The Second Punic War killed my interest in fiction. Tolkein’s fantastical Battle Of Helm’s Deep seems but a minor skirmish compared to the Battle of Lake Trasimene, where Hannibal managed to hide his entire army, surprise the Romans, and drive them into the lake, killing an estimated 15,000 with less than 2,500 causalities of his own. My mind can’t begin to comprehend what such a fight might have looked like, or the desperate thoughts that must have risen in Roman men forced to choose between drowning in their armor or dying on a Carthaginian spear.
Surprisingly, most games abstract this chaos with numbers and stats. Only a few games have tackled it head-on, and of those that have, only Total War has had consistent success. When I cut my teeth on Medieval: Total War, the first game in the franchise I owned, it was a revelation. The brutal drama of war was no longer confined to the pages of history, but instead had been freed to run rampant inside my PC.
In the latest installment of the series, Rome II: Total War, developer The Creative Assembly once again returns to familiar ground. The “original” Rome: Total War $60, released in 2004, remains the most highly-reviewed game in Total War’s history (according to Metacritic). Yet the developers felt they were far from done with the setting. In this sequel they’ve improved, added and refined, creating a model of the ancient world unlike anything gamers have enjoyed before. Is this the ultimate take on Roman warfare, or has Total War stretched its line too thin?
We are giving away three copies via Steam to three lucky readers. Keep reading to the bottom to enter for your chance to take home Rome II: Total War.
Have You Ever Wanted To See Pontus Fight The Iceni?
Though Roman history is culturally significant in most of the western world, most people only know the broad strokes, forming a hazy portrait that includes, besides Rome itself, Carthage, the Huns, the Celts, the Gauls and (maybe) the Greek states.
Reality, of course, was a bit more complex. The ancient Mediterranean consisted of countless kingdoms and tribes; even the Roman republic relied on a coalition of smaller cities, known as the Italian Allies, to provide the troops and resources a growing city-state craves. Rather than abstracting all of this detail into larger entities, Rome II: Total War gives almost everyone their due. There’s over 100 factions in total, and playable sides include not just Rome and Carthage but more obscure entities like the Iceni, Macedon and Pontus.
All of this culminates in a detailed, beautiful model of the ancient world that’s as historically accurate as one could hope a mainstream game to be. Even difficulty falls in line with history, as rather than attempting to balance factions, The Creative Assembly simply designates those which start with a bad hand as “hard,” while those with an advantage (like Rome) are considered “easy.”
Yet, like so many models, Rome II’s map breaks down once it’s set into motion. While the number of factions has increased, the way the game handles AI turns has not, which means the player must wait for well over 100 other factions to complete their turn whenever the End Turn button is pressed. Even on a beefy system, this can result in several minutes of tedious waiting even with AI movement animations turned off.
Additionally, the sheer scale of the world is overwhelming. I was shocked when I viewed the victory conditions and saw that, for most factions, a military victory requires the conquest of 140 settlements or their control through client states. That’s a staggering number, and it’s made worse by an inevitable mid-game slog of civil unrest. Total War is, as the name suggests, is supposed to be about war, yet players are often forced to press pause on their war machine and instead attend to the needs of the citizens. Armies must sit idle until the population is adequately happy, as moving them away will allow rebels to spontaneously appear.
Creative Assembly does deserve credit for trying to make the campaign map more entertaining. The massive scale of the game is countered by a new provincial system which lumps multiple cities into one shared interface, making new construction possible without hunting down each individual town. There’s also an edict system that provides provincial-wide bonuses, a better selection of buildings, more robust garrisons, and more diplomacy (due to the larger number of factions).
Yet all of these improvements serve only to mend an injury Creative Assembly crafted. I’ve always enjoyed Total War games for the battles, not empire management. The continued attempt to blend Civilization with the traditional Total War experience is as misguided as ever, no matter what niceties or mechanics are tacked on.
Dramatic Battles, Busted AI
Perhaps the greatest flaw of the strategic map is its failure to reliably create interesting conflict. Of the many battles I fought during my time with the game, I’d guess that only a quarter of them took place “on the battlefield.” The rest were auto-resolved because the numbers were in my favor, and the game’s auto-resolve feature is ridiculously effective. Attacking an opponent with a 2:1 advantage doesn’t just guarantee a win, it ensures you’ll lose no more than 10% of your troops, unless you’re attacking a particularly well-fortified city or with sub-standard troops – in which case, you might lose a terrifying 20%.
