Ranking the Total War games is wonderfully contentious. Maybe it’s because the concept of ‘best’ depends on what kind of mood you’re in—I love them all like dangerous children, and I play them on rotation, influenced by whichever books, films, or other games I’m consuming at the time. Watching the Battle of the Hornburg makes me crave Total War: Warhammer; reading about the crusades make me yearn for Medieval 2. These are ‘feel’ games, which satisfy cravings beyond the need for sharp strategy or pitched battles. They let you twist history, create new stories, or roleplay as your favourite generals.
There’s also precious little to separate them, especially at the top end of the order. The factors that make the series a success are found in every game, and it’s often only the strength of the setting that sets the games apart. There are obvious outliers—Empire and Napoleon feel like they’re from a different universe—but they all offer the same mix of conflict and conquest, failure and domination.
In order of preference, here are the best standalone Total War games.
10. Rome 2
It says loads about Total War that the lowest entry on this list isn’t a poor game—it’s just not as good as people hoped. The still-excellent original set a high bar, but that wasn’t the only issue: Rome 2 had a flawed launch and played like an uneasy transition to a more advanced system. Because of that, it’s a harder game to love.
Truthfully, the game’s reputation is a little unfair—the numerous bugs and wobbly AI have been patched, and when it works, it’s as deep and rewarding as any other Total War. I also has an amazing selection of unique factions, making this feel like one of the richest entries in the series, if not the most revered.
There’s still loads to love about Medieval, but much of it has been refined and improved in the sequels. It bravely expands the scope of the, adding elements such as loyalty, religion and espionage, and because of this it feels like a deft representation of the brutal, tumultuous setting. It’s also the game that really nailed the ‘feel’ of Total War’s battle system—gleaming armour, lines of armoured troops smashing into each other, rousing music and improved graphics.
It obviously looks simplistic when compared to the recent games, but the impact at the time can’t be underestimated. Shogun started it all and Rome refined it, but Medieval expanded the series in a way that belies the simple presentation.
Like the first Medieval game, Shogun isn’t low on this list because it’s poor, but because it feels like a thing from a different era. It also suffers from a sequel that stands out as one of the most dramatic and compelling entries in the series. But despite this, the original Total War game has moments that linger in the mind years after you first played it—things like charging into ranks of spearmen with a Kensai sword saint, or the desperate crackle of doomed musketeers resisting a cavalry charge.
If you want to play a Total War game set in feudal Japan you’re far more likely to play the sequel, but this is worth playing for posterity—a beautiful, stirring snapshot of the series that followed.
There was so much that could have gone wrong with Empire—the shift away from melee units, the flimsiness of ranked rifle fire, the specificity of naval conflict—but it did an admirable job of integrating systems that were alien to a game previously about hammering conflict and cavalry charges. It took until Napoleon for those creases to be ironed out. The AI is weak and the scale and scope can be troubling for anyone stepping up from Medieval 2, but it’s still an incredible achievement. It embraces concepts that would be impossible in earlier games, and the technology trees have a much more direct effect on the game (plus there’s something hopeful about the abolition of slavery being the ultimate expression of enlightenment).
The battles lack the muscular impact of melee focussed Total War games, but the sound of cannon roaring on a crowded battlefield is still exhilarating. And one final, very minor thing: the theme tune from the main menu is incredible.
Napoleon takes everything Empire did well and refines it, streamlining and improving the best bits of its sprawling, often flabby predecessor. But it’s more than just a mere improvement: Napoleon represents Creative Assembly learning how to properly apply a story to an emergent game. The game is a testament to Bonaparte's brilliance, and the conquests are essential because they’re conducted with humanity and impartiality.
As well as being a superb Total War game, it’s a fascinating way of delving into a turning point in Europe. You get to experience the triumphs and failures of an incredible military mind, and it’s an unusual, often moving way of seeing something that still echoes through history. Experiencing huge conflict through the eyes of a few people makes this a humbling, brilliant, utterly essential experience.
