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Rome: Total War

Total War

strategy – The science and art of military command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations.

tactics – The military science that deals with securing objectives set by strategy, especially the technique of deploying and directing troops, ships, and aircraft in effective maneuvers against an enemy.

It may seem a little trivial, but recognising the difference between these two concepts is key to making a successful game. In terms of genres, it’s a little confusing because ‘RTS’ (real-time strategy) games aren’t often based on strategy at all; they’re simply tactical combat games which have little to do with any larger sense of scale. Where is the strategy in Command and Conquer? A true ‘RTS’ would be something like Civilization but in real- time, which probably wouldn’t much of a game at all. Maybe the reason why we call ‘RTS’ and ‘strategy’ games as we do is because they sound better that way or maybe it’s because no-one can really be bothered to sit down and call them something else. How about ‘real- time tactics’ and ‘turn-based strategy’? As with all genres though, there are games which blur the distinct boundaries and make a mockery of such characterisation. Sim City is obviously a strategy game, but it is in real- time so that would actually be an ‘RTS’, while the question of how to catagorise The Sims is another matter. Why is this all relevant? Because Rome: Total War distinguishes between both concepts, excelling in both and tying them together ever so neatly. Playing a game is one thing; appreciating it for what is it is another.

Set between 270 BC and 14 AD, Rome: Total War covers the warfare, politics, empire building and economics of a period that saw the rise of the Roman Empire across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Like its Medieval predecessor, the game is split into two distinct halves. Firstly, there is a turn-based campaign section in which you move your troops around a map, manage your cities, organise your economy and handle any political negotiations. Secondly, there is a real- time tactical warfare element in which you command your troops at battlefield level, maneuvering them around and engaging the enemy. Both could be games in their own right, but the way in which they are linked together to form an overall experience marks it out firmly from the competition.

The campaign mode is really the heart of the game, the aspect that pulls all of the concepts and ideas into one and gives you the chance to rewrite history. Essentially, the map is split up into provinces which each have a capital town or city. Capturing this central settlement gives you possession of the region, a source of income and a defensive haven. You can’t build new towns and string roads between them like Civilization, but you can now construct watchtowers to extend your field of view and forts to guard crucial strategic locations. Unlike its predecessor, units can now move freely around provinces and your position within them is more crucial; more on that later though. Each unit has a set move limit, allowing them to move and fight in the same turn. Essentially, the campaign mode sees you maneuvering your troops around, managing your cities, conducting any battles and then ending your turn.

Choosing one of the three Roman factions – Brutii, Julii or Scipii – your objective is to conquer Rome and 50 other provinces around the map. Once you’ve conquered all, the 17 other factions are unlocked for campaign play. Along the way, you’ll receive requests from the Senate to capture cities, blockade ports and so on. Obeying their orders results in monetary and unit rewards, whilst defying them affects your reputation within the Senate. At the beginning of the game, all three families are allies, but sooner or later, they’ll turn against each other for control of Rome and the empire. While you’re off invading Northern Europe, overrunning the Gauls and Germans, you never know when war might break out closer to home and threaten your own capital. Of course, you can always launch a pre-emptive strike and rush into power as soon as you have a large enough army, or even ally yourself with another Roman faction against the remaining one, stabbing them in the back in turn. It’s this home rivalry, coupled with the desire to expand your territories abroad that makes the campaign so compelling.

Rome: Total War really starts to get interesting when two armies collide and a battle ensues. The game switches to a real-time battlefield view, where you can command your troops unit by unit, ordering them around the terrain and attacking enemy forces in the process. The position of your army on the campaign map also now dictates where you begin on the battlefield, so you can use choke points like bridges and mountain passes to give you an edge in the battle mode. Commands are given by simply left-clicking on a unit and then right-clicking on where you want it to go or who you want it to attack. You can also right-click and drag to line the unit up precisely, dictating the direction, width and number of ranks with a single movement. Formations, special abilities, unit grouping and other minor commands are handled by the interface at the bottom of the screen, while the mouse scroll-wheel can be used to pan the viewpoint up and down.

At the start of the battle, the camera sweeps across your whole army as your general makes a speech, giving each engagement a cinematic touch that pay tribute to the likes of Gladiator. Once he’s finished, you deploy your troops as the game is paused, lining them up in whatever formation you require. Once battle commences, the enemy forces appear and you’re free to advance towards them. You can, of course, just head straight for them, but Rome gives you total tactical freedom and plenty of other cunning tricks to pull on your enemy. Troops that enter wooded areas become invisible, so luring your opponent down a forest-lined valley before ambushing him is both achievable and satisfying to pull off. Likewise, using light cavalry to outflank and distract enemy infantry can confuse them and take their mind off your advancing columns. Rome always gives you a chance to outwit your opponent, and makes you think again when you’re sure of a victory purely based on weight in numbers.

Use of the surrounding terrain and your troops’ strengths can mean the difference between triumph and defeat. Rome does well to calculate the advantages of the landscape, so a small army placed on a steep slope or at the end of a bridge can easily hold of a larger attacking force. Each unit also has different equipment and attributes that can lead to it defeating or being defeated by the enemy. For instance, spearmen can easily take on cavalry charges, but are slow to move and are easy prey for archers in their tight ranks. Elephants also make an appearance and can devastate bunched up infantry units when they’re at full speed, but are terrified by Roman incendiary pigs which are set on fire and unleashed on the huge grey animals.

