Whether it’s clashing bushi and samurai in Japan’s Warring States period or English longbowmen and French knights in the Middle Ages, Creative Assembly’s Total War series has given gamers, with a streak of history buff, an unprecedentedly detailed tactical strategy series for years now. Among the most prolific titles in the series was the much lauded Rome: Total War (yes, down the line they swapped the placement), and now after nearly a decade the developers are taking us back to the era that saw the rise and fall of the one of history’s greatest empires, and no one else could do it better.
Staring a new campaign in Rome II will feel much like any other strategy title. Save a prologue tutorial, there is no story. It’s all about shaping this factions history yourself, and making your own tales of holding out against impossible odds or crushing your foe with a clever tactic. You will first have to choose from a numbers of factions, like Rome, Carthage or Egypt, that get further delineating to families or tribes within those factions. To its credit, Rome II does an excellent job of giving all the factions a unique feel, for instance, a barbarian based faction might get a bonus to public order for being in war with their most immediate neighbors. Though some of the statistical differences can get lost in grander scheme of things. The more impactful variations are what units the faction can call to war and what their starting position is like. The mighty Roman Empire begins the game with several cities and armies, and it draws mostly from the highly disciplined heavy infantry that it’s historically known for; whereas the smaller tribal Parthia has a single city to start, and relies on Cataphract and horse archer cavalry. This ensures that there is a lot of replayablity in trying out new factions, with more being released as free or paid DLC.
There is also a political system at play between the families and tribes within your faction, with events appearing occasionally to throw matters for a loop. It’s intended to add this additional layer to the gameplay with all these option to assassinate rivals, adopt promising commanders into your family, securing a promotion for yourself or sending folks away to serve as generals. Your family members gain skills and have stats to represent their ambition and gravitas, and this can eventually lead to some defining moments, like Rome converting from a senate-run republic to an empire with your family as emperor (though only after a bloody civil war). Unfortunately, it never quite comes together in a meaningful way and has little bearing or impact on the rest of the game. Sometimes a little event will pop-up that you need to respond to, like a child that bears a startlingly resemblance to your family showing up at your door step and you’re asked to respond, but whole political system otherwise feels like it can largely be ignored.
Like previous Total War games, Rome II is split between the strategic, turn-based campaign map and real-time tactical battles. On the campaign map, you’ll make all the decisions about running your fledgling nation, such as what technology you’re researching and what units you’re recruiting. There’s been an effort to streamline the micromanagement aspects of the experience without overly dumbing it down too much. The game feels smoother, intuitive and easier to interact with overall, though it does lose a little of the detailed delineation from, say, having to raise and move troops individually than having them simply appear at the army. Some of my most memorable battles in prior games took place from unintended skirmishes while moving troops up to reinforce an army.
Where Rome II attempts to make up for this is by giving you freedom and flexibility to be define your cities and armies with your choices. Instead of independent cities, the map is broken up into provinces, each containing two or four cities, with the incentive to take over whole provinces being that you can pass edicts to give a bonus to the whole region. The cities themselves take shape from the individual buildings you set-up. They will determine not only what units show up to garrison the town automatically, the happiness of your people and what the city’s income is like, but also what kind of military units can be recruited there. You could build one city to be an economic powerhouse, while another contains all the barracks and workshops to produce the best military units. Even the armies and generals themselves can pick up traits and skills, making you always cringe when your best general falls in combat, assassination or simply due to old age.
Your armies can be moved around the map with a great deal of freedom, as they’ll automatically ford rivers and load up on transport ships. Your armies can also be given specific movement orders, like force marching to get more campaign map movement at the expense of their morale or even to forgo movement all together to set up fortifications. Ultimately this all serves one purpose: getting into the battles that are at the heart of Total War. The tactical battles look as gorgeous and detailed as ever, letting you view the combat from above or zoom all the way down to the individual men that make up your units. For history buffs, there is rarely any other gaming experience as satisfying as using your cavalry to successful roll up your opponent’s army with a flank charge and watching the tiny men rout and flee.
It’s a fantastic experience when it’s all working properly. Unfortunately, combat doesn’t always work perfectly, and several of its problems are lingering issues that the series has always had. The simple nature of the game engine and what’s being presented means the game does have a tendency to chug the graphics, even when you’re not trying to watch your general put your foes to the sword from close in. For smaller encounters, it’s not an issue, but when lots of units are clashing on screen, the game’s framerate will slow down, especially if you’re not playing on a top of the line machine. Another issue that still hasn’t been quite ironed out is the occasionally dodgy pathfinding, and what appears to be the relatively simple movement order for your army will send them all running off on strange tangents. These have largely been holdover from the series or are someway inherent to the design, so they should hardly be deal breakers for long time fans.
Arguably the two biggest issues have to do with an AI opponent that seems to flitter between strokes of genius and ineptitude. A tiny nation besieged by a superior force might call for help by offering itself as a satrapy, or vassal, to another larger nation, better to pay a portion of your income to your new leaders than to be wiped out entirely, but then that same AI may throw troops at your forces with reckless abandon in fights that they have no chance of winning. I don’t think I’ve used the auto battle resolution as much as I have in Rome II. Of course, that’s when the AI is proving to be aggressive at all; it seems to prefer to let things be while you build up a mighty empire next door. The other major issue is how long the game takes to calculate between turns. Starting out, a single turn may only take half a minute to process, but as you get deeper into the game, expanding your territory and vision through troop movement and trade routes, the time it takes to finish stretches into uncomfortably long minutes. Ultimately, the rest of the game is well worth working through these issues, but it’s disappointing that they keep the game from being the masterpiece that it could be.
Bottomline: Like a grizzled veteran of countless battles, Total War: Rome II is still set in its ways, for better or worse.
Recommendation: Technical issues aside, seeing your massive armies clash is still a joy to behold.[rating=4]