I remember my excitement when Shogun: Total War came out. The first one, back in 2000. Armies of samurai clashing on the battlefield, dramatic cavalry charges, sneaky ninjas and (horribly broken) geisha creeping around offing enemy lords... it had everything, and was way, way ahead of its time, both in terms of vision and delivery.
Then, Medieval Total War made your generals feel like real people, with a string of fascinating personal traits as long as your arm. Nowadays that seems par for the course in a strategy game, but back then it was revolutionary. The papacy's interfering with local politics and launching map-spanning crusades. The inquisition getting out of control and burning all of your peasants. Ah, good times.
And then Rome. And Empire. And Attila. And sequels to pretty much all of them. Then, almost as an afterthought, Warhammer - which the nerdier among us had been slightly-too-loudly-for-polite-company declaring would be a good idea since Shogun. Then, immediately, a sequel to that. Now... well, now it is beginning to feel like it's run its course a bit.
Britannia is the first in a new series of games under the Total War banner to be called Total War Sagas. What that means is that like Napoleon, or Attila, or Charlemagne, or Fall of the Samurai, they're focused more on certain moments in history rather than the sweeping epochs of the likes of Rome and Medieval. But wait, I hear you think (I can do that, you know)! If this is what they've been doing for ages anyway, how is this a new series? Well yes. It's not, really. It's just a new name for something that they've already been doing.
Britannia is set during that wonderful time when the puny Anglo Saxons were getting raided mercilessly (and, no doubt, excruciatingly embarrassingly) by the mean old Vikings. The map covers the British Isles and allows for a variety of approaches based on your choice of starting faction, many with their own approaches to the game mechanic. For example, if you choose to play Wessex as Alfred the Great, you'll be able to recruit more men from the fyrd, your levies, based on the number of provinces you control. But if you dip too frequently into this goodie bag, you'll end up with an army full of scoundrels and ne'er-do-wells, who proceed to ne'er do what you want during combat. If you play as one of the outlying Viking tribes in the grim north, gameplay focuses on raiding and sacking your enemies' territory for the loot, and mounting off-map expeditions to trade with the Russians or enslave the Portuguese. There's just enough in the way of new mechanics to not get bogged down in minutiae, as perhaps some previous Total War titles have.
That said, you'll be doing the same things you've done in Total War games since 2000. Fill out the line with cheap spearmen, support them with a general to keep their morale up, flank with cavalry and use fast horsemen to chase down routing units. It's Total War 101, and while is refreshingly simple at first, it soon becomes stale and overly-familiar.
Visually, there's not really anything in Britannia that's really all that special. Many of the things that didn't work wonderfully in previous games still don't work wonderfully. I watched in slack-faced amazement as an enemy general and his five bodyguards - not five UNITS of guards, you understand, but literally five blokes - stormed my heavily-defended citadel, weathering a couple of volleys from five bowman units before inevitably dying. What was going through their heads as their limbs were sluiced by my arrows? Probably "if only our AI was better, we'd not be in this ridiculous mess!"
Yes, AI is still a mess. If you attack an enemy army on the coast, all of their foot units will start in boats and all of their horse units - usually including their general, and occasionally ONLY their general - will line up on land across from your troops, miles from their seaborne chums. While the ships bounce ineffectually off the coast, trying and failing to land their troops, their general is inevitably killed by your own horse, spear and archer units, giving the landing force a massive morale malus when they finally manage to land their ships.
On the strategy map, the enemy is happy to send a lone general unit into your lands to capture a few small towns, just to annoy you, allowing themselves to be easily murdered by your armies but costing you a couple of turns walking around recapturing your own towns. This is just annoying, and suicidal, and doesn't really feel like you're playing against a strategic opponent.
Honestly, I feel like maybe we've seen all of the colours of Total War that we're really going to. It's time to switch up the tried-and-true formula for something else. It has been a lot of fun, and in its day Total War really set the bar. But now it's yesterday's news.