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The Best (and Worst) Total War Games

General Hannibal, it's the critical moment of battle. Your Carthaginian army is outnumbered and heavily engaged with the superiorly armed and armored Roman legion. Slowly your infantry gives ground, but you have one last trick up your sleeve. You give the command, and war elephants pour over a hill into the Roman flank. Caught off guard, the Romans panic and flee. Your light cavalry gives chase, decimating the fleeing infantry.

General Hannibal will be facing some @#$% off Romans in Total War: Rome II

You gained the field and the battle is won. For a moment, you are triumphant, but the casualty report comes in. The losses are severe.

"Curses!" you cry out. "Half my army is gone. We are in Italy without reinforcement, and another Roman legion is on its way. We must move to the hills and find a better defensive position."

"But sire," your lieutenant cries out. "The men have fought bravely and won. Doesn't such an occasion demand rest and a celebration?"

"Hardly," you return, "This isn't just a battle: this is Total War."

Since the year 2000, the Total War series has put gamers in scenarios like these, keeping the player challenged and coming back for more. It's a popular strategy series amongst historical "what-if" gamers. The kind that relish the opportunity for a board game Risk to be interrupted with the excitement of a real time battle. The Total War series formula is to wed a turn-based-strategy campaign map to real-time tactical battles - and the fact that they have the finances to keep pumping out new Total War games over and over is proof enough of a dedicated fan base.

Leaving out expansion packs, there have been seven standalone Total War games, with another on the way. The series thus far spans the original Shogun: Total War to the latest Total War: Shogun 2 (hey, why the name reversal?), and in September 2013, the new Total War: Rome II releases.

None of the Total War games are bad, per se. Each is an improvement over the other in terms of graphics and gameplay, but everyone has their favorite. Most would agree you can successfully argue which is the best and which is the worst of the series. This is what we'll attempt to do below, but we can't go about this willy-nilly.

Picking out the best Total War game is like looking through a plastic bin of all your old pairs of shoes from the last 10 years. Each pair was fresh and functional when you bought it, and you'd never wear an old pair again for an extended period of time... but you'll always remember which pair fit the best and which pair looked the best in its prime. So that's what we'll do. We'll pick out the best Total War game based on how it looked and worked in its prime.

Here's the order they released in.

  1. Shogun: Total War - June 2000
  2. Medieval: Total War - August 2002
  3. Rome: Total War - September 2004
  4. Medieval II: Total War - November 2006
  5. Empire: Total War - March 2009
  6. Napoleon: Total War - February 2010
  7. Total War: Shogun 2 - March 2011

Visually, each successive Total War game gets better as technology progresses. The creators have yet to "cheap out" on the series and continue to innovate successfully in the graphics department. But fancy doodads can only dazzle an audience for so long (*COUGH* Crysis 3 *COUGH*), and if the gameplay sucks or the mechanics don't make sense, you simply don't have a good game. Consequently, those two elements are the best way to rate the Total War games. We'll just assume and ignore visual improvements as time goes on and focus instead on the game experience and how smooth the mechanics run.

Let's charge in...

#1 - Rome: Total War

You're only kidding yourself if you say Rome: Total War wasn't the best - it set the trend for all Total War titles released afterwards.

Rome: Total War was the 3rd Total War series installment that made its debut back in September 2004. It was the first Total War to have a 3D campaign map - a new feature that visually kept the player entertained watching the various ships and caravans run in predetermined trade routes. It was the first Total War game that didn't feel like a carbon copy of the board game Risk on the computer. For the first time, your army could move into the same province as the opponent and not be forced to engage in battle. This gave way to a host of AI problems, but cut the developers a little slack. They did a great job, fixed many problems in patches, and really moved the series forward in a positive way that was only improved in the future.

Even though it's a game that released in 2004, Rome Total War still has an active multiplayer community, and for good reason. It's the perfect time period because it's loaded with unique factions, forcing the player to use different tactics and strategies to gain the upper hand - kinda the whole point of playing Total War.

It begins in 270 BC, around the time Rome and Carthage duked it out in the Punic wars, which led to Rome's domination of the Mediterranean world. This gives justification to the player to do the same with another faction. "If the Romans conquered the world, I can too with the Seleucids," etc. The map encompasses an area from northern Britain to the Persian Gulf, giving a wide variety of cultures with various military units along with the historical context of Roman conquest.

The diversity of historical army units represented in this game is greater than in all the others. In Empire: Total War, battles center around line infantry of various strengths vs. the other guys' line infantry of various strengths. In Rome: Total War, battles center around scenarios like Roman legions vs. horse archers - two completely different types of units with different abilities. Maybe they center around masses of cheap peasant soldiers backed by overly armored heavy cavalry or War Elephants, or chariots... the list goes on and on. It's this unit diversity that forces the player to devise different strategies from his own troops, depending on the enemy.

