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The Total War Pharaoh campaign is its most customizable yet

The Total War Pharaoh campaign gives you plenty of ways to play, with eight playable commanders fighting to rule, and aiming to survive the Bronze Age collapse.

Total War Pharaoh campaign - A Pharaoh wearing a green and gold headdress talks vigorously to a grape pinched between his finger and thumb.

In Total War Pharaoh, you’ll aim to take charge as the great leader of one of three major civilizations dominating the ancient Egyptian landscape, fighting first for the right to lead your people and future empire to greatness, all while surviving the fall of the Bronze Age. Developer Creative Assembly’s latest take on the beloved strategy game series promises to be its most customizable yet, as Total War Pharaoh gives you complete freedom to play the way you enjoy most.

Ahead of the Total War Pharaoh release date, PCGamesN attended a preview event and got the chance to play the first 50 turns of the Total War Pharaoh campaign. We’re put in the shoes of Ramesses, one of four playable Egyptian rulers; the other options available in the full game are Seti, Tausret, and Amenmesse, who are joined by Irsu and Bay of the Canaanites, and Suppiluliuma and Kurunta of the Hittites.

While your initial focus will be on gaining local supremacy and pushing for a position of political leadership – ultimately aiming to take the seat of a Pharaoh or Great King – deadlier threats lurk on the horizon. First, the Sea Peoples, invaders that arrive by ship in increasingly greater numbers; then, the very collapse of Bronze Age civilization itself – something that’s ultimately unavoidable, although you can do your best to survive, as we learned in our Gamescom interview with Creative Assembly.

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While Creative Assembly’s return to a real-world historical setting after the huge success of Total War Warhammer 3 wants to offer “a realistic glimpse into what could have been,” it emphasizes that “sandbox gameplay and freedom of choice are core pillars.” That all begins at the campaign setup screen, where you’re offered more ways to customize your campaign experience than ever before.

Before starting your campaign proper, you’re offered a wealth of settings to tweak, affecting everything from the frequency of events such as disasters and the maximum size of armies, to the way rival AI behaves and even the realism of your battles. Some of these choices must be locked in before your campaign begins in earnest, but others can be adjusted mid-way through a run if you decide something is really bothering you.

As a player who typically finds one or two mechanics more frustrating than fun in each Total War game I play, I love having the option to circumnavigate them altogether. Along with the likes of an ‘Iron Man’ toggle disabling manual saves, you can adjust things like the starting budget for you and opponents, how plentiful resources are, how fast research projects progress, and whether the map is revealed to you by default (fog of war remains in place either way).

Total War Pharaoh campaign - The customization menu, with options to adjust the features and difficulty of the mode.

There are AI settings too – you can manually toggle whether the computer-controlled characters get different unit replenishment or building construction costs from you, as well as customizing how receptive they are to player deals and threats. You can even forbid AI leaders from initiating diplomacy, if you prefer.

Battle settings have separate difficulty choices as always, but now you can designate ‘unbreakable units’ as a feature of your campaign – meaning you’ll never see units rout during battle. This can be enabled for just your armies, or for both sides. You also have the option to tweak the ammo count of ranged forces, adjust the duration of battles, and enable the returning ‘battle realism’ mode that removes the radar and contextual tooltips, while preventing orders from being issued while the game is paused and restricting your camera movement and vision to the areas your troops can actually see.

A big part of capturing the feel of the Bronze Age collapse are the Pillars of Civilization events. Initially, the world is generally peaceful, and you’ll see events boosting the likes of settlement expansion and population growth. However, as the world begins to fall into collapse, you’ll face a more troubled mood, and even the likes of earthquakes, floods, plagues and droughts. These can each be manually toggled on or off as part of your pre-campaign settings.

Total War Pharaoh campaign - A town built on the banks of a river. Boats rest at a dock by blazing fire pits.

Once you’re actually in-game, your first target is the crown. To become the Pharaoh (or a Canaanite or Hittite leader, which you can choose to chase after regardless of your starting origins if you prefer), you’ll need to declare your right to the throne. This means establishing ‘Egyptian legitimacy’ by building monuments and taking over notable locations, while winning over members of the Egyptian Court with your charm, your kindness, or your might.

Upon claiming the seat of Pharaoh or Great King, you get to design specific regalia and claim new Pharaoh powers. Your named characters also rank up their Presence, Fortitude, and Ardour (each offering unique bonuses). Upon reaching certain milestones in these ranks, you can also assign titles to your characters, granting you even stronger bonuses.

You’ll periodically assign Ambitions, essentially acting as bounties that will deliver a short burst of certain resources should you achieve a checklist of preselected goals by a dedicated time. These encourage you to play more aggressively and in a more directed manner. You’ll also be able to choose an Ancient Legacy to follow in the deeds of famous Egyptian leaders – choose Khufu of the fourth dynasty, for example, and build great pyramids for your civilization… so long as you can meet the hefty resource demands.

Total War Pharaoh campaign - Screen to choose an ambition for special bonus rewards.

The Egyptian gods were obviously important to the period, and Creative Assembly says it wants to “capture the importance of religion while remaining realistic.” To do this, you’ll choose from up to three of a potential 19 gods to focus on your worship, gaining bonuses for each. Later, you can ascend in favor with a god of your choice and devote a general to them to obtain stronger buffs – although it’ll pose an issue should that favor later be lost.

Everything in the Total War Pharaoh campaign revolves around the recurring ‘Shemsu Hor’ – taking place every six turns, this marks key advancements in the campaign, with new features often unlocking at each subsequent Shemsu Hor. It’s also the point where all current political plots advance, along with granting you special bonuses if you’ve managed to hold off on claiming certain leader-specific boosts for the cycle.

As Ramesses, for example, I have the option on any given turn to enact ‘Bennu’s Swiftness,’ which commands my armies to attack in March stance for this turn, entering battle completely fresh and ready. If I hold off on using that through an entire cycle, however, I can enact the ‘Train Medjay’ bonus on Shemsu Hor, gaining access to powerful Medjay units from the Special Recruitment pool for a big boost to my forces.

Total War Pharaoh campaign - The Shemsu Hor court screen.

My time with the early hours of the Total War Pharaoh campaign felt largely familiar to past entries, but the integration of these Egypt-specific concepts certainly lends it a more unique flavor, and I’m eager to see how they play out over longer periods of time. On top of that, the customization options have me perhaps most excited of all – meaning that, should any one system or mechanic be spoiling my enjoyment, I can disable it, while perhaps cranking up another that particularly appeals to me. It should make for a more fun time regardless of how you enjoy playing, and that’s a decisive victory in my book.

The Total War Pharaoh release date is set for Tuesday October 11, 2023. Until then, take on all comers with the best grand strategy games on PC, or go all-in on conflict with the best war games you can play right now.