Total War has been a successful niche of PC gaming for almost two decades now, and developer Creative Assembly seems set on expanding their scope with every new project they announce. They ventured into the Warhammer universe in 2016 and 2017 and on the horizon is a title set during The Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, but for the here and now we have a spin-off of sorts in the form of Thrones of Britannia. Built on the codebase of Total War: Attila, Thrones of Britannia is a deliberate attempt to focus on a very specific time and place, namely the British Isles in the year 878 AD. So, is this new avenue a worthwhile endeavour, or a skippable side-project?
Let’s get this out of the way first: anyone expecting any grand variations on the Total War formula will likely be disappointed. The nuts and bolts of Thrones of Britannia are going to be familiar to anyone who’s played any game in this series before. There are definitely some changes to mechanics, and certain things are unique, like the unit portrait and campaign event art styles, but for the most part Thrones of Britannia is well-tread ground. It isn’t entirely devoid of improvements, however.
Thrones of Britannia features the most detailed campaign map yet in a Total War game. Individual structures like churches and great halls are visually represented, with dust and scaffolding appearing when you upgrade them. Stonehenge and the Uffington White Horse are also visible. Provinces are now made up of a single named settlement with walls and garrisons, cities like Wintanceaster or Lunden, for example, as well as minor settlements like sheep pastures, land clearances and mines dotting the surrounding landscape. The cities have the most customisation options available, with a potential of six building slots, whereas the surrounding supporting industry buildings have a single chain to upgrade. This gives regions a little more personality than in other Total War games, as well as more opportunities to diversify.
This new provincial system means that when attacking or defending, you have more options. Instead of gunning right for the city, you can capture your enemy’s industry, denying them food and money. This, of course, works both ways and makes internal rebellions even more of a nuisance than normal. Instead of just raiding at random, rebel armies can easily capture your mines, farms and churches, forcing you to act.
Agent characters like assassin’s and diplomats have been removed entirely, with the focus shifting instead to your governors and generals. These characters have three attributes to be aware of: Zeal, which impacts how much morale/public order they provide, Command, which dictates the size of their bodyguard in battle and finally Governance, which reduces construction costs and corruption and increases market income. Traits are special conditions that can be gained when the governor or general performs certain actions, usually increasing their attributes. When these characters gain rank, they unlock points that can be spent on followers. Followers allow a small level of customisation, letting you improve things like campaign movement range, unit replenishment percentage per turn and income of the local province.
As well as the above, these characters also have a loyalty and influence level. If the former is too low or the latter too high then this figure may contest the throne and start a civil war. Estates, gained through certain building chains or through capturing enemy settlements, can be gifted to your various nobles to ensure loyalty. This is something you will have to be actively aware of because if your faction leader has too many estates loyalty will drop dramatically across the board. It’s a rather simple balancing act, but one that is fun to keep track of. Marriages and other political actions can be carried out for a small price to quickly neutralise a noble who is getting too big for their boots. You can pay to assassinate or discredit them, for example, or even bribe them at the cost of some of your king’s influence. As a whole this may seem like a lot to keep track of at any one time, but thankfully with each new turn there are a series of pop-up notifications that run along the top of the screen, informing you of the more important things like buildings in need of repair, provinces that are threatening to rebel, disloyal nobles and unassigned skill points.
The battles are almost indistinguishable from any other game in the Total War series. Everything in terms of unit strengths, formations, abilities and controls all work as they always have. Spearmen are devastating against cavalry, archers will melt to nothing in a cavalry charge and if your general dies your army is far more likely to rout. Coming off of Total War: Warhammer II I have to admit the battles feel a little subdued both when it comes to the pure spectacle of large armies clashing, as well as graphically. Naturally, these games are extremely different, it’s hard to avoid the fact that the animations and general visual fidelity are a clear step back. It’s also really hard not to notice how many clone soldiers there are, with only three or four variants in some unit types.
Performance is also a little disappointing. Given that Thrones of Britannia is built on the code of a game released in 2015, you’d think 60fps on the campaign map at least would be achievable. As it stands, however, with my 1080ti at 1440p there are regular dips to 40fps. Battles see similar dips, depending of course on how many units are in view at one time. Pressing spacebar toggles the display of arrows and information showing where your various units are moving. Doing this with a large army will, unfortunately, tank the frame rate. Hopefully, some of these performance issues will disappear with a patch or two but at launch, it’s a bit rough.
While it may take some time to shine through, Thrones of Britannia definitely has an identity and flavour all of its own. The idea of slightly cheaper titles with a narrower focus on a specific time and place is one that appeals to me, but I’m not sure this idea has been fully realised with Thrones of Britannia. I’m sure the bulk of Creative Assembly’s resources are focused on their next big game, but given the smaller scope of this project, for it to truly succeed the fundamentals have to be solid, and the variations interesting enough to warrant exploration. Unfortunately, I’m just not 100% sure you get your bang for your buck here. If you’re the kind of person who can never get enough Total War or who has a keen interest in this period of the history then you’ll definitely find a game worth your time. If you’re on the fence, prefer Warhammer or didn’t like Total War: Atilla, then this is absolutely a safe skip.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia was reviewed on PC with a code provided by Five Star Games.