This game is the best of the Total War series. That's not to say it doesn't have flaws (fantasy units like gladiators, war dogs, flaming pigs and so on...wtf?), but the Total War franchise hasn't changed much since Rome: Total War's release. There are improved elements in newer games, but the same basic 3D campaign map exists. Armies march along roads and pick the terrain where they settle upon waiting to see if the enemy dare attack them. This is a huge improvement in Rome: Total War that's too often overlooked.

If you say something like, "But the AI wasn't nearly as good as Medieval II: Total War..." you're not incorrect - you're just missing the vast improvement that comes from having the campaign map influence the battles.

#2 - Medieval: Total War

This game felt historical, had challenging AI, a wide variety of units, and there are cool unique features not emulated by any other Total War game.

This was the second Total War series title to emerge with vast improvements over Shogun: Total War. Fans of the Crusades could carve out a kingdom in the Holy Land, or an Islamic faction could march on Constantinople. For starters, the campaign map was larger and the time period included the Crusades, so there was a wide variety of units to pick from. New concepts like titles, civil war, and marriage were introduced. While religion played a minor role in the prior game, it became a very important feature here.

Most Total War games are not as complex as a Rubix cube. The player tends to take the upper hand relatively early on. Near the end of the game, the outcome feels predetermined, but not necessarily in this particular title. Often one or more factions will grab a significant portion of the board, giving the player a challenge later on in the game.

There's also a new concept that seems integral but surprisingly never made it to other Total War titles. Often when a ruler dies in Medieval: Total War, there will be a civil war for succession between sons - and the player got to choose which side to play as. It's surprising that civil war really didn't make it into successive games, with maybe the exception of the Rome: Total Wars expansion Barbarian Invasion.

At the time the game came out, I found myself complaining about how the game needed more territories, but looking back, it sped up the game considerably and still gave a really fun experience.

#3 - Total War: Shogun 2

It brought the franchise back to its roots and kept most of the good elements from previous Total War games.

Graphic superiority is beyond question, but also this game runs so smooth it's impossible to downgrade further than #3. There IS one big knock on Shogun 2, but beyond that it improves on everything Total War. The AI is great, the 3D animations look realistic, the battles feel faster and intense. It's a move in the right direction.

It's only downside is the limitations placed on settings. Every faction plays the same unit types with different bonuses, creating a sense of monotonous gameplay compared to prior Total War titles.

Gunpowder units add some fun variety, although they still don't approach Rome: Total War level. It's also a huge challenge if you play a Tom Cruise "The Last Samurai" scenario in the expansion.

#4 Medieval II: Total War

For the most part, Medieval stuck with the Rome: Total War formula with only minor improvements. In this, they didn't ruin anything and came out with a good game, but not one nearly as revolutionary as other Total War titles.

There were some big improvement over Rome: Total War. Armies tended to move at a more realistic speed. Cities and Castles were bigger and had multiple layers of walls. Just when it seemed the enemy had impregnable castle walls, you got gunpowder units. On top of that, you realize there's also a new world to conquer.

The Pope calling down Inquisitions and a repeat of the original Medieval: Total War units seemed kinda lame, but that wasn't the real problem with this game. Many people thought including real time naval combat would be the logical step to improve Rome:Total War. Since we didn't see this features in Medieval 2, it's hard to call it as innovative as Rome, and so it only ranks as number 4.

#5 Empire: Total War

Empire Total War was a bold step the franchise needed to take, and while it should have worked on paper, the title failed miserably.

This game introduced a world map, giving the player a chance at global conquest for the first time. Also, after being disappointed that naval combat didn't debut in Medieval 2: Total War, every Total War fan thought this game was the perfect venue to debut the idea of intense ship-to-ship engagements. It had the winning formula, but failed in execution.

Just thinking about the leap forward in naval combat, you might think the game would be a smashing hit on that basis alone... but it wasn't really. All the brand new complicated-ish features like wind direction navigation, cannon reload time, and even what type of ammo to fire all made it pretty cool for like five minutes. After you fought a naval battle or two, it got boring, since ultimately naval combat was not only complicated but also unimportant in the overall strategy of the game compared to land battles.

Then came the land battles and failed fortress sieges. The fortress fights were unrealistic and buggy, the battles seemed long, and the AI was just awful. Due to the mainly gunpowder units, the defender always seemed to have a huge advantage. The dumb AI would always come at you, even if outnumbered, and you just had to defend until they enemy was weakened and you could flank him.

