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'Total War: Pharaoh' and 'Star Trek: Infinite': boldly going where we've been before

Set your strategy adventure in either the shifting sands or the sci-fi stars.
Paradox Interactive/Creative Assembly
Set your strategy adventure in either the shifting sands or the sci-fi stars.

Total War: Pharaoh and Star Trek: Infinite both come out this week. Developed by two of the biggest names in strategy gaming, Paradox Interactive and Creative Assembly, both offer deep strategy experiences steeped in past designs.

Command massive armies in epic real-time battles, while navigating terrain like rivers and city walls.
/ Creative Assembly
/
Creative Assembly
Command massive armies in epic real-time battles, while navigating terrain like rivers and city walls.

Total War: Pharaoh

Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, out-planned.

That became my fight song of despair when a horde of invading "Sea Peoples" attacked one of my core cities on the Mediterranean coast. The attacker's numbers were nearly double that of my meager garrisoned forces inside the city gates. Unable to run, muster reinforcements, or even auto-resolve the battle, I settled in to guide my soldiers to their inevitable defeat, taking as many of the enemy with me as possible.

To my surprise, 20 minutes later, I watched the invading forces beat an ignominious retreat.

My mighty victory earned my fledgling nation a few legitimacy points towards taking the Egyptian throne.
/ Creative Assembly
/
Creative Assembly
My mighty victory earned my fledgling nation a few legitimacy points towards taking the Egyptian throne.

After flirting with high fantasy, Creative Assembly and SEGA have returned the Total War grand strategy franchise to its historical roots with Total War: Pharaoh. Set in the Bronze Age, players can contest the title of either Pharaoh or King of the Hittites, a rival empire based in what is now Turkey and Syria. The goal, as always, is conquest, but much of the game can be won in the royal court, where players can use political actions to gain legitimacy, discredit other faction leaders on the court, or even assassinate the sitting ruler.

As with other Total War games, the stability of your cities suffer if you fail to balance your resources. But this element has been simplified to a fault. Often after moving an army and choosing my court actions for that turn, I was baffled that there wasn't anything else for me to do before ending the turn. At a certain point in the game, cities and resources basically run themselves, which Creative Assembly claims is an improvement on other Total War games, but it really feels like a downgrade.

Zoom in to see the rich detail on each soldier in Total War: Pharaoh. Here, Ramesses leads a charge.
/ Creative Assembly
/
Creative Assembly
Zoom in to see the rich detail on each soldier in Total War: Pharaoh. Here, Ramesses leads a charge.

The Total War franchise made a name for itself with huge, real-time battles, and thankfully this latest version delivers. You can now arrange your hundreds of individual soldiers into different stances, including "Give Ground," which allows units to slowly back up while still facing the enemy. Like any commander, you also have to keep a close eye on the weather, which can transform the battlefield without much warning.

Altogether, it makes for a much more immersive, but slower experience than previous Total War games. So slow, in fact, that I often pushed for the "Auto-Resolve" button to skip easy battles. That's not to say that drawn-out skirmishes couldn't be engaging. I felt like a tactical genius when I turned the inexorable tide of invading "Sea Peoples" and saved my coastal city. Like the barbarians in Total War: Rome, this ambiguous historical group brings a climactic crisis to the late-game.

Ultimately, Total War: Pharaoh satisfied the historical grand strategist in me. If you've got the patience for its slow tactics and stripped-down strategy, its undeniably beautiful presentation could attract new players to this admittedly niche genre.

The U.S.S. Enterprise-D scans an unknown system for anomalies and resources.
/ Paradox Interactive
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Paradox Interactive
The U.S.S. Enterprise-D scans an unknown system for anomalies and resources.

Star Trek: Infinite

It's a good time to be a Star Trek fan. Earlier this year, the spin-off Star Trek: Picard gave the icon and his aging compatriots a send-off worthy of the legendary Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then, as NPR's Eric Deggans wroteearlier this summer, the excellent Star Trek: Strange New Worlds succeeded by embracing the franchise's righteous, light-hearted legacy rather than shying away from it. Even Star Trek: Lower Decks, the adult animated comedy about goofy peons on a mediocre starship, earned praise from critics and hardcore fans alike. It's the perfect time for a new video game to capitalize on the new wave of revitalized nostalgia.

Choose your faction wisely, as it determines your starting position and what technology is available to you.
/ Paradox Interactive
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Paradox Interactive
Choose your faction wisely, as it determines your starting position and what technology is available to you.

Enter Star Trek: Infinite, the real-time grand strategy game from Paradox Interactive, Nimble Giant Entertainment, and Paramount, set after the events of The Next Generation. You'll lead one of four factions — Romulan, Cardassian, Klingon, or Federation — expand your collection of planets and protect them from outside threats. Unknown star systems and colonizable planets must first be analyzed by your science ships before you can claim them (and their resources), though some of their climates are more hospitable than others.

As with other grand strategy games, balancing your faction's resources is a delicate art, and can be instantly thrown off by your own myopic actions or by events beyond your control. Diplomacy, too, is fickle: Star Trek: Infinite contains dozens of minor factions along with the core four, each with competing demands and various levels of hostility.

If you think this description sounds suspiciously like Paradox Interactive's Stellariswith a Star Trek Prime Directive attached, you're not wrong. The mechanics of advancing your faction and winning the game (militarily, economically, or diplomatically) are nearly identical, and fans of Stellaris will recognize the game's style in Infinite's assets and artwork.

Star Trek: Infinite is a faithful reproduction of the Star Trek universe circa <em>The Next Generation</em>, including the neutral zone separating the Romulans from the Federation.
/ Paradox Interactive
/
Paradox Interactive
Star Trek: Infinite is a faithful reproduction of the Star Trek universe circa The Next Generation, including the neutral zone separating the Romulans from the Federation.

That's not to say that there aren't meaningful differences. Star Trek: Infinite adds faction-specific hero units like the Federation's U.S.S. Enterprise-D, and allows players to send starships on "missions" to advance diplomatic relations with opposing factions and earn specific rewards. But these units, disappointingly, come almost exclusively from Star Trek: The Next Generation (though players who pre-ordered gain access to Lower Decks' U.S.S. Cerritos), and the mission mechanic is mostly copied from Stellaris' research events.

As somebody who has spent an embarrassing amount of hours playing Stellaris, I felt at ease playing Star Trek: Infinite. But as a Star Trek fan, I couldn't help but feel like the game was missing some of the franchise's utopian optimism. Yes, you can send your starships out to discover new worlds and assist friendly nations, but the Stellaris warp drive that powers the game encourages conquest and expansion — an ambition totally out of step with the original show creator's vision. If Trekkies can stand that cognitive dissonance, they'll find a home in Star Trek: Infinite, but experienced grand strategy gamers might find it too familiar for comfort.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 14, 2023 at 8:00 PM AKDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the fictional Star Trek species Cardassian as Cassardian.
Alex Curley
Alex Curley (he/him) is a product manager in NPR's Distribution division. He leads product development efforts for the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS) including ContentDepot, MetaPub and the HUB.