When I say “Ancient Greece”, you’re probably imagining strident white columns holding up ornate frescoes of mythological figures, fronting a magnificent temple that overlooks a bustling harbor or market. You might be surprised to find that this is not the picture painted by A Total War Saga: Troy’s Bronze Age setting. Taking us all the way back to nearly 3300 years before today and well over a millennium before the birth of Julius Caesar, it’s the earliest point in human history to ever get a Total War, and territory rarely trod by games in general.

A typical settlement in Creative Assembly’s imagining of the era consists of loosely scattered, flat-topped, earthen houses, rough-hewn dirt roads, and primitive farms that seem like they’d be more at home in a film about prehistoric humans. While the towering walls of the city of Troy herself are undeniably monumental and impressive, you won’t find much in the way of gleaming marble streets or grandiose palaces. The warriors of fabled Sparta bear little resemblance to the tightly-formed hoplites of the Classical and Hellenistic eras. In fact, a lot of the low-tier troops aren’t much more than shirtless dudes with wooden clubs. We’re talking very, very ancient. And in attempting to portray this period at least somewhat faithfully, the developers have created a setting that feels extremely new, even to a history nerd like me, in a way that probably hasn’t been rivaled in Total War since the original Shogun.

Stay On Your Feet

The other major thing missing from these dust-swept battlefields is cavalry. You can gain limited access to a “mythic” unit of Centaurs – the implication being that the first horseback-riders probably seemed mystical somehow to those from other cultures and may have inspired the half human/half horse creatures of legend. But they’re not a core part of any of the eight playable factions’ rosters, so you can’t really base your campaign around them. Bronze Age warfare is all about that infantry, and I found over the course of 40 turns that I had to re-learn how to play Total War with these restrictions.

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To keep things interesting, CA has chosen to emphasize the differences between different classes of infantry. Heavy spearmen are among the best head-to-head fighters around, but are easily out-maneuvered by light and medium infantry. I often had to choose between having better troops, or being able to decide the time and place of an engagement. Rarely will you be able to do both. And beyond that, heavy troops come with a significant cost that can’t be overcome simply by building more buildings.

Troy uses multiple resources: Wood and Stone are needed for most buildings, while Food and Bronze are essential to train and maintain armies. Gold is very rare and exists as a sort of filler currency that can be used in bartering and negotiations, but it’s not the backbone of your economy and you won’t find much to spend it on outside these international dealings. The heaviest troops available cost bronze to build, but also consume bronze every turn in upkeep. Even as my kingdom grew, I could rarely afford to field more than three or four of these units at a time. This made it essential to learn how to use lower-tier troops effectively, and adeptly combats what I’ve called the “Elite Murderlord Doomstack” problem in some older Total War games.

Epic Heroes

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While Troy is trying to present a somewhat realistic picture of the Bronze Age, it’s not shying away from making the great heroes of Homer’s Iliad larger than life. Following in the tradition of last year’s Total War: Three Kingdoms, the iconic characters we all probably had to write a report about at some point are at the center of everything. Their personalities come alive through tastefully over-the-top voice acting and unique campaign mechanics that reflect their place in the epic.

Grumpy go-getter Menelaus of Sparta is somewhat understandably miffed that his wife, Helen, has run off with Paris of Troy and swears vengeance to the heavens. His unique mechanics allow him to recruit special troops from other factions he’s allied with, giving him access to a wide range of tools even early on. Paris, for his part, is the Aegean world’s original Wife Guy. He gains bonuses when he’s close to Helen on the campaign map… but he has to be careful, as dragging her along to the front lines of his conquests can put her at risk of falling back into Achaean hands.

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Each of the eight playable heroes has a more traditional Total War Victory condition if you just want to conquer a bunch of the map, and a Homeric Victory that reflects their personal stories from the Iliad – or in some of the more tragic cases, how their fortunes might have fared better. Pursuing a Homeric Victory will culminate in a showdown with an Antagonist faction. Once you become powerful enough, one hero from the opposite side (Trojans if you’re playing an Achaean, or an Achaean if you’re a Trojan) will absorb their remaining countrymen into a united front and gain some bonuses to make them a suitable endgame threat. I wasn’t able to play long enough to see this happen, but it sounds like it could be an excellent way to keep things interesting once you’ve grown too powerful to be challenged by standard factions.

Divine Favor

All the while, you’ll be competing for the favor of the Greek gods, including Ares, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Zeus, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. Each has three tiers of favor that can be increased by sacrificing resources and building temples. The more gods you have on your side, the more expensive these sacrifices become. So it will be much cheaper to focus on one or two to keep happy, rather than trying to please everyone. There is no direct divine intervention. You won’t be able to call down lightning bolts from Zeus, for example. Rather, the bonuses are meant to represent what people believed at the time. Having the favor of Ares will inspire your troops in battle, being pals with Poseidon will allow you to get around at sea quicker, and so on.

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It’s hard to know how well this will all come together from only 40 turns, but I’m already very impressed with the way the era and setting have been realized. Artistic, stylized mountains that evoke Plato’s shadows on a cave wall form a dramatic ring around the unexplorable edges of the map. At the conclusion of a battle, the two generals are shown acting out a theatrical clash of arms while lit from above, like actors in an ancient amphitheater. Everything on screen is filled with a richness of personality that made me feel transported to the far distant past. Getting used to the new battle logic without the standard rock-paper-scissors of spearmen, cavalry, and swords is definitely an adjustment, but the variety of foot soldiers with different roles is substantial. A Total War Saga: Troy will be out August 13.

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T.J. Hafer is a contributor to IGN. Talk strategy games and/or history with him on Twitter at @AsaTJ.
Source: IGN Video Games All
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