The Art of Total War

How one series came to define PC wargaming

A select few games can be said to define PC gaming. What is perhaps most impressive about them is that they are all so different: knowing Starcraft tells you nothing about Oblivion, and vice versa. All these games are best understood by being played. So it is with Total War. While we love to delve into its technical, developmental and experiential innards, our reflections are no replacement for actual play.

The genius of its core design - which runs like a potent family resemblance through all the series - was to blend two existing types of game (turn-based strategy and real-time-strategy) to create an experience we had not seen before. Not only that, but it created a cerebral game: Total War requires mastery of both overall grand strategy as you run an empire, and minute local tactics as you scrap on its 3D battlefields.


It's a game where experimentation and martial grit are both essential to victory, and that's incredibly hard to convey in text. Yet it's a challenge we're constantly honoured with. The Total War series has been filled with games that confirmed our choices both as PC gamers and as PC gaming critics. In short, it makes us rather pleased to be able to write features like this one, where we have a chance to look back and try to pin down exactly what it is that makes the Total War games so utterly compelling.

Feudal Times
Creative Assembly were not always in the business of defining PC gaming. Indeed, they previously made games for... EA Sports. But things were to change. One man who has seen that change is writer and designer Mike Brunton, who has worked on all of the Total War games. We asked him how Creative Assembly came to be what it is today, and what decisions led to the development of Shogun. "The Creative Assembly was founded by Tim Ansell in 1987, and specialised in console conversions, then moved on to doing sports games," says Brunton.

"Making the change to strategy games with Shogun: Total War was not an obvious move, but a lot of technical expertise had been built up, and Mike Simpson had arrived, bringing a metric shedload of creativity to the company. He also had - and has - a bit of a thing for strategy games. Everyone at Creative Assembly was ready for a new challenge."

That challenge was to create a game that would launch into a market dominated by the likes of the Command & Conquer series. After some rumination, Creative Assembly decided not to take the giants of strategy on directly, but to come up with another spin on the genre. Getting there would take some time, and the game would have to move from being a top-down 2D game of warfare to the 3D battlefield we see today.


The team started out very small: they just had Mike Simpson and a programmer working on the Shogun prototype, ramping up to ten people (tiny by today's standards) at the end of the project. "Shogun was a risk," says Brunton, "but it was a risk worth taking. There wasn't anything else out there that was even vaguely similar, combining turn-based strategy (the campaign map) with epic battles (the real-time strategy element). In fact, the game was meant to be the other way round, with epic battles and a bit of strategy. The strategy expanded as a means of creating interesting battles."

Playing Shogun now, you can see precisely what Brunton means: the campaign map anchors the game, but also directs it. The effect of fighting for your clan can be seen in the regions you can control and in the threats you defeat.

The game comes alive as the factions crash into each other in the real-time battles. Rather than being set tasks in a story provided by the designers, Total War let the story to belong to you. The skirmishes arose from your interaction with the other factions on the campaign map. Those 'situations' were played out in single battles in which hundreds of soldiers fought across vast landscapes. We had never seen the like of it before. First glimpses of Shogun at trade shows left a whisper of excitement across the industry. Even before it was ready, people knew it was going to be interesting.

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