by Martin Robinson
Publisher: Titan Books
Review by Richard Williams
Some art books are overly wordy and I'm not a fan of that. When I buy an art book I want to see art and any words on the page had better be brief and to the point. A little something about what the picture is about, maybe what the artist was striving for and whether they felt they pulled it off. So when I opened The Art of Total War and saw several pages of writing I considered just giving it a miss. But I'm glad I didn't because it transpired to be a fairly succinct history of the Total War franchise that was actually quite interesting. Something that was mentioned that I particularly latched on to (aside from a mention that they are working on Total War: Warhammer) was a thought on how games have come along graphically and now any game looking to gain an audience had better make sure it looks good. Back when Total War began the armies were just a cluster of pixels darting around the screen, now the battles are comprised of thousands of individuals, near enough, that need to be clearly discernible when a player zooms in to see his samurai take on gun toting soldiers.
The result is a need for the artwork you find in this book. Much as first person shooters now need to have a movie style art department to plan out their every 'scene', so too the makers of real time strategy games. What is interesting about this development is the direction that Creative Assembly have taken towards their concept art. There are a lot of very nice 'mood pieces' in this book which wouldn't look out of place on a gallery wall. These pieces don't represent anything that actually happens in the game, no specific event or action, but are merely designed to convey a certain point, such as the scale of a battle or the lighting. Such pieces can be found throughout the book and they are a treat.
Other work includes the designs for soldiers, their armour and general appearance, as well as buildings. The games loading screens now show artwork and those pieces that are used can be found here too. In the case of Shogun 2 and Empire the art is really of a very high quality and is nice to sit and appreciate.
The book is organised into sections by game title and its sequel. So chapter one is all about Shogun 1&2 but the art is almost exclusively from the second game due to the state of concept art at the time that the first Shogun game was created. This applies to the chapter on Medieval 1&2 with most of the earlier games art being CG renders that were, at the time, cutting edge but which now look painfully dated. There isn't a lot of that stuff, just a few pieces to show how things have come along. Rome and all it's expansions gets good coverage as do the Empire games with a good amount of the key art pieces that were used for marketing purposes.
There is more CG work, from the modern games, than I like. I'm very much a 2D art fan but I know others feel differently on that score so I can't hold it against Titan Books for featuring it so heavily. What I do mind, however, is that on a several occasions some of the best art pieces have been printed at the size of thumbnails and crammed onto a single page. Had they done this with the CG material then I wouldn't be so bothered but I can see that most of the pictures are very nice and frankly I want to see them in all their glory. Bit of a misstep in my opinion, but there we are.
It would have been nice to see some artwork from Spartan: Total Warrior, which gets a mention in the history of Total War at the start, but there is nothing from that game. There is, however, art from the upcoming Total War Battles: Kingdoms, another game designed for tablets and other mobile devices in the same vein as Total War Battles. Total War Arena, the pending game focusing on multiplayer skirmishes, also gets a brief showing.
In conclusion I would say that this book has a good selection of art with a nice emphasis on key art and mood pieces. True, I would have preferred less CG work and lots more sketches but on the whole this is a very nice book which conforms to Titan Books very capable way of putting these things together. The descriptive text could have been a little better on most of the pages but, as I said before, if it's a case of having words or art then I choose the art. I also only saw a handful of references to the artists that produced the work and, as I've mentioned before, I personally like to know who is responsible for the art I'm enjoying. All in all I highly recommend The Art of Total War to collectors of concept art books but for others who are less enthusiastic about such things I would say it's not such a necessary purchase and suggest holding off until you've had a chance to flick through it first.