Dune 2 was my first computer strategy title, it was something to behold and sing praise about. My only experience up to that point was the forever popular Risk board game. Of course, after the success of Dune 2 we witnessed that particular style of game grab a hold of gamers and make itself known as a new force in PC gaming. Naturally, like any good innovation, it was reused and rehashed many times and I subsequently lost interest in the RTS genre as a whole. Warcraft, Warcraft II, and Starcraft offered many a fun-filled hour, and RTS hope was renewed – but the vicious cycle of copycat titles eventually killed that which I had loved. Then Creative Assembly exhumed and resurrected my deceased love and made it better, stronger, and truer: Risk with RTS strategy and a touch of the economic simulator in the form of Shogun: Total War.
The game certainly had its fair share of issues, but the idea was sound and fresh and I knew I’d see more of its kin in the future. Then I was tossed into the middle ages with Medieval: Total War, which improved leaps and bounds over Shogun and also added some great siege warfare that made a great impression. Yet again, I knew there was something missing though, and I was still sure we would see even greater things from future Total War titles. I love being right.
This time around, Creative Assembly saw fit to tackle one of the greatest civilizations our world has ever seen: The Roman Empire – a poignant guideline to how we live today in modern society. Our laws, social structures and governments are not unlike the Roman Empire that once occupied a third of the (known) planet. Now though, instead of gladiator games, we have the NHL and the NFL. Of course, the game can’t be 100% historically accurate, but close enough to keep the experience fun.
The game starts you off like previous Total War titles: as a small faction or kingdom amidst much greater odds. The game’s main goal is to occupy more land than your foes – or allies – which, in Total War, are just future foes anyway. You are not given Civilization-esque choices of how you want to play the game; much like the game implies it is nothing but ?total war’ to emerge as number one. That doesn’t mean the game is shallow by any standard, though.
The game is broken up into two major parts. Anyone familiar with the series will recognize the system and feel immediately comfortable with it. You are given the choice between three factions within the Roman Empire; each one has subtle differences, but they have little impact on the overall game. You are placed on a 3D map and have on-screen ?pieces’ that represent your armies and diplomats. This map is not unlike a 3D Risk board and, as such, you have conquerable geographical areas from England to the edges of Asian and expanding down to Northern Africa.
On this map, you select your military avatars and instruct them where to move. This will likely be more familiar to Europa Universalis players than players of previous Total War titles. Depending upon whether there are roads on a given province and the type of units are in your army, you can move at small or great lengths across the map. Along your travels, you’ll see things such as small icons representing available provincial trade commodities, and which city is the governing body on this particular piece of land. This brings in to play the economic and political aspect of the game.
In each city that you control, you must keep the populace content, which is often more of a task then it should be. Your citizens are more productive depending on the quality of their welfare, which in turn means more money in your treasury. During one turn, you can have a city in Macedonia making 2,000 Denarii, the next turn it will be in the red – a small shallow gripe amid a deep gaming system. Of course, specific delegates overseeing the running of your cities is also a major factor for production output. If you have some lackey relative that married one of your daughters at the helm of a major city, you may find a vehement rebellion popping up in your not too distant future.
Family members are the only characters in the game that are able to govern a city of any sort. If they are married in or direct descendants, you are forced to use only your family members. Personally, I preferred Medieval: Total War’s, approach where great commanders were allowed to run a city, and usually did considerably better then any son of mine. The family system in Rome is much more fleshed out with the added feature of the Imperial Senate. The game has SPQR as its own powerful faction, so to even attempt a military coupe requires quite some renown and respect among the plebs.
Your family members can be given positions in the Senate and I have found it has little faction effect if my faction leader is also the Pontifex Maximus of the Senate. That lofty position is still quite a bit away from the title of Caesar, though. The only true way to build respect in the senate is to complete missions that they give you. It is wise to take these tasks to heart and complete them. Not only are the rewards often great, but they also raise your support among leaders in the SPQR Senate. I found some of the missions to be out of place and unrealistic though. The missions often unfold along the lines of barricading a harbor out in BFE (literally) during a mere 5 turns, or something of that nature. You may also be required to declare war on factions that are really buddy-buddy with you. The missions are somewhat out of place, but much better than the Catholic Church missions in Medieval: Total War.
