Total War: Rome 2 is vast, stretching from the Western-most tips of Europe deep into the Middle East. Even at launch it features over a hundred factions, split into a variety of common cultures, from the ever-present Celtic nations stretching throughout much of Europe to the Indo-Scythian in the Middle East. Each culture has its own particular take on military, technology and battle tactics, and as such, both Adam and I have poured a suitably vast number of hours into the game.
The first thing you will notice is just how good the game looks. The campaign map is full of life and motion, even to the clouded and fogged areas which you have not got vision over yet, in contrast to Shogun 2. Even here it will allow you to see the peaks of mountains, the outlines of roads and other geographical hints behind the fog.
The animation stands out, with cities growing visually on the map when buildings are added, as smoke plumes and cranes move within the city on the map. Zooming in on the map provides more ambient audio as well as you hear the hustle and bustle of the cities or the crickets in the forests, with animals grazing on the plains and eagles flying overhead. The size of the campaign map also brings a nice change from Shogun 2; the dry, arid nature of North Africa stands in stark contrast to the heavily forested and maze-like Northern Europe.
However, what makes Total War stand apart from other games are its huge scaled battles, and Rome II is no different in that regard. The battle maps are huge and there is a lot of variety on offer; even if a city feels similar in style to another you’ve besieged or defended, the layout is different or the objectives have changed. Troops will realistically raise shields to incoming missiles, sound horns and cry out when charging, and should you decide to zoom right in or take advantage of the new action camera, they are very nicely detailed alongside the terrain, despite the engine having to be able to cater for multiple armies in a battle, and thousands of troops.
The battle mechanics have shifted slightly, allowing for an overarching tactical map with unit icons. You can’t run a battle from this perspective, but it gives you a good oversight of how a battle is unfolding, better allowing you to keep track of reinforcement armies and the newly integrated naval battles. These now see your fleets able to join in with certain land battles, either fighting in the sea and lending artillery support, or landing troops on shores. They add an extra spice to some of they coastal city assaults, in particular.
“Controlling the battle yourself will be essential when you are outnumbered or victory hangs in the balance.”
Being able to auto-resolve battles is always there for the smaller battles, or those which hold no interest through overwhelming odds in your favour, but controlling the battle yourself will be essential when you are outnumbered or victory hangs in the balance. The automated battles are far from perfect, and don’t feel like they take into account unit depletion or experience to quite the degree they should, but it can put you into some awesome situations.
Armies can now gain experience, increasing in rank and gaining new traditions for you to choose. Things like an increase in ammunition or more damage with spears will make your armies ever-more precious, as your generals also gain new battlefield and campaign traits. Unlike your generals, who will age and perish naturally or in battle, the army traditions will stick forever, and can even be resurrected should the whole corps fall. So, when you take to the field of battle with the auto-resolve predicting a catastrophic loss, with your 600 man army of elite units outnumbered two to one by enemy hordes, you know you have experience on your side, even if the auto-resolve says you will lose.
I was often helped by dimwitted AI, too easily suckered into a compromising military position, or with a poorly balanced and ill trained army, lacking our more elite units. Playing on Normal difficulty, only the most unbalanced odds would see either of us lose, but even the occasional dalliance with harder difficulties the AI is readily beatable. The AI might not pose too big a challenge, but by playing on the new Legendary difficulty you give yourself a handicap by removing the mini-map, preventing you from issuing orders whilst paused, and restricting your camera movements.
The Greek States Culture Pack comes as DLC to the main game which adds distinct Greek factions for you to play as; Athens, Epirus and Sparta each have unique units and objectives.
Additionally, in order for you to encounter all that the game has to offer, you need to put tens if not hundreds of hours into a campaign. Each culture has its own unique sets of units – with around 700 distinct units in the entire game – and each faction a variation upon what is available to them, but pushing past your immediate neighbours and coming across the more exotic foes, such as elephants and camel-back archers, will take a huge amount of time.
Even exploring the true depths of your own faction’s roster requires you to sink hundreds of turns into a simple looking, but surprisingly deep technology tree, and then building the corresponding city buildings in your provinces. It is a serious investment of time to get there, but it’s ultimately quite rewarding to finally gain access to the most elite of units, make use of towering ballistae to smash down city walls, and break from the deep Germanic forests into the arid Mediterranean.
