Game Review–Total War: Rome II
Total War: Rome II is the very first computer game I’ve ever pre-ordered. I’ve been stoked about the game ever since Creative Assembly first announced they were working on it a couple years ago (the tingly feelings I got from watching game-play and development videos over the past ten months could almost qualify said videos as pornography). I’ve been a frequenter of the Total War series since the original Rome: Total War, and followed it from there to Medieval II: Total War, Empire: Total War, Napoleon: Total War, and Total War: Shogun II. Each Total War title that I’ve played has been an amazing, well-put-together game that I would recommend to anyone interested in computer war-gaming. Thankfully, Rome II is no exception.
My initial assumption about Rome II was that it would be Rome I with better graphics, new campaign and battle features, and naval combat (which would have made for a bitchin’ game, don’t get me wrong). It’s not, however, and I’m still weighing the pros and cons of this development. Rome I and it’s successor, Medieval II were straightforward war games on both the battlefield and campaign maps. While it helped to have a solid grasp of ancient and medieval warfare as well as combat and tactics, players could still get away with simple, cussed brute force. The campaign map was similarly simple: if one city had a food shortage, build them a better irrigation system, if your citizens were grumpy, build a theater.
Rome II, however, really went out of their way to improve not only the realism, but the combat strategy as well. The most noticeable difference in the battle maps is that terrain is a much higher factor all around. Whereas in previous games, combat units could hide in the woods or in the brush only when stationary, in TWR2 an important part of the strategy is to use woods, hills, buildings, and other blind spots as cover for laying ambushes or moving troops around covertly. Plus, the enemy AI does a decent job of using terrain to its advantage, causing players to have to send scouts over the next hill and watch their flanks at all times. It really is a game of move and counter-move that kept me on my toes better than any Total War game before it. My copy of Sun Tzu came in handy frequently.
I learned fairly quickly that city planning and campaign management in Rome II requires more research and evaluation than previous Total War titles. Where in Rome I, players could pretty well build whatever they could afford in terms of facilities in their towns and cities (and I seldom had trouble with money in the game), in II each city has a limited number of ‘slots’ for different types of buildings. Thankfully, these facilities effect other cities the player controls throughout the province. Thus if Rome has an Auxiliary Barracks and a Temple of Jupiter, all of the troops trained in the Italia province receive the bonuses from the Barracks, while the other cities receive the same bonuses from the temple. But there’s a balance to be had: some facilities come with penalties to food production or citizen happiness throughout the province. Thus additional food production and happiness must be attained via additional facility construction.
One feature that continues to trouble me is that armies must be built around a general and fleets must be built around an admiral, but factions are limited in their number of generals and admirals based on the number of territories they control. While having small numbers of large armies was fairly accurate for how the Hellenic, African, and early Roman Republic militaries were organized, it doesn’t at all reflect how the barbarian tribes were organized, nor indeed the later Republic and Empire. Barbarians typically used large numbers of small raiding parties to confound their enemies—thus the Romans had to supplement their Legions with small bands of auxiliary troops to counter this problem. Too, in past games, I got used to building reinforcement columns to send to relieve my frontier armies, which I can’t do as effectively now. While I’ve gotten used to adjusting for this oversight, it’s an adjustment I don’t really feel like I should have to make, from a logistical standpoint.
My favorite feature, and the one I’ve been most stoked about since I heard it announced, is the addition of naval combat units. Admittedly, however, this took a while to get used to compared to the ground tactics. The analogy I use to contrast the ground versus water combat is a football game versus a basketball or soccer game. Like in a football game, much of the planing for the ground battles—things like picking terrain and battle formation—are decided before the lines smash into each other. Taking and holding ground are key parts of the battle. Circumstances in water combat, however, are more fluid, if you’ll forgive the pun. Like basketball or soccer players, ships have to be constantly moving around and vying for position or risk becoming sitting ducks. It was a tricky dynamic to get used to and one I’m still trying to master.
I find it awesome as well that the game allows land and sea battles to occur on the same battlefield. Shipboard marines can reinforce land armies by beaching their ships and joining the fray, while shore-based artillery can give fire support to their navies. Cites can be stormed by fleet troops in D-Day-like scenarios, where soldiers storm the beach and walls while under fire from defenders.
In terms of historical accuracy, it’s not the best I’ve seen, but it’s more authentic than the original. I played the Europa Barbarorum total-conversion mod for the first Rome: Total War for a while, and I feel like Creative Assembly payed close attention to it and mods like it for going out of their way to capture a more authentic feel to the game. I like that they used traditional Greek hoplites and other heavy infantry for the Hellenic factions, rather than just giving them all generic pike-men with Greek or Macedonian helmets. While each Hellenic faction gets pike phalanxes—as was the standard way to fight following Alexander’s popularization of the tactic—they also have a wider range of spear, sword, and skirmisher infantry. I appreciate, too, that independent territories are no longer just static conquest fodder for playable factions: each counts as it’s own minor faction, representing a city-state or barbarian tribe. Thus players have to balance out wars, trade, and alliances with each minor faction independently in their rise to empire.
There were a few minor issues, historically, that bugged me. Firstly, two very important cities were left off the campaign map: Corinth and Byzantium. Corinth was quite clearly sacrificed because the Peloponnesian Peninsula only had room for one city, and the fans of 300 would have thrown a crying, swearing hissy-fit and boycotted the game had CA not included Sparta. (Despite that Corinth was the most powerful independent city-state in Greece and the final obstacle in Rome’s conquest of Hellas, while Sparta hadn’t been politically or militarily significant for almost 150 years.) Byzantium’s absence still baffles me, considering it was eventually the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. Secondly, one graphics feature CA has been guilty of that I’d really hoped they’d do away with is color-coordination for individual factions. Not even the Romans color-coordinated their uniforms, yet all of the units’ outfits in all of the factions in Rome I, Medieval II, and Shogun II have identical colors in their soldiers’ uniforms. Considering that the units have tags over their heads in each of these games for players to click on to select the unit, I don’t feel like a uniform color coordination is necessary and I was rather hoping CA would do away with it for Rome II. While on the whole the coloration doesn’t bother me as much as it did in previous games, I can’t bring myself to play the Suebii, a German faction, because they all wear purple and gold.
As far as the technical details go, the graphics are impressive, even though my mediocre graphics card doesn’t handle the higher settings. I like that you can minimize the interface on the battle maps, offering a more cinematic experience than in the early Total War games. The interface on the campaign map is fairly streamlined as well, which is nice. I’ve not tried the online campaign or battles, so I can’t really comment on those (but part of the reason I game is so I don’t have to deal with people).
So, am I going to forsake the previous Total War titles and only play Rome II from now on? Honestly, probably not. Rome I and Medieval II in particular offered a straightforwardness in their campaigns and battles that none of the other titles really achieved. Yes, it helped to have solid understanding of direct and indirect battle tactics as well as economics and logistics, etc in order to be effective in battle, on campaign, or on the throne, but they weren’t as necessary in those earlier games. When I wanted to, I could shut down that part of my thought process and just enjoy stomping Carthage into the dust or chasing the Germans back across the Rhine. I could take my hands off the keyboard in the middle of battle, zoom in close and just watch the Gaul battle lines collapse before Caesar’s legions. I can’t do that in Rome II because I’m too busy maneuvering my units around and watching the nearby forests and hills for ambushes. This doesn’t make either game in any way inferior to the other, play-wise, each just offers a different fix. When I want to think more, I play Rome II, when I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around, I play Rome I or Medieval II.