So, you want about the best Total War game? Shogun: Total War released in June 2000, which means the venerable strategy series has been going for over 20 years now. That’s longer than iPhones, broadband, and most memes. There have been 14 games in that time – not counting mobile spin-offs or the cancelled and underrated Total War: Arena. It's a lot to keep track of.
Enter: us. If you've ever been curious about this stalwart of PC gaming, look no further. We've put together a list of the best and most essential Total War games, from Shogun to Three Kingdoms via the fantastical foray that is Warhammer.
It is, of course, impossible to crown one single Total War game the 'best', because – especially since Warhammer – they do so many different things, with their various settings affecting the feel of their campaigns and tactical battles. So instead, we'll walk you through what each of our picks does well and differently from the other games in the series, and why they may be regarded as 'essential' – beloved by fans and yet to be truly imitated by any other game in the series, or even in all of gaming.
Total War games:
These are the best Total War games, in no particular order:
- Total War: Warhammer II
- Total War: Three Kingdoms
- Total War: Shogun 2
- Total War: Rome II
- Total War: Medieval 2
- Total War: Empire
- Total War Saga: Troy
Total War: Warhammer 2
2016’s Total War: Warhammer changed the course of Total War. It took the series in a bold new fantasy-fuelled direction, varied faction mechanics at the strategic level more aggressively than ever, and redefined its aesthetic with a major engine overhaul. It was also wildly successful. In many ways it marked the beginning of Creative Assembly’s current era: the studio has never been so large or so ambitious as it is now. This is also one of the best Warhammer games to release in a long while.
The sequel took everything the original did and turned it to 11. Its core campaign features more outlandish races, a more colourful and expansive world map, and a deeper story told through gorgeous artwork. Unless you really prefer the original’s races, this is the place to start – but with a truckload of Warhammer 2 DLC and the ability to bolt on to the first game via the Mortal Empires campaign, you also have unrivalled options to expand your experience if you choose.
Warhammer II is nearing its twilight as we progress through 2021… so it’s a good thing that Total War: Warhammer III is coming. We don’t know the Warhammer 3 release date just yet, but what we do know is that it will feature Chaos demons, Kislev and Cathay – the first the time the mythical China-inspired faction has been brought to life.
Total War: Three Kingdoms
Three Kingdoms is the most recent and, some would claim, greatest of Total War’s core historical series. Warhammer’s influence is clear in its expanded character mechanics, strategic variety, and an achingly beautiful upgrade to the Warhammer engine, but Three Kingdoms brings plenty of innovation of its own, with overhauls to diplomacy and espionage.
Buy now: Pick up Total War: Three Kingdoms today
It all serves a purpose: to inject a national war with the human drama of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms – one of China’s most important national stories – as dozens of scheming warlords vie for power after the collapse of the Han Dynasty. Sadly, Three Kingdoms’ story is coming to close now that the developers have announced they won’t be releasing any more Three Kingdoms DLC. Fans are not happy and started review-bombing the game on Steam, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this game is the most strategically varied historical Total War to date.
Total War: Shogun 2
Widely regarded as the series’ best game at the time – a status that was further burnished by Rome 2’s rocky launch – Shogun 2 returns to the 16th-century Japan setting of the very first Total War. After the intercontinental sprawl of Empire, it arguably played safe with this tighter focus, but built on all its predecessors to create the series’ richest core systems while adding a new level of aesthetic polish. It even lets you customise your own clan, which is neat. Check it out on Steam here.
Total War: Rome 2
Despite a rocky launch, Rome 2 has proven to be the most resiliant of all the Total War games to date. It was the best selling game at the time of launch, but even 5+ years on from release, it can command a player count just shy of 10,000. It was the most the popular historical Total War game right up until the release of Three Kingdoms.
Related: The best turn-based strategy games on PC
With buckets of Rome 2 DLC and bright graphics that still hold up – both Attila and Thrones of Britannia use close versions of its engine – Rome 2 is one of the most impressive turnarounds in strategy games. Check out its Emperor Edition re-release on Steam here.
Speaking of Rome, did you check out the remaster of the original Rome: Total War? You should read our Total War: Rome Remastered review, then.
Total War: Medieval 2
Released in 2006, this is the oldest Total War game on the list, but one that many veterans of the series insist has yet to be surpassed. Perhaps it’s the turbulence and romance of the setting – still one of the most beloved that Total War has ever tackled – or its more challenging, old-school sensibilities. Perhaps its simply because it followed the incredibly popular Rome: Total War, and was based on the same engine.
Related: The best medieval games on PC
Whatever the reason, the enduring loyalty of Medieval 2’s community is reflected in its thousands of mods, which are among the best and most ambitious for any Total War game, and the fact that CA gave it a definitive edition which bundles in the huge Kingdoms expansion. So if you can look past the ageing graphics – and, let’s face it, none of us are getting any younger – Medieval 2 is bursting with worthwhile content. Check out the definitive edition on Steam here.
While you’re here, you may want to check out some wild speculation we’ve compiled as to what Total War: Medieval could be.
Total War: Empire
Empire’s campaign is vast in scope, taking place across three theatres, with control of the seas between them an essential factor in your success. That means maritime warfare, and indeed Empire was the first game in the series to feature naval battles. Spectacular to behold, these see hulking ships of the line trade thunderous broadsides which, alongside the military technology of the Industrial Revolution, offers Total War players a completely new set of tactics to master. With musketmen and artillery dominating the battlefield, Empire was a big departure for the series.
Empire got a more focused mini-sequel, Napoleon: Total War, which moved forward in time to tell the story of the titular Emperor’s campaigns in Europe. It lacks Empire’s scope and variety, but is more polished and story-rich, so you can take your pick. Both games got definitive editions with all their DLC – here’s Empire on Steam, and Napoleon.
Total War Saga: Troy
Three years on, the ‘Total War Saga’ experiment is still trying to find its place in the world. These smaller games focus on decisive flashpoints in history – conflicts spanning a generation or less rather than a lifetime or more – and were initially pitched as more experimental spin-offs from the core historical series.
They’ve arguably been getting better with each iteration – Thrones of Britannia had a great setting, but it used old tech and was just a bit clunky as a game. Fall of the Samurai, while fantastic, was originally released over a decade ago as an expansion for Shogun 2, and so doesn’t really count. Total War Saga: Troy – created by Creative Assembly’s new Sofia studio – is the best the format has ever been, though it can’t decide what it wants.
It’s hard to deny how vibrant Troy’s strategic layer is, and how creative the Sofia team have been with blending in lessons learned from the Total Warhammer games with the flourishes of Total War: Three Kingdoms. Its multiple-resource economy is no more revolutionary a change than any we’d see in a new historical release, but that’s fine, as it’s a brilliant idea that makes for one of the richest campaigns in the series.
You can read out Total War Saga: Troy review, as well as check out the Mythos expansion, which recently released alongside the game’s debut on Steam now that it’s no longer an Epic Games Store exclusive.
Related: The best war games on PC
This concludes our list – if you stick to the above, there’s not much you’ll have missed from Total War’s storied history, and not many itches left to scratch in the realm of epic strategy battles.