The most characterful moments from classic Total War games usually happen organically—the brave mercenary army on the edge of your empire, the feckless offspring of crusading generals. Attila is the first successful attempt to weave these stories into the game itself. It //almost// makes Total War a misnomer. It’s not just about fighting: Attila is game of politics, feasting, famine, desolation, and migration, set during one of the most fragile and fascinating periods of history—Europe still feels like a unformed concept, ready to be shaped or smashed as you see fit.
It also does a great job of folding in more complicated elements, such as weather and guerilla warfare—perfect for anyone more used to the simple clarity of earlier Total Wars. And like Warhammer, everything you do is under the shadow of a gathering storm: it’s not if Attila and his Hunnic army will arrive, but when. A brutal, unforgiving and wonderfully complex strategy Total War game.
Rome was the first game where the scale of the conflict completely overwhelmed me. I’d pause every elephant charge to enjoy the impact; chase down every last fleeing slinger just to see them stampeded. It was also the first taste of what remains my favourite element of the series: the specific conflicts that appear in every game, when you and a rival faction push at each other’s borders until the dam breaks and you flood into their land. It helps that the setting is familiar to anyone who’s studied history (or read Asterix).
It’s immediately and deeply satisfying, and the only thing better than driving the Roman war machine across the Europe and beyond is defying history and withstanding it. Chuck in the savagely unforgiving Barbarian Invasion—the only Total War game that forced me to become a Roman vassal—and you have the best example of this time period in the series.
3. Medieval 2
Medieval 2 owes an unquestionable debt to the games that came before it, but it has something magical that sets it apart from its predecessors. It’s an exemplary setting for a Total War game—a time of conquest, crusades, and corruption, with enough stability to make each faction relatable and emboldening opportunities for expansion and invasion. Your place in the world makes every game unique. Play as England and the temptation to reach out and crush your neighbours is irresistible; play as Egypt and you’ll realise how shitty it is when barbaric Christians call crusades against you for no reason.
In Kingdoms, it also has a fantastic expansion that focusses on historical flashpoints and adds nuance and detail to the sweeping conquests of the main game. The AI can be soft at times, but it’s still a vicious challenge when the Mongols turn up. And if it’s still too easy for you, an amazing selection of mods breathe extra life into an already comprehensive game: Stainless Steel and Broken Crescent are both still essential today.
2. Total Warhammer
The greatest Total War moments come from seesawing conflict, where old powers fall and new ones replace them. The prevalence of these moments in Warhammer is what justifies the high spot. It’s a grasping battle for survival that distills the best bits of the series, and it’s made more vivid by a rich, relatable low-fantasy setting. The battles feel huge, but it’s the looming threat of Chaos that make every game into a desperate story—when they finally arrive arrive, races scramble into fragile alliances and every failed invasion feels like a gasp for air. It’s also the most varied Total War: every race is eased into Total War’s systems with meticulous care, and they’re different enough to make this feel like a massively generous game (if you’re willing to forgive Chaos pre-order nonsense, that is).
It’s not perfect—the campaign pacing is off, meaning that grand victories can feel like a wafting afterthought accompanied by a sprawl of unreadable stats—but it’s gaming’s finest representation of a Warhammer world that no longer exists.
1. Shogun 2
There are other games on this list with more units, greater scope, and grander settings, but Shogun 2 is Creative Assembly at its cohesive best. Globetrotting conquest is replaced by a frenzied struggle to unify Japan, but it never feels small. Instead, the narrow focus makes Shogun 2 a rich, wholly immersive experience, with a superb campaign in one of the most evocative periods in the series. It also fixes many traditional Total War problems. The AI has learned how to use boats and expands aggressively on higher difficulty levels. Clans feel distinct.
And, best of all, The Shogun can declare you an enemy if you get to powerful, preventing you from sweeping to victory—instead of rolling over factions one-by-one, you have to protect the resources you’ve spent time compiling. It’s also magnificently designed, meaning that new players can easily adopt its systems while Total War vets can sit back and let this beautiful, brilliantly-plotted game deliver all the moments that make us love the series.