Few series are as dear to my heart as Creative Assembly’s Total War, with its mix of history, real-time tactics and turn-based strategy. Spanning 19 years and 13 games, there are times I feel like Total War games could occupy spots 1-13 on my all-time favourites list. And then there are other times when I remember how much I hate Rome 2.
We’ve done a few of these lists over the years, and I don’t know any where the series in question has seen as many ups and downs as Total War has lived through. Both fan and critical reception can swing madly between releases, based on everything from a change in scenery to the smallest tweaks to the series’ core formula.
It can be frustrating as a fan to live through this in real-time, but then in the long term it’s been great, because it shows that Creative Assembly have for nearly 20 years now been willing to take risks, cutting and changing between games as they strive to balance the wishes of fans with a need to keep Total War fresh and relevant.
Sure, this means that sometimes they strike out, and we get Rome 2. But it also means we get surprises like the Warhammer games, or even the latest release Three Kingdoms, whose success I don’t think even the biggest of Total War fanboys could have seen coming.
In honour of that history, and also because I will do anything to get a chance to write about Empire: Total War, below you’ll find a list ranking the entire series, from best to worst.
Note: This post originally appeared in 2014, when there were only eight Total War games. Rather than update that old ranking I’ve decided to re-examine the original pecking order, see where the new games fit (and how I feel about the old ones) and write an entirely new piece.
1) SHOGUN 2
I know it’s not the biggest Total War game, but looking back on them all, I think it’s the best. It’s just so perfectly realised. A more intimate setting means the game’s wonderfully thematic presentation can penetrate every corner of the experience, and its second expansion—pitting spear-wielding farmers against gatling guns and ironclads—is the most enjoyable piece of Total War content ever released.
2) THREE KINGDOMS
It was tempting to put this straight into the top spot, so incredibly successful has the game’s launch been, but in the interests of long-term doubt I’m being slightly conservative and putting it in second. Three Kingdoms is something of a Total War greatest hits, combining the best of Warhammer’s fictional introductions (like loot and hero characters) with a fantastic reworking of the historical games’ foundations.
3) WARHAMMER 2
I remember how upset I was when the Warhammer games were first announced. It seemed like such a stupid idea, taking this revered historical series and dumping it in a fictional universe, one that wasn’t even Games Workshops’ #1 drawcard. Boy, how wrong I, and so many others, were. From its gorgeous map to its fascinating endgame scenarios to the wild differences between factions, this is as fresh and fun a Total War game you’re going to get.
You might be shocked to see the oft-derided Empire so high on this list, but remember, it’s my list, not yours. And it’s so high on mine because, in spite of the game’s flaws—and it has many—it’s got so much heart that I can’t help but love it. Not one map but three! Units as varied as Native Americans, pirates, Ottomans and Indians! An almost complete abandonment of the series’ focus on melee combat in favour of musket volleys! When it falls apart it’s a disaster, but on those moments when Empire comes together it’s ambition is nothing short of staggering, even ten years on.
The first Warhammer is still an excellent game, and deserves credit for pioneering so much of what Warhammer 2 would adopt and refine, but the sequel simply did it better.
6) MEDIEVAL 2
Perhaps the purest expression of melee battlefield combat the series has seen, its modern replayability is let down by an archaic strategic component. Which is a shame, because this is the last great moddable Total War, and as such is still home to all kinds of wild projects, including a Lord of the Rings total conversion which would be close to the very top of this list...were it an actual game.
The first Rome is still a lot of people’s favourites, and for good reason! For the time it absolutely delivered on its promise of recreating warfare of the time (with a dash of politics), and while the original PC version is a bit rickety in 2019, it’s a treat to dip back into this on iPad.
I think Attila is criminally underrated. It came out in the shadow of Rome 2 (like Napoleon, this is more of a glorified expansion than an all-new game), but didn’t suffer from many of the same issues that plagued its predecessor. The Hun’s nomadic design remains one of my all-time Total War highlights.
There aren’t many reasons to play the first Medieval today, especially when even its sequel is showing its age and there’s no mobile port, but it was as important at the time of release as its cavalry charges were beautiful.
See above. It’s crazy looking back at the game that started it all and realising that, for all the advances in visuals and strategic tools, the core gameplay of this series is almost entirely unchanged in almost 20 years.
The early 19th century is perhaps my favourite historical setting of them all, which made me want to love this game so badly. But I just can’t. Its attempt at a strategic narrative doesn’t work and its politics and trade systems, cut off from Empire’s global trade networks, are a shadow of their normal selves. On the bright side its Peninsula War expansion, with its tiny scale, is one of the most interesting DLC releases the series has ever seen.
12) ROME 2
Some of the games on this list were ones I used to dislike and, as time has marched onwards and my perspective on the series has grown wider, I’ve softened my stance. With Rome 2, I’ve only hardened. This could and should have been Creative Assembly’s crowning achievement, taking everything they’d learned from the magnificent Shogun 2 and applied to one of history’s grandest stages. Only...it just never came together. Everything about Rome 2 is a dull slog, from campaign movement to politics to the map itself. It’s ranked this low not for its technical faults, many of which were eventually remedied, but for the sheer scale of its disappointment.
13) THRONES OF BRITANNIA
I’d almost forgot this game existed when I was putting this list together, which considering it was only released last year says a lot. Set so soon after the events of Attila, with a drab map and limited units, it was a chore to play through. At least some of the ideas it played around with, like unit mustering, worked well enough to make it into a better game like Three Kingdoms.
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