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Since I opened that can of worms, I figured I might as well compare my more serious efforts with one of the big reasons that I’m desperately seeking ancients PC games to begin with: Rome: Total War just can’t handle the period.

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Alexander the Great assembled a vast army, numbering 966 souls, and marched upon Babylon.

The graphics and animations, of course, look as you would expect them. This is from the previous decade’s version of Total War. Despite the fact that it was actually released subsequent to Total War: Rome II, it doesn’t look substantially different from the 2004 version. I still think circa-2004 animations look pretty good but will depend on your expectations.

By the time this title came out, I had already given up on Rome: Total War in frustration. However, a few years after release I managed to pick Alexander up as part of a package deal, so I’ve had it sitting around in my library for ages with no intention to play.

Given that the battles of antiquity, at least those whose records have survived to the present, tend to have been massive affairs, the modeling (graphically and mechanically) down to the individual soldiers in Total War is always going to present a problem. One could, of course, assume that like the units in Field of Glory or Great Battles of Alexander, these are mere “stands” of soldiers representing much larger formations. While this could work in theory, the game engine really doesn’t play along. The individual soldiers show on-screen tend to act like individual soldiers, not like plastic models abstractly representing a formation.

Even if we allow that each soldier portrayed on screen represents, say, 50 men a piece, the unit count still seems too small. The number of discrete formations is probably a third or a quarter that of the Great Battles version, once you set aside the Macedonian phalanx units that make up the front line. The ratios are also way off. Outside of that big phalanx center, there aren’t enough support formations. For skirmishers, for example, the Greeks sport a single band of archers. Cavalry is limited to two units of Companions plus one other horse unit. Even if we were hoping to treat the little-on-screen men as “miniatures,” the scenario still seems underdeveloped.

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The horrors of (Total) war.

And then, of course, it’s still Total War, isn’t it?

Maybe you can accept the scaled-down version of the scenario. Perhaps you’ve even gone into the scenario and edited the unit balance to have the proper historical mix. In the end, you’re still going to have Alexander leading a pair of phalanges tear-assing around the battlefield routing, one-by-one, what remains of the Persian army. Total War: Alexander was designed to please on-line, competitive RTS players, not history freaks.

And that’s why I don’t play it.

I loath to even open up the campaign game where I am forced to juggle city management on top of those unrealistic battles. On the other hand, Total War might (accidentally, more than anything) come close to approximating the strategic considerations of Alexander’s conquest. His entire campaign was only, roughly, a dozen years. He moved with the core forces of his original army mostly in one direction; having left Macedon, he never saw it again. While his army grew, it was largely using foreign troops recruited from the provinces of the nations he conquered. Whereas for, as an example Roman campaigns, the build mechanism of Total War is a gamey misrepresentation of how empires actually field armies, in the contest of Alexander’s conquest of Asia, it might be as good a model as any.

Heck. Maybe I’ll look at it after all.