Game Review: Rome 2 Total War [PC]
Pretty much every PC gamer older than a cup of tea will have played some incarnation of the Total War series. It started with Shogun Total War back in 2000; we’ve been to Medieval times, the Napoleonic area and the Revolutionary War. They’ve all been strong games in their own right, not perfect mind you. I think we can all agree Creative Assembly’s franchise is no stranger to bugs and iffy performance.
The highest rated of the bunch and arguably the best, was Rome Total War. A great era to base the third title in the series on, and a refined beast it was. We’ve already had two “sequels” in the franchise, in the guise of Shogun 2 and Medieval 2. Both were well received and the latter has stood as my favourite in the series.
So now, we have Rome 2. It’s been awhile since I have been excited about a Total War game in all honesty; I was starting to feel the series had gone a little stale. Bad pathing, inconsistent AI; that’s not to mention the questionable optimisation in some of the games. Nevertheless, my visit to Rezzed this year changed all that.
Creative Assembly have gone all out trying to show us how much the game has changed, I covered some of the more prominent videos for you and wrote a little piece on some of the new and improved features.
I remained sceptical however, we’ve all been burned by big promises, anyone who has ever listened to Peter Molyneux will know what it’s like to be promised an evolution in gaming, only to find yourself with a stifling, average RPG. Naming no names… *cough* Fable *cough*. I kid, I kid (I’m not), who doesn’t love Peter Molyneux?
Weird tangents aside, have Creative Assembly delivered on Rome 2? Actually, they kinda have, at least, I think so. That’s about as indecisive an answer as is possible to give, but there’s a reason for that. I will endeavour to explain.
From Humble Beginnings…
In many turn-based strategy games, you have to start small. A single insignificant town under your command, a diminutive band of loyal troops to do your bidding. The first few turns are usually very quick whilst you get your tech path started, your economy running and begin marauding your small army towards the only reachable settlement.
Take Civ V for example. No matter what faction you start as, you will begin with a scout unit and a settler unit. In fairness, some of the earlier Total War games had little to differentiate between the playable factions, save for geographical location and flag colours. There were always some bonuses and some unique units to consider, but it felt like the same thing with some slightly different window dressing.
Rome 2 however takes a big stride forward in this regard. There are nine playable factions on day one: Rome, Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, Macedon, Pontus, Parthia, the Suebi, the Averni and the Iceni. This represents the main cultural groups of the game, namely Roman, Hellenic, Eastern and Barbarian. The Greeks are also represented in pre-order DLC; you will be able to play as Sparta, Athens and Epirus.
The aforementioned generous march onward comes firstly in the form of the ambience. Starting as the Germanic tribe (the Suebi) gives you a moody woodland setting to the north east of (what was then called) Gaul. The music has an almost Scandinavian vibe, something akin to the Howling Fjord zone in World of Warcraft. Howls from wolves can be heard as you move your barbarian army across the map, giving off a wonderful primitive, warrior tribe impression as you plot your next turn.
In stark contrast, you may choose to start as the Egyptians. Instead of dark and moody, you get an arid sounding musical accompaniment and a suitably desert landscape. Camels and elephants can be seen wandering around, giving you an idea of the units you can recruit in that region.
Rather than stopping at the aesthetical, Creative Assembly have allowed this ingenuity to carry through to the playstyle of each warring civilisation. The Suebi rely on raiding and ambush, not really known for their silver tongues or frontal attacks, such things come much harder should you choose to play as them.
The Roman’s are adept at expanding and are culturally “superior” to the barbaric tribes of the north. The Egyptians are great traders and their armies can be made up of mighty elephants to stomp any hapless infantry. Even the agent units have been given different names and sound bites. It all carries over extremely well and I have found myself (for the first time) starting every single faction in an attempt to choose which I prefer.
There are also the differences in the source of income. Whilst the factions such as Rome rely on their capitals for their income and recruitment, the Barbarian tribes have a more “balanced” source of hard-earned spread across the various settlements and buildings. At least that’s how I think it works; if I’m honest, it’s very difficult to see the difference when you first start, as Total War games can be overwhelming.
