Book Review: The Art of Total War

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With Total War: Attila out this week, there couldn’t be a better time to look inside the pages of The Art of Total War, published late last month by Titan Books for $34.95. So let’s dive in!

The Art of Total War encompasses The Creative Assembly’s complete series of historical strategy games in a hardcover volume spanning 192 pages. The book is divided into chapters based on the different eras, beginning with Shogun and Shogun 2 and continuing through Medieval and Medieval II, Empire and Napoleon, Rome and Rome II, Total War Battles: Kingdom and Shogun, Attila, and finally Arena. Artwork from some of the expansions even made its way into the pages–though admittedly I was a bit sad there wasn’t at least some sort of small ode to the art of Spartan: Total Warrior. I know it was a spin-off and not an official Total War strategy game, but as a fan it’d be nice for such an underappreciated game to get some extra love after all these years. (Maybe The Creative Assembly will some day do an art book dedicated to Spartan and the equally underrated action-adventure game Viking: Battle for Asgard. Yeah, it won’t happen, but a gamer can dream.)

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One of the great things about this series-wide format is seeing how the Total War games have evolved and matured artistically almost by the page. Once upon a time the original Shogun was top of the line, but looking back at it in juxtaposition with its successors shows just how much the Total War franchise has grown over 15 years. The book itself puts this into proper context: a basic rock fired from a catapult in Rome II has as many polygons as an entire character from Shogun. Likewise, the scale of development has changed drastically since the beginning, as the book describes how back in the day eight or nine artists worked on Shogun, whereas 12 years later as many as 80 artists worked on its sequel.

Being able to see artwork from each title in a series like Total War is also more interesting than many other series compilations might be because of how many eras in history this series has sourced, from feudal Japan to the Middle Ages; from 18th century colonial expansion to the Napoleonic period; from ancient Rome to 10th century England. One chapter you’re looking at samurai, Japanese woodblock prints, and picturesque fields lined with cherry blossoms, the next it’s crusaders and epic battles and castle sieges from the Middle Ages, and the next the grandeur and opulence of Roman times. There is such contrast in artistic approach to the designs of units, architecture, weapons, armor, terrain, and campaign map layouts from such a diverse range of historical periods, and even though some concessions were made for the sake of workable game design, the authenticity each piece of art–be it a hand drawn sketch, fully colored illustration, mood piece, loading screen panel, building/city model or character study–shows to its setting of origin is something history buffs will surely appreciate.

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Most art books have at the very least captions to describe the works being displayed, but something that’s always stood out in Titan’s art books in particular compared to many others is the insightful developer commentary. Titan publishes art books that are often as compelling to read as they are to look at, and The Art of Total War is perhaps the best example of this. Nearly every page is accompanied by a paragraph of two that helps to put context to the role of a particular piece in the design process as well as commentary about certain elements the artists had to take into account in balancing historical accuracy with playability. My favorite part of the book actually comes right at the beginning, in a fascinating introductory chapter chronicling the history of Total War and The Creative Assembly’s design philosophy.

Of course, by now–if you’re a Total War fan–you’ve already heard the news that this book outs that The Creative Assembly is working on a Total War: Warhammer game. Unfortunately, other than a sentence name-dropping the title, the book doesn’t tease with art or go into any details about that project. But just the thought of a Total War game set in the Warhammer universe is exciting enough for now. (They really just need to consider condensing the title to Total Warhamer.)

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Honestly, the only point of criticism I can levy at this book is its disappointingly light chapter for the newest title, Attila. The other games get around 20 to 30 pages, if not more, but the Attila section is only eight pages (not counting the two-page chapter title spread), and the artwork shown on those pages isn’t all that memorable. I understand that the book did ship almost a month ahead of the game, so I’m sure the developers didn’t want to include a lot of potential spoilers–but a little more still would have been nice.

Lacking Attila content aside, The Art of Total War is a fantastic book, both as a compendium of artwork and a behind the scenes commentary on the making of such a successful, well-respected franchise that has been going strong for more than a decade now. (No surprise, Attila currently is the #1 seller on Steam.) The way that Total War is always able to capture such grand scale and make the brutality and ugliness of war look like a beautiful work of art is a testament to the talented team of artists at The Creative Assembly, and it’s great to have a sampling of that work compiled and showcased in a volume such as this. As a coffee table display piece, the book gets bonus points for having a great cover. The dust jacket art is well and good, but what’s underneath–a plain black hardcover with a medieval knight on horseback debossed in gold–hits the perfect note of being classy yet understated. A thing of beauty, inside and out.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!