After working your way through the 3 chapters of the fairly chaotic (but optional) prologue you are, kind of, ready to begin your own campaign. It’s your time to lead the Roman legions of the Empire into your history books.
As with other Total War games set in Europe, you do not have to select the Romans; if you so desire you can begin as the Brits or one of six other territories that represent varying starting difficulties. But naturally Rome is what it’s all about so that’s where you are likely to look first.
As a fledgling General you are offered a choice from a selection of families to begin your escapades. Whichever house you select you will be granted a few perks in your campaign to represent the family strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps a bonus of +10% morale when fighting barbarian tribes will be offset by the attribute Diplomatic Underdog, where you have a slightly lowered diplomatic status when dealing with all other factions. Three famous Roman families are available to choose from. House Julia are well known for having Gaius Julius Caesar amongst their number. House Junia are known for having deposed the last Roman King, who was awesomely named Tarquinius Superbus. But the third House, the Cornelli family, includes the incredible Dictator, Sulla Felix, and so naturally my choice was made.
Creative Assembly, the devs behind Rome 2, are a company, and company business is all about managing resources. As you well know, their primary focus as a business happens to be developing the Total War strategy titles that revolve around managing resources. So naturally we would expect them to be pretty good at logistics and resource management, right? Well I am going to peel back the situation they have got themselves into with Rome 2.
Creative Assembly’s resource management includes things like reusing the Total War game engine and utilising the previously gathered historical data and unit knowledge that they have accrued, while making their other title of the same name, Rome: Total War. This re-use of data and resources allows Creative Assembly a faster turnaround for game releases and normally makes good business sense. The Total War franchise so far looks like this: Shogun, Medieval, Rome, Medieval 2, Empire, Napoleon, Shogun 2, Rome 2.
By the time we get to Shogun 2, Creative Assembly have realised that the sweeping management of kajillions of different troop types, provinces, tax systems, trade systems, and the always dull diplomatic systems are so vast that the computer needs to be picking up most of this work for the player. But of course the trick with any game like this is that the devs have to make sure the player is still playing a game, while they spoon-feed well balanced game resources to them.
Upon first playing Shogun 2 I felt like the game had been oversimplified, having gotten used to the chaotic nature of the previous titles. But playing on, I soon realised that I had access to the entire game for the first time in the series. Management of all my resources, troops, provinces, taxes, etc. was finally at my fingertips and I was not being overwhelmed. The number of troop variations were reduced and the province management was streamlined. I was playing a Total War game and I felt like I understood the impact of all my choices.
By contrast, Rome 2 is a mess. Now that I have your attention, I refer to the resource management and in-game user interface that the player is provided. To start with it’s very difficult to put your finger on the real problem with the management in Rome compared to that of Shogun 2. It even feels like Rome 2 has fewer clicks to achieve “something”. But looking at it more deeply I realised that as a player you have no idea what that “something” is, when you achieve it. Sure, you might be told clearly that by making the “something” in your city you will get some stuff, but in the grand scheme of the campaign map you are not really sure if that is what you need right now and how it will help your other provinces or troops. With low levels of user feedback its harder to understand if you have successfully ordered the building of that “something” due to the limited information coming back to you.
I was Cornelli and I was in a strong starting region ready to begin my conquest. In the short time it took me to get to the start of my fifth turn all my provinces were incredibly unhappy, armies were disbanding, and my people were hungry. How much of any of those things were related to any other, I could not tell. The game is quick to tell me with slick little hover-over infoboxes that my men are disbanding and that I should do something about it, but as I glance around my provinces I am left scratching my head as to what could be a solution. It all suggests that I have over stretched my resources but I am unsure what amount of resource I have, which resource is causing the problem and how to resolve it.
Strange that this could happen, considering I have played all Total War games and taken to them like the Dictator Felix you all know and have to love.
I fully expect that the Rome 2 developers will likewise be scratching their heads, saying, “everything in the game makes perfect sense. The game is quicker and easier to play, how can veterans of the series not see this?” This will be because the development decision makers built the game and know every rule and impact thereof. To them, the user interface will be singing the reports exactly as they need to hear it, to the new player, you are going to have to tread very carefully early on as you try to second guess the rules.