Rome Shall Be Republic Again…
Politics can be tough. In Rome 2, it can be brutal, but depending on the culture you are representing, it can play out very differently. Playing as a republic (Rome or Carthage) will require you to manage the squabbling families carefully, so as not to cause food fights, or more seriously, civil war. All the remaining factions have monarchies. Here you will need to maintain the members of your family and keep their “gravitas” as high as possible. Letting it fall could lead to revolt.
Gravitas can be increased by allowing certain members perform heroic deeds, such as generals winning great victories. You do need to keep an eye on their ambition mind you, a high amount of said statistic can cause a power struggle, so spreading some nasty gossip or even having them assassinated might be called for. Unfortunately, that second option was not available at my last family Christmas.
Even though Rome starts as a republic, you can purposefully cause civil war between the families, doing so can then allow you to become emperor instead of returning Rome to being as it was once founded. Each has positives and negatives; it’s all down to you to decide.
It adds a much needed layer of personality to Rome 2, something I felt was sorely missing from Shogun 2 and its predecessors.
What’s Yours Is Mine…
Victory in previous Total War games came by way of military dominance, Rome 2 offers you triumph through economy or culture.
Maybe you want to trade your way through the game? Keeping good relations with neighbouring countries and only defending your own lands? Alternatively, perhaps you wish to be all… you know, cultural? I don’t think it involves talking about the subtext of a certain piece of scripture to win you the game, but regardless, the necessities for your faction to win by such means is given to you as you start the game. You don’t have to stick with one method, the regional cities can be changed to reflect your chosen path at any time, simply convert the building to something more your way of thinking.
That’s not to say you can’t still win by bashing people over the head with clubs, it’s not called Rome 2 Total Pacifism after all.
When considering such tactics, it’s worth noting that moving your military units around the map has also been given an armoured facelift. Your armies can now adopt stances; you have ‘ambush’, ‘raid’, ‘forced march’ and ‘fortify’. Ambush holds your army in position and makes them invisible to opposing forces, although there is a chance they may be discovered (depending on traits/skills), any units moving through that space without doing so will be forced into battle with a serious tactical disadvantage.
Given that you cannot move with this stance enabled, it is best to use it in a bottleneck on the map. Raid stance greatly reduces movement allowance, but empowers your troops to seize control of trade routes and syphon money from them to your own coffers.
Forced march gives you twice as much movement at the cost of not being able to engage the enemy. Finally, we have fortify. Another stance best used within a bottleneck, but still of use in the open field. This stance gives your units a sizeable defensive bonus and some meagre defensive structures.
All of these new abilities are shown with impressive visual treatment, which seems to be a strong theme in Rome 2. Which brings me to the regions and provinces.
A Man’s House Is His Castle…
Rome 2 offers a more streamlined way of managing your faction, in the past I’ve not always been for such things as I feel it overly simplifies games. In this case though, I think it’s a welcome change.
Instead of interacting with each one separately, you will know have a province made up of between two and four regions. Simply clicking on the city within that region will bring up a panel with all those under your command in that province. It streamlines your management exceedingly well, allowing you to run through your building options quickly and efficiently.
Expanding your city also comes along with a visual improvement on the map. The city walls increase in size and at times, the area around your settlement will be affected by your progression. It brings a life of interactivity to your campaign map, small touches though they may be, they all add up. Laying siege to an enemy city will also show on the map in the form of catapults hurling fire-covered boulders at the inhabitants.
If you manage to gain control of all the regions in one province, you will be allowed to set an “edict” in place, this will allow a province wide buff which can be changed to one of a few different things.
Your interactions with other faction leaders are made much easier by the tooltips that appear when mousing over a particular settlement. It explains their feelings regarding actions you may have taken toward them. Anything they approved or disapproved of will be shown as well as their motivations.