The real fun begins only when an enemy army of equal or, ideally, greater size appears. Such battles won’t auto-resolve favorably, so personal command is required. Total War’s unique approach to real-time combat, which sees “units” of over 100 men clashing sword-on-shield, has always been the franchise’s real draw, and it’s become bigger and louder over time. Most units in Rome II are between 120 and 160 men, except for calvary, which often consist of 80 horsemen. A large battle might see 15 such units on each side, which puts well over 5,000 men on the field. Creative Assembly’s game engine still isn’t capable of reproducing antiquity’s largest battles, but it’s getting closer.
Winning a battle is about creating fear in the enemy ranks, rather than outright destruction, as all but the toughest units will run well before every man meets his end. Flanking an opponent, overwhelming him with numbers, or shocking him with drastically superior troops will cause his troops to run, and once they run, they can be cut down with ease. While Rome II does introduce some “magical abilities,” like formations that boost attack power or charge speed, victory usually stems from strategy rather than pressing the right buttons, a trait gamers with a phobia of micromanagement (like me) adore.
But while there’s the potential for glorious battle, incompetent AI can spoil the fun. Rome II relies far more on victory points (flags on the map that must be controlled) than previous games in the series, and the enemy AI is obsessed with capturing them. This can lead to hilarious charges in which entire units ignore the player’s defenders as they try to push their way towards the flag. At one point, I saw ten enemy units do this simultaneously; hordes of infantry, even slingers, ran through one small gap between buildings. They paid no mind to the two units of veteran Legionaries I’d positioned there and literally threw themselves on my soldier’s waiting swords. Over 1,500 AI troops were slaughtered, while I lost only 48 men, most of whom were part of a weaker javelin unit that I’d placed in front of my Legionaries in anticipation of a stand-off.
Such shenanigans proved less amusing when executed by my own troops, however. One strange AI bug caused my assault troops boarding an enemy ship to suddenly jump in the sea and drown. In another instance, my troops become stuck along the edge of a building during the defense of a city, allowing enemy troops to storm the gates.
Yet, in spite of these issues, smashing big armies together remains as entertaining as ever. No other game franchise replicates what Total War makes possible, and the battles in Rome II are the biggest and most dramatic yet. Assaults on provincial capitals are particularly outrageous, consisting of miles of walls and huge siege engines that can send troops over, or knock down, defenses. These fights don’t just look cool, but also test the player’s skill, as they require precise coordination between siege weapons and the troops that swarm through the holes they blast.
Barely There Multiplayer
While the value of its new mechanics is questionable, there’s no denying that Rome II tries to expand almost every area of the game; the campaign map is huge, the mechanics more complex, and the battle larger than ever before. Yet one area is a notable step back; multiplayer.
Shogun II, the last game in the franchise, offered an entertaining “Avatar Campaign” mode which brought Total War’s multiplayer into the modern age of never-ending progression. Players received experience for wins, which could be spent on various upgrades, and significant cosmetic army customization was available. Players could even form clans and fight over virtual territory on a simplified version of the campaign map.
Rome II has none of that. Custom and quick matches are the only options. While custom matches can be a blast, good ones are hard to find, and skill levels are all over the range. Quick matches, on the other hand, are readily available, but they throw the player into a random map against a random opponent without any explanation or context. This makes them hard to care about; you’ll never form a rivalry, never make friends, and never receive any reward besides a higher rank on the game’s leaderboard.
Yes, the battle themselves are still entertaining, but the bare-bones feature set reeks of premature release. To make matters worse, the only interesting game mode left, multiplayer campaign, is notoriously buggy. I couldn’t even launch it, and some users are reporting frequent crashes even if they can get the campaign to begin.
Rome II: Total War is a return to the bad-old-days of Creative Assembly’s 13-year-old franchise marked by Empire: Total War, a game that was at once fantastic and hopelessly bugged. There’s a lot to love here, including a huge map, some interesting campaign enhancements, and battles that turn the epic up to 11. There remains no better game for watching huge armies clash in melee combat, and despite its issues, Rome II is one of the most accessible historical strategy games ever made.
For every positive, however, there’s a con, and many of them stem from the game’s apparent premature release. A few months from now, after Creative Assembly has released its promised patches, this game may be the best yet. But right now, Rome II falls victim to a thousand wounds. Any one issue would not sink this game’s fortunes, but together, the bugs and strange decisions all too often overwhelm whatever fun the player may be having.
How do I win a copy of Rome II: Total War?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.
This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, September 20. The winners will be selected at random and informed via email.
- Marco Morelli
- Richard Bonifacio
- Sean Baker
Congratulations! If you were selected as a winner, you would have received your license via email from email@example.com. If you require any assistance, please get in touch with Jackson Chung before November 14. Enquires beyond this date will not be entertained.
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