The Creative Assembly have made a bit of a habit out of retreading old ground in their Total War series. First Medieval II, then Shogun II and now Rome II, whilst I salivate about the prospect of Empire II, because the Napoleonic War was by far my favourite. That’s admittedly quite a strange thing to say, but I digress.
It has been almost a decade since CA first visited the Roman Empire, and it certainly feels like now is the right time to go back. So much of the series has changed and evolved in that time, that it lets them give a fresh spin on proceedings, update game mechanics, and broaden the scope significantly. It’s not just a bigger game than Rome, though, it’s CA’s biggest game to date.
The full map will stretch from the Western most edges of Europe to the heart of the Middle East with Afghanistan. Populated by over a hundred factions of varying size, aside from the eight main playable factions, each with a unique set of units, including the rather exotic and much publicised war elephants found in some corners of the world.
I didn’t get a chance to see the elephants or battle with barbarians, let alone visit the pyramids and say hello to Cleo, as the preview build I played was from the prologue campaign. It’s set during the Samnite Wars, through which Rome fought to become the greater power in Italy, with the fictional Gaius Fulvius Silanus your touchstone in the events.
“This is our lead into the way Total War works,” said Al Bickham, Studio Communications Manager, in a full interview which will be posted tomorrow. “I think there’s definitely a conception of complexity, and this is really designed to demystify that and say, ‘Well, here’s what you do: you build armies, you increase your buildings, you research technology, and then you go out and do some war!’ So at its heart, it’s not a complex concept.”
Though, at times, there’s a fair bit of obvious tutorial text, the prologue definitely felt like it was being pretty gentle, and easing me into the game.
The first battle, at the Siege of Capua, featured Silanus and his troops on the edge of the conflict, coming to the aid of the city from the flank of the Samnite army. The battle would probably be won no matter how you played, but it teaches just a handful of important things for your second battle.
Of course, this includes basic things like the need to flank enemies, hold the high ground, sneak through trees, and simple troop movement and tactics. However, there are also the major additions of the overall tactical map, letting you zoom right out so far that it switches to unit icons, as well as a cinematic camera angle, which attaches you close up to a unit as you follow them right into the frey.
They’re nice additions, but also somewhat limited. The cinematic camera is fancy, but has very little practical uses, whilst the tactical map is limited to just moving troops around and getting a better idea of how the battle is unfolding.
“We did know that, for example, players would want to pull their view up as far as possible, to get the maximum amount of control, but we didn’t want them to become removed from the action and the combat,” revealed Jamie Ferguson, Lead Battle Designer. “So we had to find a way to create something that gives the player the overall view of things, and at the same time doesn’t take them away from that action.”
In that regard, it’s completely successful, and it makes you head back towards the ground once you’ve seen what you need to see. The tactical map is just another tool in your arsenal, as are ships.
These can now feature alongside ground troops within a battle, something which has never been done by a Total War title, even though sea battles were introduced with Empire: Total War almost half a decade ago, in 2009.
This gives so many more options in battle, as ships can potentially deliver troops to a beach, lend artillery to attack city walls and enemy forces, or even engage enemy ships as you’re also fighting on land. In my particular amphibious assault on the settlement of Salernum, I was able to split my forces, and attack the city square from both sides, bottling up and wiping out the enemy forces in short order.
It wasn’t all plain sailing on the battlefield, and I’m not especially happy to admit that I managed to lose a fairly close fought battle, but this was through my foolish machinations on the turn-based campaign map.
It’s on the campaign map, as before, that you manage your empire’s war efforts. You’ll recruit extra units, choose new abilities for your generals as they level up, and you should certainly be careful about where you pick your battles. Get it right, taking overwhelming odds into a fight, and you can happily let the computer resolve the conflict for you, but get it wrong, and you could find yourself on the losing end of a sword.
If anything, this side of the game has seen an even bigger overhaul than the battles, enabling greater variety as you play through a campaign. It’s now even more visually arresting, as regional capitals now expand and take up more physical space as you grow them to include more buildings.
However, for the prologue campaign, a lot of the complexities were carefully hidden away or stage managed in tutorial. There’s now a greater emphasis on understandable diplomacy, as an example, which I was not really privy to in this build.
A big part of this will come via the new Relations Panel. Faction AI will try to take into account a much broader picture of what’s going on in the world, and whereas before you might not understand why someone dislikes you, now it’s made clear.
“There’s a mask […] and you hold over that, and it pops up the relations meter, which is a list of all the actions by which [a faction is] judging you.” Al Bickham explained. “It’s just a list of things that you’ve done, good and bad, in the past. So, ‘Committed war atrocities against Macedon’ +5!”
All too soon, the prologue handed me a deadline for victory, and I was pushed into a headlong rush across Italy to besiege the Samnite capital. Building a siege weapon to break through the gates and the city by force saw my campaign draw to a close at the last moment, and seeing Silanus’ career and ambitions furthered.
It was also an example of an aspect which could often make the ending of a campaign drag in previous games. Endless castle or city sieges aren’t fun and thankfully there’s a lot more variety in Rome II, through the changes to the battle mechanics, differing locations and types of battle. So if you want to dominate your opponent militarily it aims to keep things a bit fresher, but there are more ways for you to try and win, too.
“You can win by meeting certain economic requirements and win an economic victory,” stated Al, when I asked about your options. “Or you can aim to culture flip other cultures to join you, and win a cultural victory by doing that across the map. You’ll still have some war, because it’s Total War, but you can play more towards those objectives and less towards a standard military victory.”
The key point I kept hearing and seeing, as I played the prologue and spoke to Al and Jamie, was this sense of opening the gameplay up, and widening its scope quite considerably. I’ve seen a fraction of what the game has to offer, but it feels like exactly that, a tiny slice of a much greater whole.
Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for our full interviews with Al Bickham and Jamie Ferguson.
The coverage of Total War: Rome II in this preview and the interviews which follow, was made possible for us and dozens of other journalists from across Europe by SEGA taking us to Rome. Thankfully, this included water. Rome was quite oppressively hot.
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