And to that new player I will describe the basics of Rome 2, because you have reached this far in the review and not fled from the mighty, Dictator Felix. Two core gameplay features work hand in hand to deliver an immense strategy title that can only be seen on the PC. On the one hand you control a faction, through managing cities, provinces and armies you will gradually build the foundations of an empire. When moving an army over the sprawling campaign map you may encounter another faction who has something you want and battle begins. You jump to a detailed battle map that closely replicates the terrain you made the encounter in. There, your armies will clash and your ability to outmaneuver and out think the enemy army, using the terrain, unit strength/weakness to your advantage, will put you one step closer to taking over the known world.
The map of the known world is centered on the Mediterranean and Italy, stretching to the West, as far as the UK, including the top of Africa and all the way across to the East of Iran, as it is known today. The scale is, as always, huge and feels slightly larger than Shogun 2, but not by much.
There have been a number of significant changes since Shogun 2. Territories are now grouped into provinces, where each city you own helps benefit other territories within the province, providing you own them. New support buildings that you construct in a city remain in a city. Whereas in Shogun 2 you might build a stable and the stable would be half a turns ride from the safety of your fortified city, in Rome 2 the upgrade would always be in the settlement. As your nation gets larger you can support an increased number of generals. If you want an army you have to have a General with it.
In Shogun 2 you will often revert to using the tactic of splintering off your main army in to tiny armies, so you can wreak havoc on unprotected province upgrades, this is no longer an option in Rome 2. The armies stick to a general and you can only have a few generals. The settlements are always the key feature in a province and so that is where the giant armies head and do battle. These changes do a good job of keeping the campaign map logical and simplified, providing less micro management and more huge battles. After all, in Shogun 2 a player would almost always auto resolve the irrelevant smaller skirmishes anyway, now you are more inclined to get involved because each battle is going to be significant.
With up to 4 cities in a province, each one can lend its particular benefits to the province or to the generals marching around within it. Generals can now recruit wherever they are on the campaign map, providing they are within a province or territory you own and they can recruit units from any of your cities within that province. You no longer have to make your way back to a specific city if you want to recruit a specific unit, again speeding up your turns and army movement, while minimising your micro-management.
The battle maps have some interesting new features, like mud fields that slow and fatigue units trying to move through them. Along with weather conditions and a much greater range of buildings and coastal terrain the battles fought will rarely feel the same twice, while routinely delivering exceptional backdrops for your enormous battles. Most maps are randomly generated, considering the army encounter location, however, there are some specifically designed battle maps for important locations like Rome and Carthage.
Total War diplomacy has always been dull and often hard to interpret as a player, due to there being little visual feedback. It almost feels like Creative Assembly have given up trying to fix this, as though they are all out of ideas.
Hey! That faction over there looks like it might be able to trade with me, open the diplomacy window, select Open Trade Agreement, click submit, randomly get told if we are now involved in trade relations with Corsica or not. DULL.
What's that doing in a game that seems unafraid of doing everything? Diplomacy is a huge part of every era a Total War game has ever covered and yet in the past Creative Assembly have never seemingly been bothered to bring it to life.
Well try this for size. You end your turn and you watch as each of the various nations take their go. When it reaches the Egyptian turn, the game pauses to reflect diplomatic interaction. Like a movie beginning at the cinema, the screen broadens and you see lush gardens of the Roman Emperors Palace that you built a few turns ago. The camera swoops towards the Palace and zips up the steps, through the huge white entrance columns, and along the opulent corridors of the public hall to your diplomatic assembly. A handful of important members of the Roman Senate, dressed in white robes with red trim, stand beside your character. Each one signifying a region of the core of the Roman Empire that you now control. You sit facing the camera in full golden armour, surrounded by all the trappings you have earned during your military campaign.
A Celtic dignitary stands behind you in the distance, representing your recent conquering of the Britannia. Dozens of other similar, men and women are gathered around the hall, each from a different part of the known world you now rule.
An Egyptian emissary stands before you, attempting to establish diplomatic relations with you, visibly shaking in awe at the global might you have on display. You hold in your hand a chalice of wine. The chalice is one of the perk-providing trinkets that you chose when advancing your character and can be seen in the character view window of the game. A lion is caged in the shadows of this glorious hall and only started appearing in this diplomacy screen when you took control of a certain part of Asia.
It is easier to negotiate now that you have power. Dozens of turns ago you were entertaining your diplomatic guests from a Domus, little more than a nobleman's large estate house, and they were turning up with a huge entourage of their own, sometimes even sat on the back of an elephant. You were wearing little more than a stately robe of office, as an unproven general. It was no wonder they would ignore your humble requests for trade.