The last few incarnations of Total War I had found wanting in terms of campaign interaction. After playing games like Crusader Kings II, you may still find it a fair ways behind. However, the Total War franchise has always stood in its own niche in the TBS genre, and I firmly believe it is making it a harder task to cut in to that in any meaningful way.
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword…
The research mechanic, or tech trees as they are more commonly known have also seen some changes. Depending on your culture or in some cases even your faction, you will find them different and representative of that culture/factions particular strengths and historical situation.
The tech trees cover naval, military and civic matters, slightly increasing your control over your factions’ direction. They are however considerably smaller than Shogun 2’s for example.
I have to admit that this is one of the changes that I was not overly keen to see. Whilst I do appreciate the effort to maintain cultural differences between the technologies available to research, and it does work nicely, it feels rather more stifled than previous games. Going back to the earlier statement about streamlining, well this is where I don’t think it’s a good thing. Greater diversity between factions is great, but not always at the cost of the volume of choice.
For The Glory Of Rome…
An always-popular choice of topic on Total War forums is the opponent A.I. It’s something that has turned me off Rome 2’s predecessors in a big way. The pathing when engaging large armies and trying to storm a fortress has left a huge amount to be desired. There has also been the problem with enemy general’s A.I.
That problem has often (in my opinion) stemmed from the lack of a “killer instinct”. Having an opponent smart enough to know how to arrange its troops is great, but facing off against one that knows when to go for your throat creates a completely new dynamic. It’s something few developers do these days, by that I mean actually make the game difficult. The Total War franchise has never been easy for beginners, any game that comes with an encyclopaedia built in, is going to take some learning.
So far though, I haven’t encountered that problem. Rather than play defensively despite vastly outnumbering or having an army that outmatches you, the A.I. may just try and brute force the engagement. Attacking a settlement early on in my first game, I failed to notice the garrisoned troop’s numbers. Starting the battle I then proceeded to get utterly steamrolled by the opponents Thermopylae size numbers.
The A.I. also knows just how to use certain unit types and doesn’t charge useless soldiers to their deaths. The skirmish mode on ranged units is something of note too, trying to tail them with melee units often leads to them being annihilated given that they move much slower.
There is also line of sight to consider in Rome 2. When not in view of your enemy, a flashing icon appears above your units head signifying your ninja status. It works both ways though, making scouting your opponent with skirmishing units very important.
With Age Comes Wisdom…
Agent units in past games have had their own tech trees to allow you to tailor your agent to excel in certain areas. Rome 2 allows this again, more importantly though, it allows it with your military units too.
You can now fashion your army into sieging experts, or bestow an improved bonus upon them for charging or ranged specialists. Even if this army should be wiped out, their traits will be kept along with their banner, allowing you to raise another army in their name, thus handing the new troops their buffs.
The individual units will still start from the bottom of the pile though; completely removing the entire penalty from losing your army would seem counterproductive. Each individual unit that does survives each battle gains bonuses in their respective area.
It’s almost impossible to dislike these kind of changes, nearly every part of the game has been added to in a way meaningful to the player, a way that makes the experience more your own style. I still feel like there is more they can do, but it certainly hasn’t come off as a regurgitated update.
By Land Or By Sea…
As I’m sure you can tell by now, Creative Assembly have put a lot of thought into what has been missing from the franchise. Not too long ago (Empire Total War 2007), they threw naval battles in to the mix. It certainly added something, but in all honesty, I usually auto resolved these conflicts.
Rome 2 offers you the option of combining both land and sea battles, giving you more to think about when attacking settlements. Instead of just garrison to contemplate, you have to be sure they cannot be reinforced by sea.
Should that occur (which it often does), you will have a short amount of time to despatch your enemy until the ships make berth. It also means that your troops can flank an entrenched enemy by taking to the waters, but in turn they can also do the same to you.
The nature of the naval combat has also changed somewhat, seemingly being based around ramming other ships or boarding them. The physics engine does a great job of projecting the power of the bigger vessels, allowing them to cut the smaller ones completely in half when ramming them at speed.