Despite some combat failures, this game wasn't a total flop. The trade routes and ability to manage your economy was a huge improvement compared to other Total War titles. The sheer size of the map gives the player many options and playable factions including differences in government types of which the player could pick a favorite. There was also the cool American Revolution tutorial that unlocked America as a playable faction.

#6 - Napoleon Total War

They made Empire's battle system better, but sucked it up in the campaign map.

This game should have just been an expansion to Empire: Total War. They trimmed the campaign map down to Europe only, and there were far fewer things to manage in your economy. This game was geared towards the player who only cared about combat... and you have to admit the developers succeeded in that task.

The battles are more interesting and faster-paced. In the original Empire: Total War, two opposing line infantry armies would walk up to each other, open fire, and charge. There seemed less incentive to watch your guys get chewed up when melee fighting was so much faster. In Napoleon: Total War, the damage taken by fire from units increased. You actually felt it was advantageous to line up your guys against the enemy and flank them without needing to charge in melee - just like the tacticians did in their day.

#7 - Shogun: Total War

It was the groundbreaking game that started it all, but I'll probably never play it again.

Now you might say, "the game that started everything off couldn't possible be the worst"... but it kinda was. I'm not talking about the horrible 2D graphics, but really the newer versions have everything that game lacked and more.

The campaign map is the smallest, every faction has the same units, and the campaign map is nothing more than a board game.

Of course, that was the concept - a board game with real-time tactical battles. However, the Total War series improved vastly in time period and unit variety in Medieval: Total War, and then it got a huge 3D map improvment in Rome: Total War. I think it's safe to say the series only improved after the original.

At Its Best, Total War Is...

The Total War series is best when it melds a large campaign conquest map with real time tactical battles. The more options and innovations in the game, the better it's remembered.

The Shoguns series had a big flaw in that there was a lack of unit variety constrained by the limited focus of the campaign map. The truth is, Shimazu samurai vs samurai from Hojo is not as interesting as Mamluks vs The Knights Templar. It'd be like if the next total war was just about England, and you couldn't expand beyond the British Isles... it might be fun for a while, but you'd eventually want a bigger map.

The Medieval series setting is an improvement but not the most innovated. The original Medieval Total War is best remembered as mastering the 2D Risk board campaign map of the original Shogun: Total War while adding unit variety. Medieval 2: Total War is best remembered for better graphics than Rome: Total War and adding the new world concept, yet never revolutionized to 3D like Rome did or expanded to naval combat like Empire did.

Empire: Total War and Napoleon took the Imperial time period and made an interesting game, but it never quite gained the hearts of every Total War player. Naval warfare, an expanded trade system, and gunpowder-based warfare was excellent and necessary. The games' only failure was your opponent constituted units essentially the same as yours.

Total War: Rome II releases on September 3rd and has a lot to live up to. Not only does it have to copy the successful aspects of the original Rome: Total War, but it also has to somehow one-up to be remembered as a leap forward. One inherent advantage is they've chosen the perfect time period, automatically solving the problem of varied units and tactics that Shoguns and Empire had. Fast-paced intense battles with a complex and huge campaign map will likely make it top the best so far - Rome: Total War.

    Past Editor’s Notes and Discussions

  • ZenDec 12, 2013

    Your statement: (fantasy units like gladiators, war dogs, flaming pigs and so on...wtf?) isn't right, those units reportedly did exist. Perhaps gladiators weren't used in combat, but you can find old historical reports of war dogs and flaming pigs being used for battle. Look to today's armies, we incorporate war dogs, that isn't a new feature.

  • ...Oct 04, 2013

    I've actually had civil wars in Rome total war. Once the whole Iberian peninsula's people got so unhappy due to small garrison they kicked the garrisons of all my troops out and killed them off. I had to go in with two armies and reconquer spain (peasants aren't hard to destroy).

  • emitonSep 06, 2013

    I will agree that Rome was the best. However, I personally despise Medieval. For me it felt like it was so slow compared to Shogun also I hated when factions that I defeated would just keep coming back and back sometimes right in the middle of my territory's. Also when territory's would rebel even thought you had full army's there and had owned them for many years. But yea good list but for me I would replace Medieval with Shogun.

  • plubliusDec 01, 2013

    I am just opposite to you. I played Shogun once, but I still try to play Mediveal, even though I know it will crash just I get envolved. If I find an older machine with an old video card I might stay with Medieval forever.

  • Mike PaddockAug 30, 2013

    Eyeing the upcoming Total War: Rome II release? Never played a Total War game before? If you're wondering which game you should start with the series, check out our list of the best (and worst) Total War game from the series.

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