Review: Total War Rome II – Strategic Bliss
The Creative Assembly have been sitting in the beautiful green valley that is nestled between turn based strategy and real time tactics gaming for a very long time. The combination of epic campaign and huge real time battles has struck the world over and driven itself deep into our hearts. The original Rome Total War was featured on numerous historical television shows, including the successful Time Commander series due to how far ahead of the curve the game’s ideas and technology were at the time. Each iteration of the series since then has added more features, improved visual and audio and expanded on the core gameplay concepts. The longest running issue with the series has been the artificial intelligence in both the strategic and tactical layers. Various official patches and player based mods have managed to keep the AI on track but it has never been a strong point.
Lets start off with the aesthetics. Visually Total War Rome II is stunning. In battles thousands of individual soldiers struggle to the death with a huge database of animations, sounds and gear. The fights look more realistic, and when zoomed in close to the action the atmosphere is incredible. Creative Assembly have realised this and added a special function to capitalise on how epic their battles can feel. You can “zoom in” on any unit in your army, taking away the entire interface focusing the camera literally over the shoulder of the unit selected, which gives the player complete access to the conflict. The differences in the individual figures and their lonely struggle amidst the wider mass of heaving bodies brings an immersion never seen before.
On top of this, the sounds involved have obviously had a lot of thought behind them. When observing the combat, the player is immersed in faction and unit specific shouting, murmuring and the din of battle. Weapon clashes sound very meaty and represent very closely that which is seen on the screen. Now all of these improvements are immaterial if they demand a machine as powerful as a small atomic bomb. This is not so. A combination of optimisation and a deep graphical options menu means that for most individuals Rome II runs very well on high to mid range machines while still keeping its impressive aesthetics. Personally it runs better on my coal powered machine than its predecessor Shogun 2, and by that I mean it looks gorgeous while running with a relatively high frame rate. Full marks so far.
When considering the strategic layer of the game, the devs have added various improvements based on their wealth of experience in an attempt to streamline and improve the gameplay. This can be seen most obviously with the introduction of the “province” and “region” system. Where in previous titles the map was separated into many smaller provinces which could be conquered by taking the main settlement in each, TWRII introduces regions which are groups of three or four provinces that effectively make up a larger portion of the map. Construction, recruitment and other options are then streamlined across the region, greatly decreasing the effort needed on the micro level while still giving a large amount of options and customisation. Once you have control of a region you can also start issuing “edicts” which are basically region-wide buffs. Taking a province from an enemy just to deny him the region is a valid tactic in this new system.
The terrain in the campaign map has also gone under a very big change, instead of being the open plateau featured in the original, Rome II has a much more “corridor” like approach very reminiscent of the mountainous Shogun 2. While some found this change too limiting, I found it a positive experience both in terms of realism as well as gameplay. In reality large armies were very limited to the ground they could move across, and this change leads to more tactical engagements holding passes, retreating and general strategic movement. It is also beautiful. No map has ever been more alive than Rome II’s masterpiece. The world reaches out to pull you in with flowing rivers, flocks of birds and animals going about their business (also giving a good indication of the natural resources the province in question can supply) as well as the incredible way in which expansion and construction is represented visually, with small settlements growing physically larger and slums appearing outside the curtain walls. Again Shogun 2’s influence is seen with the various seasons having a profound and beautiful influence on the aesthetics. Winter never looked so good, though I wouldn’t recommend marching an army into enemy territory during the cold.
Another new system takes control of your armies, giving you the option to name, customise and gain experience, or “tradition” as they call it, which apply across all units in the army. Units are now recruited through your army, which changes the dynamic considerably. Instead of managing complex and ridiculously long range unit recruitment and supply lines, each army is an autonomous force. In my Iceni gameplay, my “Blue Bumbling Brothers” have defeated all opponents and crushed all resistance, conquering all of southern Britain. They now have a new general (the old one was annoying and ended up being ordered on a suicidal charge into the enemy centre) and an early tradition. I ‘m not going to lie, I have a real emotional attachment to this army, and the ability to track the statistics and all past battles makes me rather proud of them. They may not be the best army out there, and there are many like them but the Blue Bumbling Brothers are mine.
Another change when it comes to armies is movement over water. This is a big one. An army can easily embark onto ships by the simple act of travelling into the sea. It takes a season for the transfer to take place, but once out on the pond the army functions as a fleet. Naval engagements can be made with armies, although it is not recommended as the ships are not as robust as their naval counterparts. In this new system the introduction of naval and land battles has been made. Coastal battles and naval assaults on port towns has opened up completely new avenues in battle tactics, with quite amazing results. I will never get bored of setting up a Roman equivalent of D’Day in a custom battle then watching the carnage in the new atmospheric over the shoulder perspective.
Overall the user interface has been improved, with an ease of use I have not seen before in a Total War title. The option designs look amazing, and the unique look of the game is mirrored in every menu with subtle differences that draw the eye.
Multiplayer is present yet again with a similar influence to that in the highly competitive Shogun 2, however the personal customizable armies and avatar have been dropped completely. I both agree and disagree with this decision. With the ridiculous amount of Shogun 2 DLC which gave players a large pool of rather unbalanced units, which they could then gain experience with and set up stupidly stacked armies, the multiplayer scene soon grew to be a distasteful experience for many. The unit experience was a nice idea, but ultimately made for silly battles. However, naming and customising a unit’s appearance then putting them together to make up a more personal force was a fantastic idea, and one that combined with the new more personal army system present in the campaign, I feel could have given birth to a very enjoyable experience. Well we can’t have everything. Multiplayer features both the customizable battles as well as the new competitive “quick battle” feature seen in Shogun 2. Many of the problems seen in Shogun 2 multiplayer are not apparent even in the release of Rome II.
Now for the topic you have all been waiting for; the AI. So far my experience has been a very positive one. I have noticed a definite increase in both the strategic and tactical AI in terms of long term planning and generally not doing stupid and suicidal things. The AI is much more aggressive and intelligent with its forces in battles, and seeks to use its special units and abilities while avoiding yours. You will notice it attempting to flank, fix and engage your forces and it occasionally surprises you with a nice stratagem. Likewise in the campaign opponents will use naval attacks to the best of their ability, try to weaken you before attempting a full on assault as well as seeming to recognise key pieces of terrain. Unfortunately, the AI still has not reached the same challenge you face from a human player. Maybe this is not possible, and the devs have gone a long way in improving the AI but I ‘m still left with the feeling that there could be more of a challenge, and any experienced Total War veteran will beat the AI time and again with little difficulty. That being said, it will kick you where it hurts if you become too complacent.
Total War Rome II is a fantastic addition to the series, combining both new and intuitive features with the tried and perfected formula of Total War. Aesthetically pleasing and professionally optimised, the game runs like a dream and looks even better. While there are still AI issues the improvements that have been made definitely make the experience a whole lot better. Playing feels more rewarding than what I have been accustomed to. The bottom line as always is that I can see myself playing this for a long time to come and enjoying every single moment.