Shogun: Total War released in June 2000, which means the venerable strategy series has been going for almost 20 years now. That’s longer than iPhones, broadband, and most memes. There have been 13 games in that time – not counting mobile spin-offs or the shuttered and underrated Total War: Arena – with another (Troy) due this year. It’s quite 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.
With no further ado, here are our picks for the best Total War games.
Total War: Warhammer 2
2016’s Total War: Warhammer changed the course of Total War. It took the series in a bold new fantastical 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.
Related: our Total War: Warhammer 3 wish list
The sequel took everything the original did and pushed it. 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 DLC and the ability to bolt on to the first game via the Mortal Empires campaign, you also have unrivaled options to expand your experience if you choose. And if you grab it all, you get what is unquestionably the most lavish and authoritative depiction of the Warhammer Fantasy universe there has ever been in a videogame. While some history fans malign its bombast and its faster, flashier battles, fantasy fans who want a strategy game of epic scope should look no further. Here’s Total Warhammer 2 on Steam.
Total War: Three Kingdoms
Three Kingdoms is the latest and, some would say, 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.
Related: Guide to the best war games on PC
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. Hugely popular in China and with four pieces of DLC in just nine months, Three Kingdoms is getting plenty of support, and probably represents the most replayable and strategically varied historical Total War to date. Take a look on Steam here.
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
After the success of Shogun 2, Rome 2 became the best selling and most played game in the series upon its release, but suffered significant technical problems – to no shortage of community annoyance. A year later, a free upgrade fixed many of these issues, overhauled the AI, and polished the visuals, allowing players to appreciate its vast and varied campaign and intricate political systems. Even five years later, the game still sees concurrent player counts in five figures, which is why Creative Assembly continued to support it right up until Three Kingdoms came out.
With buckets of 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 modern gaming. Check out its Emperor Edition re-release on Steam here.
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 Middle Ages setting – still one of the most beloved that Total War has ever tackled – or its more challenging, old-school sensibilities.
Related: Total War has given us some of the best strategy games
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.
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 – but it works.
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.
A Total War Saga: Troy
Total War ‘Sagas’ 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. The first Saga, Thrones of Britannia, was set during the Viking invasion of Britain and is now regarded as a bit of a black sheep of the Total War family. It’s not exactly bad – its period-authentic grindy infantry tactics have a distinctive, niche appeal – but it was pretty hard to return to the Attila engine after the detail and scope of Warhammer.
Troy is the first full game released by CA’s new Sofia studio, and lessons have clearly been learned. 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. The addition of gods to appease and mythological creatures to recruit – informed by a grounded ‘what’s the truth behind the myth?’ approach – adds plenty of Bronze Age romance, and its enhanced Warhammer engine also makes Troy the prettiest Total War game to date. Here’s our review, and here’s Troy on the Epic Games Store, where it’s exclusive until August 2021.
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.