In it’s day Rome: Total War was the culmination of the Total War series. The graphics were superb, with vivid units and a world map that encompassed the Mediterranean in detail. It was also the last Total War game I was able to play. A little while in between Rome and Medieval II my PC melted down and I decided I could wait on getting a new one. That wait lasted a few years it seems, but I’m back now and so is Rome.
I was hesitant to rejoin the series after being away from it for so many games. After all who knows how many changes the developers would have made. It turns out I had absolutely nothing to worry about. If you’ve played any of the Total War games you will feel at home when commanding your troops on the battlefield. Selecting units and grouping them, rallying wavering units with your general, and crushing your foes under hoof with heavy cavalry are all still there and all still viable. New additions include balls of fire which can be rolled down hills to defend against attacking units, and naval battles where tactics include ramming and boarding. I have to say while I love the look of the sea battles I can’t be bothered to play them. Not that it’s not functional. I just prefer my sea battles to include barrages of cannon fire. You can also have battles at sea and on land at the same time. When assaulting a city by sea you will often have to run past a blockade of defending ships. The best method I’ve found to deal with them is to make a straight dash for a landing beach, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
Where the game feels really different is the over world map. Gone is the easily understandable if slightly cumbersome method of controlling your empire by managing your cities. In it’s place is a more provincial take on matters that required a lot of getting used to. You still pick and choose what gets built in your cities but things have been streamlined. You are now deciding if you want to build a town based on its industry rather than throwing things together haphazardly in order to get the best troops. So you might decide that Brundisium should be known for its clay pots, while Roma should be known for it’s cattle. Sardinia? That’s the wine capital of the world don’t you know?
The over world map is divided into provinces that match how the Romans saw the world at that time. When you control all of the cities in a province you can issue edicts to your governor that determine what type of economic policy that province should pursue. This comes in handy if you want to wring every Denari out of the populace, or if you want to take an approach that encourages business growth. Each policy has it’s pro’s and cons, with some giving you a short term monetary gain while killing your population growth, while others don’t give you much money right away but encourage the people to live there thus growing your tax base.
The over world units have also been streamlined. Diplomacy and trade are now handled via a mini menu. No longer must you recruit an ambassador and walk them all the way across the continent to talk to some potentate in order to gain access to their herdsmen for trading rights. Now if anyone from your empire encounters that band of people you will be able to negotiate a non aggression pact and anything else you desire right away. They may take a dim view of your attempts at commerce (Egypt I’m looking at you…squirming beneath my Imperial boot…you should have let me sell my trinkets.) but you can work out those petty details amongst yourselves. This is the same with trade routes on the sea. You no longer need to have a ship on each trade route to have access to it. Instead you merely negotiate a treaty granting each other trading rights and there you go, instant income without the hassle.
Instead of sending units out to negotiate things like peace treaties, you now send them out to stall your enemy. You can recruit three kinds of units. Spies, Champions and Dignitaries. Spies are who you turn to when you are looking to deal in the shady side of statecraft. They are useful for weakening enemy cities by poisoning their water supply, or setting fire to important buildings. They are also who you turn to when you want to try a more direct form of diplomacy by assassinating enemy generals. Champions are walking black holes. You can send them into enemy territory and they will hamper armies from moving. Dignitaries are used to counter the effects of Champions.
I found the spy to be useful, while the champion I found to be vastly overpowered. One man should not be able to stop an army from marching to relieve a city under siege, no matter how big of a champion he is. Dignitaries didn’t really take with me, I never found a use for them, but that could just be my play style.
Researching technology has been altered in Total War: Rome II. It’s free. Well, you still have to pay to upgrade your towns to enjoy the fruits of this research so it’s not completely free. All you have to do is choose what to research at any given time and then wait however long it takes to finish the research. Once this is done you’ve got yourself new options for manufacturing in whatever city has access to those features.
The game includes a prologue designed to get you familiar with the basics of the game. And clearly the people at Creative Assembly enjoyed the movie Gladiator. Either that or they decided that you did. The main general sounds suspiciously like Russell Crowe at times, and the Roman Army’s favorite saying is “Strength and Honor”, a line taken from the movie. Whatever, I didn’t care. I found myself enjoying the thought of playing the game as Crowe’s Maximus.