Sieges also make a return, but completely reworked from the last Total War outing. Instead of simply being a barrier between you and your enemy, city walls are now fully scaleable, so you can place your archers atop the walls to rain flaming arrows down on your foe. When you attack a settlement which has an outer wall, you can buy ladders, rams and siege engines to assault the battlements. Each side can capture and recapture buildings and gates, leading to some interesting opportunities. For instance, you can lure an enemy army out of its fort and then send cavalry behind them to close the gate on them, locking them out. Similarly, once inside, you can send units around to open up other entrances to the fort and start a multi-pronged attack. The actual cities and towns are much larger than Medieval: Total War and Rome itself is simply colossal. The sieges really are epic sometimes, going from initial assault to street fighting all the way to the last stand at the centre of the settlement.

Rome‘s A.I. is also well designed, centered around the morale of troops on the battlefield. Whilst fireballs, elephants and chariots tend to unnerve them and can make them rout, overrunning enemy positions and sending other units running gives them confidence to continue the fight. As units fight through the campaign, they’ll gain experience and will be less susceptible to routing. Apart from the morale aspect, the general enemy behaviour is good in its own respect. Advance towards your opponent with a phalanx, a formation with spears coming out like a hedgehog, and they’ll try and flank you to take advantage of your lack of speed. They’ll also try all most of the tactics you’ll use, like splitting units up and picking them off one by one. The quality of the A.I. and the way in which it deals with what you throw at it makes combat both enjoyable and convincing.

Rome‘s battles are really a joy to play. The controls and interface are as simple and streamlined as they could be, making commanding a huge army not as daunting as it sounds. The A.I. works well to simulate fear, fatigue and experience, while the choice of units and terrain is also given a great importance. The amended sieges are a huge improvement on the last game and prove to be a tactical challenge to undertake. Seeing your tactics work and knowing that the enemy is near to collapse is so satisfying and rewarding, because you know that it wasn’t just the quality of your troops that won the day; it was you commanding them.

Easily one of the most impressive additions to the Total War series is the extensive effort put into making the game easy to get into. Two advisors are present, one for battles and the other for campaigns. Both appear when you do something for the first time or you request their presence. There’s also a concise and comprehensive Prologue (tutorial) which introduces the basics of both the campaign and battle elements in the game. Each aspect of the game is explained, with a perfect balance between instruction and demonstration. If you really don’t understand what’s going on, then there’s even a ‘show me how’ button available. The well written manual also provides extra detailed information on the finer points of the game. Although I’ve played the previous Total War game, some of the new features were a little confusing to begin with, but once you’ve played the Prologue and used the advisors, everything pans out nicely and it’s always easy to find out how to accomplish things.

Apart from the main campaign, there are Custom Battle, Historical Battle, Quick Battle and Multiplayer modes available. The former lets you choose any number of variables, from which battlefield you fight on and what the weather is like to which factions take part and which teams they fight on. Historical Battle gives you the opportunity to fight around a dozen famous battles from the period with accurate units and positions present. Quick Battle is fairly self explanatory, while the Multiplayer mode lets you fight other players offline or online in Custom and Historical battles. However you play, there’s so much to do in Rome that you could end up hooked for months. It’s one of those games like Civilization which are so compelling and addictive that you can spend the whole day playing it and never even notice what time it is.

Graphically, Rome is shock to the system, not because it’s bad, but because it’s so much better than you’ll expect it to be. As I always do, I went straight into the options to push all the settings up to ‘high’ and then went off into a battle to see what it looked like. Let’s just say that I was surprised when my graphics card, which can handle most things, couldn’t cope with Rome‘s sheer detail and graphical prowess. Troops are scaled one to one, so if you have 84 archers, you see 84 men on screen. The detail of each soldier is quite incredible considering the number of them and the terrain looks as good as well. Each person fights their own fight and the animations aren’t always synced, so it gives the impression that your troops are fighting both as one and as individuals. You can pan the camera from a highly elevated position to view the battlefield, all the way down to waist level to inspect your troops. Watching your soldiers in action and seeing the sheer scale of events unfold before you proves to be an epic and cinematic experience that few games can match.

The quality of the audio is another telling reminder of both the game’s Total War heritage and the massive amount of effort that has been put into creating Rome. While a few best tunes have been taken from previous games, much of the musical score is original and suits the game’s theme perfectly. Voice acting is also widely used and of the highest standard throughout, never proving annoying or too repetitive. Sound effects are also present as you’d expect and provide excellent directional stereo and surround audio.

Something that’s easy to overlook is Rome‘s educational value. Speaking as a European, we have the legacy of the Roman Empire and its influences all around us and its something that fascinates many. Total War brings history to life an a way that few mediums can. Films like Gladiator are well enough, but games let you explore at your own pace and interact with the game world. Because Rome is so accurate and grounded in its source material (I guess it helps that the developer is based in Britain), it lets the player discover so much about warfare and civilization at this place in time. Preview code of the game was even used in a BBC television program to simulate historic battles where contestants commanded the armies, and the word ‘game’ wasn’t even mentioned once. It’s as if Total War is more than just a source of entertainment; it’s an educational tool in its own right.

Rome: Total War is hard to fault. I’ve been playing it for days and days, but haven’t found a single thing that’s annoying or counter-intuitive in the slightest. The way the campaign and combat aspects link together is well designed and implemented, the core battle gameplay is brilliantly executed, the graphics are superb, the lifespan lengthy, the audio of the highest quality and it’ll even teach you history without you realising it. It has so much depth and aptitude that you’ll find yourself drawn in for hours, which will quickly turn into days, months and, dare I say, years. There’s been so much effort put into every single aspect of the game that it’s hard not to admire the hard work of the developers behind it. Rome: Total War goes far beyond what many games do and never ceases to impress. Games this good only deserve one score…

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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