on and off the battlefield. The most important of the these new mechanics is the multi-resource system introduced in Troy.

In all Total War games prior to Troy, the player had to balance one, at the most two resources – gold and food. In Troy, the developers introduce five resources – and each resource is spent on different aspects of the managing the faction. Food, for example, is primarily used to upkeep and recruit units. Wood is primarily used to build infrastructure. Stone is primarily used for more advanced buildings. Bronze, the most highly coveted resource in the game, is used to recruit and upkeep advanced troops. Gold is the rarest resource, and it has a myriad of smaller uses – like building advanced buildings, recruiting agents, and recruiting advanced units.

The resources of Troy

When compared to even the most advanced titles in economic management, such as Attila and Three Kingdoms, their economic management systems seem to pale in comparison to Troy. All older Total War games required the player to simply rush and maintain the highest gold total at all times. In Troy, players have to ensure food is level at all times, wood and stone is available for buildings, bronze is plentiful for warfare, and gold is on hand for rituals and agents. Players can be flooded with food but be suffering in bronze and stone – or vice versa.

This also opens up greater levels of strategic planning. Since bronze is so important for mid-to-late-game warfare, it’s important to ensure its plentiful supply. This means either cozying up to or outright conquering factions who control bronze settlements. Lack of supply necessitates aggression, and war is often planned and waged over a lack – or projected lack – of specific resources. This kind of regional resource control and strategic map importance has never been present in a Total War game before and is only made possible through the multi-resource system.

To put it simply, I will be sourly disappointed if the multi-resource system is not present in every Total War game from here on out. Although it can be built upon, the core concept radically changes the way Total War is played and settlements and provinces are managed for the better.

The second most important new concept introduced to Troy is the classes of infantry, and how those infantry classes create a rock-paper-scissors countering system that radically changes the way infantry fights take place in Troy. In previous Total War titles, infantry warfare was the least engaging part of the fight. I often joked that it was akin to “right click; make a coffee.” In Troy, however, there are now three classes of infantry: frontline infantry, flanking infantry, and charging infantry. Frontline infantry are used to “pin” the opponent in place (for that reason, I call them “pin-y” infantry on my stream) and will defeat the other two classes of infantry from the front. When flanked, however, they lose quickly.

That is where speed and flank/charge bonuses come into play. Flanking and charging infantry are faster than pinning infantry, allowing them to go around and set up flanking/charging maneuvers from behind. The AI, however, anticipates this and is also attempting flanks and charges of its own. This leads to a game of cat and mouse, with often hectic micro as you try to use your pinning infantry to pin down AI units and out-maneuver it with your faster ones. Troy takes the least engaging part of Total War battles – infantry battles – and flips them on their head.

Revolution Within Familiarity

The rest of Troy, however, feels very familiar – it is, after all, based on the same engine as the Warhammer games. Each province has two to three settlements, with a major settlement and the rest minor settlements. Major settlements have eight building slots, and minor settlements have four. There are edicts, agents, tech trees (now called “Royal Decrees”) and special mechanics for each playable faction. This is the brilliance of Troy’s design: it takes an immensely familiar formula and yet makes it feel fresh by adding just enough innovation to keep it new and not so much so as to overwhelm players. It is Total War – but it is a new Total War.

Addition Through Subtraction

One of the key complaints about historical Total War titles is that all the factions feel the same. Troy takes a unique perspective on this challenge – one that I recommended in a video I made a few weeks ago. Instead of giving each faction 30 unique units, Troy gives the Trojans a shared pool of units and Greeks a shared pool of units. Then, it strategically deletes key units from each faction’s roster.

Troy adopts this formula almost entirely

For example, Hector and Paris, though starting next to each other and both in the Trojan faction, have entirely different playstyles. Hector doesn’t having access to flanking infantry or charging infantry – instead, he only has decent bows and excellent heavy swordsmen. On the other hand, Paris doesn’t have access to swords at all – he instead has access to basic spearmen and charging spears but excellent archers. What this means is that Hector has to rely on his heavy infantry to grind down the opponent from the front and protect his rear with his archers, and Paris cannot win the frontal engagement against factions with any special heavy infantry. Instead, he has to rely on his powerful archers to win fights. This addition-by-subtraction method gives each of the factions a varied playstyle despite the limited units in their rosters, and playing another hero really does feel like playing another campaign rather than a reskin of an old one.

Unbalance in the Force

The most significant problem with the game, however, is balance. For whatever reason, Troy is a largely unbalanced game with untold ways to exploit, cheese, and break the game to victory. Worse of all, all the revolutionary design choices of the game risk being undermined by the sheer imbalance present in the game. For example, while it is true that infantry combat is actually entertaining and engaging, ranged damage and chariots are by far the most optimal way to play the game. Another example is the abundance of bronze. Even controlling just one settlement of bronze allows the player to spam a stack full of elite late game units, and that is without diplomatic deals and other exploitative ways to acquire more of the coveted resource.

So much emphasis of the design is put on these revolutionary concepts, and yet the balancing of the bronze output on one hand and missile and cavalry damage on the other threatens to entirely undermine the truly revolutionary aspects of the game. And these are not the only ways in which the game is unbalanced. Single entity units are almost entirely broken, with the AI completely incompetent in dealing with hero units. Agents can utterly annihilate enemy armies, with a single spy action able to reduce an army’s health in half.

With so much right with the game, it risks being entirely undone by the sheer lack of balance. Instead of being appreciated for its vision, contributions to the franchise, and overall competence, it risks becoming a meme for lack of balance.

Conclusion

I hope that balance patches come swiftly and meaningfully. I hope the meme-y aspects of this game are addressed with brutal efficiency. I hope the game can truly be rescued from its current state. As it stands now, however, it is a beautiful and remarkable achievement of design, a loving homage to a foundational text of the Western literary canon, and a testament of how game balance is just as important as game design.

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