How cool is that? It gives you a real sense of your achievements and puts a tangible value on your diplomatic status. It’s the reason why roleplaying games are so successful and alas, this has been a constant missed-trick in the Total War series.
Visually displaying your real achievements, while tying your global progression, character traits, and entourage into your diplomatic influence, lets the player feel like they are doing this all for a purpose. We want to be the Emperor.
Sadly this whole approach to diplomacy is still only in my imagination, as Creative Assembly accidentally forgot to add Dictator Felix to their payroll, and is therefore not an element of Rome 2’s dull and crap diplomacy set-up, which I described above.
Rome 2 has finally managed to incorporate naval and land based battles in the same glorious battle map. Empire introduced a beautifully looking ship system but the sea battles were and always have been an impossible affair, that turn into frustration all too soon. So you may as well auto resolve these battles. This is still largely the case. When you are faced with a small fleet of transport barges carrying troops going up against other troop barges, it doesn’t seem to matter a great deal about the quality of the troops on board and largely comes down to chance as to who steps away from the encounter victorious. Micro control of the vessels is tricky and never accurate enough.
It can even be quite disheartening when your awesome general and his 39 bodyguards make little-to-no impact when attacking another vessel of 120 plebs. If anything, the General’s bodyguard should have a far greater impact while fighting on the boat because they cannot be overwhelmed and encircled. The close quarters fighting is akin to the notorious bridge defence battles we have seen in previous Total War titles, where ten of your men fight shoulder to shoulder against ten enemy. If a man falls then someone from behind steps in to take his place. The defender of the bridge always gains the advantage and the attacker needs a huge number of troops to push through this defensive bottleneck.
However, on the whole the sea encounters feel more like land based encounters and so it certainly feels like the awkward naval side of the game is starting to drift in the right direction.
Moving troops around by boat and being able to access those troops in a battle when you need them is a welcome addition and works well. Some of the vessels have artillery and ballistics and they can now bombard land based units, which offers a great additional strategic angle. Often this forces an army to consider giving the shoreline a wide berth in fear of getting boulders launched at them from ships they cannot strike back at, unless they have their own seafaring troops.
Large numbers of people are complaining about the support of their graphics cards and Rome 2 looking sub-par on their, often hulking, PCs. Jaggies are visible on the Diplomat or General faces that bob around in the bottom right and left corner of your screen. The battle maps seem to be sparse and missing some ground textures. People are suggesting that switching from DX 11 to DX 9 is increasing performance and removing some of the strange blurring that is sometimes encountered. The overview strategy maps do not have anti-aliasing and you can see the pixelated borders of each country, taking you somewhat out of the game’s normally beautiful emersion.
As you venture further into the game you can regularly be left waiting for long periods while you wait for the AI to have its turn. This can be as long as a minute or two, every turn, depending on the power of your PC.
It feels strange to say this about a Total War title, but Rome 2 feels like it rushed out the door. Pretty much all Rome 2 has to offer we have seen before. With little movement forward for the franchise, by way of innovation, and lacks the user interface sophistication they got right in Shogun 2. Graphically, Rome 2 is rough around the edges on a huge number of machines and again this feels largely due to a somewhat rushed release.
The Total War franchise delivers a very similar game each time they go to launch. In every title Creative Assembly provide the player with a lot of game, to a very high standard, and fine tune things they feel need enhancing, while leaving well alone most of what they got right in the previous editions. This approach has rightly earned them a strong fan base, but it means that any adjustment on something that has already been carefully tweaked, time and time again, has a far lower chance of improvement than it does of making something worse. And this is why the majority of this review will feel negative. We know the good points of the battle system and the impressive scope of the huge historically accurate campaign, because Total War titles have been doing that for some time now. But ultimately Rome 2 feels like a big promise to the fans, that lacks any innovative punch.
This is a Total War title though, and it brings with it lots to learn and enjoy, but when considering the awesomeness of the original Rome Total War and the strides forward being made by Shogun 2, Rome 2 doesn’t fulfil its pedigree status. Creative Assembly should better consider the use of their own resources and aim to liven up their game, if they are to maintain their near legendary developer status.
Total War is a PC only game that’s not scared to flex its PC muscles in scope and for that it will always have a solid place in my heart. Its rating out of ten is somewhat based on its own previous exploits because it has set the bar in this genre for quite some time. For now I will keep working on learning my way around the resource management until I become a logistics master, like my Roman forefathers.