As a decades-long fan of Creative Assembly’s Total War series, I’m still coming to grips with the state of the latest game, Thrones of Britannia. It’s at times the worst Total War game I’ve ever played, and yet at others it’s doing everything I’ve been wanting this series to do for years.

Bad news first! Despite the fact this is 2018, Thrones is actually built atop a modified version of Attila’s engine, and coincidentally suffers from the same problem that plagued the entire Rome series: namely, that it’s dull as hell. Colours are muted, and the map—made up entirely of the British Isles on extreme zoom—is drab, with large swathes that are confusingly featureless (the Scottish highlands are a gorgeous exception).

Aside from a few slight regional flares, like long hair for some Scots, every faction looks and behaves largely the same, with the same basic types of units available from Leinster to London. So if you don’t want to see dudes with beards and spears going at it, this is not the game for you. There hasn’t been a Total War game this monotonous since Shogun, but at least there the factions were bright and fun and colourful and easier to tell apart.

Thrones’ AI (in both tactical and strategic modes) is poor even by this series’ standards. Faction accents are weirdly inconsistent across borders. The scale of the entire game, namely how army movement relates to the map size and the time that elapses between turns is just broken, and it can take months for your troops to march to a neighbouring village that’s only a day or two away.

All this and more (I don’t want to keep you here all day) makes for a surprisingly boring Total War. I found every game I started, regardless of the faction or the difficulty, to be a dreary slog across nondescript terrain, fighting the same general types of enemies and doing the same things until I stumbled to the endgame (or got bored and quit).

As a complete product, designed for fans of the series to spend money on and then enjoy for the hundreds of hours they’re used to with Total War titles, this is poor. I’ve reviewed every game in the series for this website since 2009's Empire, and none have been as lifeless and hollow to play as this.

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And yet! As an abstract concept, viewed as it must be by Creative Assembly as an opportunity to throw Total War’s old ideas out and overhaul the entire back-end of the series without risking the reputation of a mainline game, it’s fascinating.

That’s in part because Thrones is not a full, proper Total War game. It doesn’t have the scale, budget or hype of something like Warhammer, or Rome II. Using an old engine and keeping its unit roster and geography simple, it’s the first of the smaller Saga games to be released, and it’s better to think of it as an experimental Total War EP than a full studio album.

So despite all its flaws, some of them can be excused because of the game’s reduced scale. And the experimentation is found in the havoc Creative Assembly have wrought behind the scenes, taking a battle axe to so many of Total War’s rusted-on campaign systems that it took me three entire campaigns to get my head around them.

First up: your armies can’t simply be purchased then summoned out of the ground. There’s a cap on the number of units you can recruit in a single turn, and the quality of those units is decided by a probability counter, which means cheap spearmen are always available, while armoured elite cavalry are a lot rarer. Once raised, your units are only at half-strength, and take multiple turns to get into a proper fighting state.

I love this. Armies now have to be planned as much as bought, and can’t simply be stacked with elite units and rolled across the map. It’s not only more realistic, but also forced me to assemble different types of forces that were outside my normal comfort zone, since if my preferred heavy infantry weren’t available and I needed more troops, I’d have to settle for crossbows or skirmishers instead.

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Also cool: Thrones’ Agents. Or, the game’s lack of them. Long the bane of Total War players for their incessant micro-management needs, Agents are now gone from the map, having been kinda replaced by a beefed-up follower/aide system for your Generals and Governors that provides powerful and highly-specific perks upon levelling up.

Treaties are also streamlined now, with much of the minutiae of previous games—like the endless repetition of trade agreement requests—automated by a simpler diplomacy system that demands less of your time, but at a glance provides more helpful information (especially at war declaration pop-ups).

A lot of this, the diplomacy and agent changes especially, really help streamline the strategic element of the game, removing a lot of the dead weight that used to become a real bore once you were a few dozen turns into a campaign. That’s something Total War has been needing for years.

And yet without all that busywork, there’s less to do outside of battles other than click a few upgrades, watch your armies crawl around the map and wait for AI turn loads to finish. Creative Assembly did a great job clearing out some of the series’ dead wood, but there’s not much replacing it, leaving a gaping hole in half the game.

That’s just one example of conundrums you find all over the place once you start picking at the new stuff. For everything that’s really good, like the new army building, there’s something else that doesn’t feel quite right. Leader perks make sense on the surface, but only a handful are genuinely useful, so you end up spamming them. You can now gain short and long victories within the same game, but triggering multiple victory points in one campaign isn’t rewarding, it makes them all feel meaningless.

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There are so many alterations to Total War’s core systems here, and on paper they sound amazing, but once you start playing you find that many of them are half-baked, as if they’d simply been thrown against the wall to see which ones stick.

If it sounds like I’ve simply listed those changes here, rather than convey a sense of what it’s like to play the complete experience, that’s because the changes and features (and how you note then adapt to them) are so many that they dominate the landscape. I don’t look at Thrones—with its old engine and small scale—and see a strong, standalone Total War entry. I see a testbed with beards.

Total War is nearly two decades old in 2018, but has remained steadfastly conservative throughout that time, content to usher in its changes with baby steps through each major release. So if nothing else, Thrones has been a refreshing break from this, making so many departures from the series’ fundamentals that it’s relatively radical.

I just wish more of them had actually worked.