I haven’t played much in the way of naval battles as of yet, my campaign has kept me inland and away from such sea rascal behaviour. That said, this incorporation of the two styles has washed over what I felt was the weakest part of the franchise by far. Since its introduction in 2007, I think this is easily the best attempt at it and possibly will maybe win some new fans over.
In The Strive For Perfection…
The Total War franchise has long since had an affair with poor performance and a significant amount of bugs upon release. Unfortunately, Rome 2 is no exception. Before I go into this, bear in mind that Nvidia have not released drivers supporting the game as of yet, and judging by their recent poor performance in getting them out quickly, it might take a while.
Having said that, I did poke around the subject during my Rezzed article, as the machines they were running on back then looked to be struggling. Things have gotten better, but it’s still far from perfect. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are my PC specs…
Intel i7 3770K 4.6ghz
16GB DDR3 2100mhz
2 x GTX 680 SLI – 326.80 (beta driver)
Whilst it is about a year old, it’s far from being underpowered for the game. The benchmark gave me an average of 32fps. Given that the PC specs released (you can find them in the Rezzed article) are meagre, I think it’s clear to say there needs to be some optimisation done. it’s also worth noting that there is seemingly no SLI/Crossfire support.
In fairness, this was the review copy and the retail version may run a little better. I just wanted to forewarn you that there might be some performance issues.
As for game bugs in general, well, I haven’t seen many if I’m honest. We were promised to be able to play as the Greek factions in the review copy, although they haven’t worked and as of this evening (01/09/2013) they have been removed in a patch. Although I wouldn’t qualify this as a general release bug.
I also still feel that the pathing of the troops is poor in some situations. Charging your units in usually leaves the front couple of lines in combat, but leaves the bulk of the main troops simply drifting around aimlessly. It’s something that has always been present, but I would imagine is supposed to simulate the chaos of those situations.
Apart from the performance though, I have to say it all works rather well and I’m hoping the frame rate issues are worked out quickly, I simply have no patience for big publishers/developers rolling out games without SLI/Crossfire profiles. Enough people have these kinds of machines that should warrant its attention. Nvidia/AMD can’t add these things unless they get the game early on and I’m sure every PC gamer is aware of the annoyance of one brand supporting the title, meaning the other gets left behind.
I’ve been asking a lot more of games in recent years. Maybe that’s my growing cynicism as I get older, but conceivably it may just be my standards are being raised as the gaming industry matures.
I give a lot franchises a hard time on social media, in reviews and friendly chats with the Push-Start team. I find developers often sit back and make minimal changes to a formula possibly not broken, but certainly aging. Creative Assembly though, seem more deserving of praise than most with Rome 2.
The core of the game remains the same, but this is the most personal and engaging design of the behemoth TBS I have seen in years. Some changes may seem small, but all are meaningful. With the different factions and cultures playing so differently, the longevity of Rome 2 will go way beyond even Medieval 2 in my opinion.
For people looking for an entry point to the franchise, I think this is your best bet. It’s been simplified where it needs to be, but not where it would detract from what is a very tough game. It’s not perfect and as it stands, you may need a stronger PC than the specs suggest to be able to run it at maximum settings.
Despite that and any other minor niggles, Rome 2 is an excellent strategy game, worthy of the Total War games certainly, more importantly though, worthy of being a great game in anybody’s eyes.
Some of you may remain unconvinced, I even started the review with uncertainty, and the reason being is that I wasn’t immediately won over. My first few hours I sat contemplating a lower score. The quality in Rome 2 though, is deeply ingrained in the hours you need to give the series to get the most out of it. Look beneath the surface of an old franchise and you will see the most engaging and interactive Total War game in recent times.
The nostalgic among you may still cling to the original Rome Total War for being the best of the series, but for me, those echoes of great games need to be left in the past and allow Rome 2 to take its throne.
A review copy was used for this article. Rome 2 Total War releases on PC on the 3rd of September.