The game’s cities are also a dynamic feature. You’re given a selection of taxes, buildings you want to pursue – be they military, commercial or social – as well as ensuring the city is sanitary and safe for your citizens. A tip for new players: try not to make every city a sprawling metropolis – it will only end up breaking you in the long run. Still, another nice additional feature is that whatever you build within the city walls becomes visible on the war map.
And now the second portion of the game: The Battles. Before I harp on about the graphical splendor of the battles and the sound of tens of thousands of troops marching across grasslands, I will divulge some detail of how a battle evolves. As far as army-to-army warfare goes, there is a great deal of strategy involved here. Even if you have more units then an opposing force, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will always win – just as with any war. Generally speaking, the units are broken into different categories: Infantry, Missile, Calvary, Spearmen and Siege. Thankfully, there’s kind of a formula to it all. Spearmen will best Calvary, and Calvary will best Archers. Attack from behind and you have the upper hand; charge before hitting enemy lines and you can break their frontal guard. Try raining down fiery arrows and lower opposition moral; have Calvary flank infantry while your archers keep them busy. Trees create great ambushing conditions, if that strategy fits your prerogative. If you have War Elephants, well, you really don’t need any strategy as blind charging works pretty well with them. There are so many choices given to players that each battle means emerging with a newly acquired strategy to utilize for vanquishing future foes.
One feature that’s been balanced since Medieval: Total War is the seiging of cities. There are still the standard battering rams and trebuchets, but now sappers and siege towers have been thrown into the mix. Siege towers are a fun element to the battling aspect – and this reviewer’s particular choice for the swift placement of armies on the other side of city walls. Siege towers provide a speedy and effective frontal assault, which is a far cry from having armies bottle necked at city gates or a hole in the wall. Another great addition thrown in for the sake of strategic decisions is that, ?if you break it, you buy it’. Any buildings lost during a siege are gone for good after you have taken ownership, and if you want it back on the streets of your newly acquired city, you must spend the necessary denarii to have it rebuilt. I have found that trying my best to avoid causing damage to nearby buildings with flaming siege warfare takes out buildings quicker then you can say Constantinople.
Rome: Total War presents its battles in remarkable detail. The battle maps are highly detailed and, considering the sheer number of units the game must process at one time, their detail is of tremendous quality. It’s also the little details that are of great help to the presentation of the game. If a giant rock, from a nearby Onager, slams into the middle of a tight formation of infantry, bodies are immediately sent flying through the air. Calvary charging into archers at high speeds means that, once again, the first lines of their ranks spiral upward after the impact. The carnage caused by a rampaging War Elephant is a sight to see in itself. The strategic map is also swimming in detail; trees sway in the wind; there is snow on the ground during winter months; and rivers and mountains are meticulously detailed. Creative Assembly really went all out with the graphics on this game.
The sound also shares in the game’s graphical splendor. The music on the strategic map is calm and slow; subtly matching a moment when careful, focused planning of future endeavors is of paramount importance. When a battle starts you will be greeted with the cheering of your troops, and your infantry clattering their shields together. The wall-shaking rumble permeating your room when zooming the camera in to a formation of 10,000 infantry is nothing short of priceless. When the battle finally begins, you are treated with aptly tense music – the kind you’d expect to hear in major motion pictures. It really adds to the authentic rush of battle.
Rome: Total War is primarily for hardcore strategy fans but, thanks to the great tutorial, it’s still accessible enough for the casual gamer interested in delving further into the world of armchair generals. The game play is steeped in depth and can sometimes be overwhelming, but that’s a good feature – trust me. Ultimately, Rome: Total War shows that developers Creative Assembly are only one step away from the perfect RTS game. Until then, this game deserves every 9 it gets.