Total War: Rome II
After a focused, elegant and relatively small-scale return to Japan with Shogun II, hopes were high for Creative Assembly’s next Total War title. They couldn’t have chosen a more exciting era to cover than the rise of Rome. It’s territory that the developers have covered before, but with the possibilities offered by modern technology it seemed an opportune time to try and rediscover the grandeur, excitement and brutality of the classical age. Rather than the bold confidence and adventure of the Roman Empire at its prime, however, Rome II feels more like the civilisation at the end of its glory years; bloated, ragged and rife with internal issues.
One of the main problems ends up being the sheer scale and ambition of the game. There’s certainly an impressive array of new features and changes to the existing Total War formula. Some, such as the ability to upgrade your various legions, are a welcome addition. By gaining experience points through successive victories you can turn one of your armies into ambush specialists, who come howling out of the forests to destroy unwary invaders, and have another that specialises in taking enemy cities, bloodlessly or bloodily according to your preference. Combined with the experience trees for Generals introduced in Shogun II, there’s plenty of scope for building the army that best suits your style of warfare.
One other area that has been improved is the ability to forge lasting relationships with your neighbouring nations. Unlike previous Total War games, in which apparent allies were psychotically disloyal, Rome II actually allows you to build fruitful alliances that actually benefit you in the long run. City management has been simplified by grouping together cities into larger provinces, which saves some welcome time as your empire slowly expands.
“Like so many of Rome II‘s supporting mechanics, however, the political game feels ill thought out.” Elsewhere, however, things begin to fall apart. The dynastic options, although played up by the developers pre-release, are in actual fact disappointingly muddled and confusing. Factions begin with a centralised government, with your own family or dynasty competing against others for overall control of the council. Like so many of Rome II‘s supporting mechanics, however, the political game feels ill thought out. It’s frustratingly unclear how much impact you’re having on the council, or indeed what you can do to sway more support to your side. It’s doubly frustrating when you appear to have the full support of the senate, and a renegade faction starts a civil war anyway. The idea that you have to keep an eye on your favourite staff in case they make a play for power is an intriguing one, but the potential for politicking and backstabbing is undermined by fuzzy mechanics and insubstantial feedback from your actions.
There are many other noticeable issues with the campaign mode. Turns take an interminable time to complete as the game cycles through the extensive list of different factions, and the problem only gets worse as the campaign goes on and more of the world map is opened up. Your strategic agents, spies and diplomats are given percentage chances of completing set tasks, but these don’t seem to bear any relation to the actual chance of completing the mission. An assassin who apparently has a ninety per cent chance of killing a troublesome enemy general will somehow fail time and time again. Despite the improvements when you do actually manage to forge an alliance, negotiating with the enemy AI can be frustrating when they reject seemingly beneficial arrangements, like a profitable trade agreement, for no apparent reason.
It’s easy to forget your concerns with any Total War game once you get your teeth into a proper land war, and there is undoubtedly fun to be had in the thick of battle. Though the essential structure of mass combat remains the same as the original Rome: Total War some ten years on, it’s still as absorbing and entertaining as ever. Few moments in gaming are as gloriously satisfying as watching your massed heavy cavalry roll up an army’s flanks, sending their infantry line scampering away in terror. Formations and tactical options have been added, such as the ability to form the famous Roman testudo, as well as new General abilities, shouts which give your men morale bonuses in the midst of combat.
The unit roster is generous but not overwhelmingly vast, typically consisting of variations on the traditional axis of archers, infantry and horse. Some factions do carry more idiosyncratic special troops, like Carthage’s endlessly entertaining heavy elephant cavalry, or the scythed chariots of Pontus, which carve straight through any unfortunate footsoldiers caught in their path. Mastering the use of your core troops is important early on, before you begin to experiment with the riskier elites, as these high-tier units are expensive and often come with their own drawbacks; enjoy the first time your panicked elephant line charges back through your own ranks, leaving little more than a long smear of foie gras and sandals behind them. Naval combat has never been a strong point for the series, and although Rome II doesn’t approach the tedium of Empire: Total War‘s fiddly, unresponsive sea battles, the inherently cumbersome nature of ship-to-ship combat quickly becomes a chore.
To make matters worse, the AI seems to have taken two steps back since Shogun II. Use a single unit of horse archers to draw the enemy off, and half their army will blindly charge after them, no matter how desperate their situation. There are many other instances when the illusion of computer intelligence falls flat. Enemy troops defending cities will occasionally run around like a Benny Hill skit, seemingly unable to work out exactly where they want to go. On the campaign map, defeated armies with only twenty-five slingers left alive will lay siege to your garrisoned cities, while two opposing tribes take it in turns to swap a single city between them over the course of a hundred years. For every time the AI counters your cavalry charge with a deft turn of their line, there’s another moment when they’ll do something so bafflingly stupid that you smack your forehead in frustration.
“The engine is fantastically temperamental, with frame-rate crashes and technical glitches cropping up frequently.” When it decides to run properly, this is a breathtakingly beautiful title. Every once in a while everything comes together and you’re left speechless at how grand the scale is, as you watch a detachment of legionaries battle tooth and claw against a screaming band of Gallic berserkers. Zoom in and you can see every battle as an intricate tapestry of individual skirmishes rendered in stunning detail, each soldier feeling like a real physical object rather than one part of a massed unit. This beauty comes with a price. The engine is fantastically temperamental, with frame-rate crashes and technical glitches cropping up frequently. More than once, my entire campaign map was reduced to a nightmare kaleidoscope of broken textures. Memory leaks and sudden, catastrophic crashes are depressingly common. This isn’t an isolated experience, either. The official forums are awash with similar stories, and Creative Assembly are already rushing out patches to try and stem the tide.
Rome II is an ambitious game with some great ideas. That’s to be commended. Unfortunately, it’s not a product that’s anywhere near being finished. Creative Assembly risk losing all the goodwill their audience has for them if they continue to release jagged, unpolished titles months before they’re ready to ship. That’s not even mentioning the hubris of lining up future DLC before the main game is in a playable state. This reckless, half-cocked release is not just insulting to the thousands of gamers who’ll pay full price to receive an inferior product that others will buy cut-price a few months down the line when it’s finally been chopped and changed into a playable state, but detrimental and damaging to a team of developers who clearly have a real passion and love for the games they create. With the proper patching and support, this might eventually be an excellent title – as it is, unfortunately, Rome II can’t be recommended.