It’s quite obvious to us that The Creative Assembly have spent a lot of time working out how to streamline and simplify many areas of the campaign, which may have been a chore in previous Total War games. For example, unit replenishment happens automatically within your regions and provinces – though it can be managed to a degree via an army’s stance – whilst recruiting armies no longer needs the micro-management of many individual units across your entire empire. This now takes place exclusively through your limited number of generals, and then on a provincial basis.
Cities are no longer isolated as they were before, but grouped into provinces of two to four settlements with one of these a designated provincial capital. They share almost everything internally, so that if one city is attacked by a foe, the entire province takes a psychological hit to the stability and public order rating. On the flip side, they also share their buildings, so that a general can have troops trained from specific buildings in what equates to modern day London as he prepares to cross the border into Caledonia.
Food now also plays a much greater role in the world, when it goes wrong; a resource shared throughout your empire and needed to maintain growth in your cities, unit replenishment and feeding your troops. Keeping your food supplies positive is quite an easy thing to manage, but that rare moment when you do run out, it really hits home. Suddenly your armies don’t replenish troops, your men start deserting, your people are angry and start to riot as your cities stop growing, resulting in the player being very cautious from then on about how much surplus food is available.
All of these changes from the previous games’ status quo can be confusing for both new comers and Total War veterans, and the best way to handle the new province system took a while for us to discover. Maintaining one set of public order across multiple cities is difficult, with many of the most desirable buildings giving quite excessive penalties, which have to be managed. We both found ourselves preferring not to upgrade certain buildings to avoid the knock on effect that the squalor would have on the populace.
As your empire expands, so too will the lengths to which you must go in order to assimilate the world and avoid uprisings. You will start off surrounded by tribes and factions of a similar culture, and these can under the right circumstances join you in a confederation. However, as soon as my Germanic warriors tramped into Celtic towns and cities, the culture clash hampered and slowed my expansion, and my military presence had to be maintained for a much longer time before they had adopted my culture, and I could move on.
You can, however, recruit agents to help pave the way for your troops. Spies, dignitaries and champions forms a nice rock-paper-scissors triangle which forms another layer of depth to the campaign map, aiding your own endeavours and cultural expansion, whilst also being able to combat one another directly.
However, whilst we gradually learnt the tricks and nuances to these systems, others continue to elude our understanding. Possibly the most confusing part we found was the new family system. In your faction there will be a number of families vying for control, with some differences depending on whether you’re a republic like Rome or a kingdom such as Sparta.
On the faction panel you are given an indication of your generals gravitas and which family he belongs to. However, regardless of what we tried, the “other families” would often have a greater gravitas, in spite of our attempts to adopt generals, marry them to our lovely daughters or spread rumours. These often seemed to have the opposite effect and by bringing more generals and more power into his family Adam’s Spartans ended up in a civil war, seemingly out of nowhere, whilst I have largely ignored the competing elders, and suffered no ill effects. With over 70 hours of combined campaign time, neither of us understands how this works.
A few of the changes feel borrowed or inspired from other games, like Civilization 5, but at the same time also work as a natural evolution of the Total War formula. Diplomacy, as an example, now features detailed information about which of your actions have what quantifiable affect on your relations with other factions, though it can still feel somewhat arbitrary.
What Rome II does well is draw you into conflicts and styles of play befitting of your faction. Whilst my personal inclination with the Germanic Suebi was to occupy and pacify the Celts, the game hands out nice monetary rewards for sacking or razing cities, engaging in a certain number of wars or against particular factions. As you complete these chapter objectives, it gently pushes you on your way towards total domination, and going up against the factions which will pose you the greatest challenge.
These all lead towards another deviation from the traditional Total War formula, with the new Economic and Cultural winning conditions. These aren’t quite as idyllic as they might sound, and there will still be a heavy dose of warring inevitably in the mix. Instead of needing to dominate practically the entire map, you can cultivate a few more alliances and trading partnerships, as well as coming to control key regions and influence, checking off the ultimate objectives on your way to a victory.
Rome II is a particularly ambitious overhaul of the Total War franchise. It streamlines and touches upon almost every aspect of the turn-based campaign, whilst broadening the scope to include distinct biomes and many contrasting cultures for you to clash with. It is without a doubt the most comprehensive Total War game, and one which has modernised the game’s mechanics. However, with such a big shift, it has brought with it a few elements which don’t feel fully developed or polished, and these do detract and confuse the otherwise excellent experience.
Score: VIII de X
This review is an amalgam of the thoughts, opinions and even words of both myself and Adam (AG2297), but we’re far from done with the game, and will be revisiting it over the course of the next few weeks to share more of our experiences with it.