As empire building games go there are only really ever two series worth mentioning; the first is the town building, population management simulation that has politics and wars fought more as chess pieces on a board than anything—that game series is Civilization. On the exact opposite end of the same genre you have Total War, a series that has devoted itself to simulating the minutia of the battle field in as high of detail as it can manage; this series manages to throw in some colony building and region management on the top of the deep political and, normally, impenetrable intense massive battle game that it really is. Thankfully Rome doesn’t feel like it was developed in a vacuum and has taken some hints from the games around it and made this a more approachable version of the long standing series.
I have had brief encounters in the past with the Total War series, brief because the combat system was deep enough that everything that I ever did just felt like I was sending thousands of poor men to their earlier unmarked, and squalor filled, grave in a battle that they should have probably won. Regardless of the amount of tutorials and friendly suggestions that the game may try and make for me while playing, the armies always end up moving around like some kind of drunken mob instead of the world’s most disciplined forces. This is a failing on my part, one that the game seems happy to allow me to have as it even has a suggested “auto resolve” button—something I am sure that was introduced to make a 10 minute decisive win battle skip-able, but allows me to not lose things I outnumber the enemy 30 to 1 (watch the video at the bottom for an example of me doing just that).
The other side of the coin is the world management, which seems to be packed with twice as willful plebeians since the last time that I partook. Instead of simply being mildly annoyed when an invading army storms in, destroys the ruling class and all things that were once a way of life, and drastically change everything; the towns now have a distinct habit of holding a grudge for some time after the city has stopped burning from the latest war. The only actions that really ever seem to strongly impact the mood of the city are actually making life better there, which might sound obvious but most games have quick exploits that can be used, like building an extra public square or stationing an army there for a turn or two, so that the people quickly come around.
The problem with this, as neat as it sounds, is that everything aside from the troop movement and combat in the game is done through an elaborate menu system that wouldn’t feel that out of place in a PC game from the 90’s. For all of the convincing that the game does that an army can flee when its moral is too low, that a city needs to not be a filth filled jobless sewer for people to be happy, and that the politics and relationships in the game matter; all of it is undone every time a series of menus must be dug through and stats compared to figure out what the next public works to construct or technology to advance. Even after the systems are learned it always feels like the most unwieldy way to go about upgrading anything.
Rome II, as I have decided to start calling it, is in no means a bad game. The problems with it can easily be overcome and pushed aside for those looking to get into one of the more interesting war simulations that is no the market. The problem is that it never feels like the game is ever stopping to do any favors to anyone that isn’t already a diehard, which is sad because if there was anything that resembled a nice learning curve this would be easily one of the better PC games to come out this year. As it stands Rome II is a must have for anyone who enjoyed previous installments in the franchise, but something that you would probably go ahead and skip if you have never played anything in the series before.
Watch us play through a bit of Total War: Rome II:
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