Sadly the prologue is soon over, and you are thrust into the game as the leader of whichever of the factions you like. If you bought the game at launch three Greek city states are included in the list of factions you can start the game with. These factions (Athens, Sparta and Epirus) give users a few more choices when you are starting out a campaign. This is the first DLC pack Creative Assembly have released, and its expected that more factions will be made available as time passes. If you can’t bother waiting I understand there are mods out there that have unlocked the majority of the factions, but beware that doing so probably ruins your chances of playing the game online.
It’s here, after the prologue when you start playing the game that it starts to bog down, and I actually mean bog down. There are so many factions that the game needs to calculate the moves for that the wait between turns can turn into a perfect opportunity to catch up on your reading. I wish I was kidding. Depending on how large your empire is, it can be a matter of spending your money for the round and leveling up your generals for a few minutes, and then go make a coffee as you wait for the computer to calculate the results of each of the moves the numerous factions are making, most of which you can’t even see as you don’t border that particular country. You see how long that sentence went on? That’s what I’m talking about. You could read that sentence in the time it takes to proceed to your next turn, but only just.
Building your armies has been slightly changed. Where before you would have to recruit units in a city and then send them to your army of choice, you now recruit a general in a city and then he will muster troops into his army from wherever they are. It’s quite handy to not have to keep switching between army and cities in order to build up your army. And when you’ve been in battle your army will slowly recover its losses over time as well.
That’s what I like about the changes to the army recruiting. I have to talk about what I don’t like about it now. Specifically I dislike the unit cards. I know that’s kind of a petty thing to be talking about, but hear me out. In the past the units were mini portraits of what they look like. They may not have been the most detailed unit cards in the world but they got the point across. Now they are stylized pictures, and the art is how the Romans would have drawn the units. I like that, but its too cute for its own good. You figure it out after a awhile but the time it takes to figure out what is light infantry and what is heavy infantry could be better spent breaking barbarian city walls. As well, your army can muster a certain amount of units per round, but your cities can also muster forces. You would think that you could recruit units in your city and then send them off to join your army like in the old games but in this you would be mistaken. You see you must have a general to muster units, and you only have a limited amount of Generals that you can recruit. You can still merge armies, but no army can have more than one general. These are small nagging issues but they start to build up, like barnacles on a ship slowing the player down.
Up until now I’ve managed to avoid talking about anything that would be truly negative. Yes the user interface takes some getting used to but you can get around that with time it starts to become usable, if not second nature. But the game has flaws. It’s already been patched once and there are still issues. I have a machine that qualifies for Ultra settings if not Extreme, and during battles the game would drop down to 2 to 3 frames per second at times. I noticed this happened a lot when trying to capture city gates. It’s quite bizarre, because the game was still running. You could go to the menu and navigate through that, then go back to the game and its still chugging along for no reason. The game would also hang during the faction action screen, but again it wouldn’t crash. I could very easily exit the game from the in-game menu. This isn’t me being impatient. After it happened a third time i decided to just leave it there to see what grand Schlieffen Plan the faction would pull out of it’s hat on completion, but half an hour later it was still sitting there so I decided to just end the pain and exit the game. Exiting the game and restarting it solved nothing. Eventually I chose to walk away. Then the next day it loaded up and worked as it should. And so it goes.
The music in game is once again that kind of floaty vocals Enya specializes in that were found in the first Rome: Total War, though Enya herself is not the singer. It’s not nearly as annoying as the music from Medieval: Total War. I’d say it fit quite nicely. Dialogue is limited beyond the Prologue. Special agents on the map will greet you, as will soldiers on the field when selected. During negotiations between ambassadors there is a little bit of spoken word, but the game is not the most verbose in the world.
A Creative Assembly team lead took to the Internet to discuss the issues the game faces amongst many of the game’s users, and apparently they do intend to issue a weekly patch until everything works. They don’t do that when the game is fully optimized and working all the time. They do that when stuff shipped in a less than ideal state.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Rome was not built in a day. Total War: Rome II wasn’t either, but it probably could have used some more time letting the concrete set. The seeds of a great game are there; the developers need to keep working at it until it is properly finished. This is one you should probably wait a little while on.