The Creative Assembly's Total War: Rome remains to this day one of the finest strategy games of all time. Now, nearly a decade after the original graced our PCs, we ask some questions of lead designer James Russell on why CA are returning to the Ancient World, how they're looking to expand and improve on their critically acclaimed formula, and what they're doing to appeal to a wider audience. Oh, and modding!
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): You mentioned wanting to present “the human face of Total War” with this game when we spoke at EGX. Could you elaborate on that a little?
James Russell: On the battlefield, it’s all about making each of the thousands of men fighting for you feel more convincingly human. We want the officers barking orders and men reacting to what’s going on around them.
We want the combat to look and sound more brutal, more visceral – with a real sense of weight & impact. Combine that with new soldier-level camera options and I think you can see it’s about showing a darker, close-up vision of war.
Dealspwn: Why return to Rome? What makes that period in history so alluring for the developers of grand strategy?
James Russell: Well it’s been nearly a decade since the original, and doing Rome II has been the number 1 request we get from out player base for quite some time – it’s definitely the game they want us to make!
I think the ancient world really is the ultimate Empire-building era. There’s something uniquely evocative about the look & feel of the Roman legions, marching to make history’s first real superpower.
The ancient world also offers us an incredible variety of cultures & fighting styles & environments – we’ve got an epic world with barbarian tribes and exotic eastern kingdoms, as well as Rome itself. There’s a huge amount of replayability, as these cultures will all play very differently.
Dealspwn: Empire and Napoleon were huge sprawling games, with Shogun II proving to be much more tightly focused. How do those two approaches compliment one another in a series like Total War, and what have you taken and learned from the last couple of games into Rome II's development?
James Russell: Empire represented Total War pushed to its greatest geographical scope, and yes, with Shogun 2, we focused right down on a single culture on one island.
We learned a lot polishing the gameplay and feel confident to push out again to a grand scope with much more variety, and Rome II will feature a huge world to explore – a lot bigger than original Rome.
There are a number of things we’re doing to make sure this big world is manageable.
For example, we make sure the player starts small and builds their own empire their way. In Empire TW, the starting date meant that we gave the player the early British Empire and let them get on with it. In Rome II, we start at a time when Rome’s territory was small, and their survival not assured. This isn’t just an accessibility point – it makes the gameplay deeper because the player builds their empire up themselves - how they want to.
Also, in Rome II you have to explore to reveal terrain, unlike the 18th century where players started with the whole extent of the world visible, which was pretty intimidating!
Dealspwn: One of the big things to come out of CA regarding the game is that players won’t be railroaded into just playing as Rome this time around. Can you tell us a bit about the barbarians, and the different cultures and tactical experiences on offer to the player? How do you make them interesting to play as, considering the Romans are a bit like the military rock stars of the ancient world?
James Russell: The Romans had plenty of tough rivals, each with their own fighting styles, from the focus on individual prowess and shock tactics of different barbarian tribes to the harassing horse archers and morale-busting elephants of some of the eastern kingdoms.
Variety & replayablility is a big part of Rome II. We want the different cultures to feel very different to play. We’ll have different tech trees, different building trees, different types of Generals and agents/ characters – even different music.
Dealspwn: Emergent narratives are one of the greatest aspects of the Total War games, but it seems that there's a push to provide stronger story elements in this title. How did that come about, and how will those features be fed into the game? Can we, for example, expect a slightly more linear experience? Will there be scripted events?
James Russell: Just as we want the soldiers on the battlefield to feel more convincingly human, we want the player to feel like their Empire is populated with real people. So all that intrigue, betrayal and rivalry inside Rome – we want to get that in the game. We want to emphasise the human-level decisions that shape history.
For example, we extend the dilemma system we had in Shogun 2 and create chained dilemmas which are not on rails but which can trigger off differently depending on exactly how you’re playing the game. How the storyline develops will depend on the choices you make.
This is the idea of Total War with a human face on the campaign map.
Dealspwn: Balancing considerations such as accessibility and depth is crucial for a game of this type. How have you gone about approaching both with regard to Rome II and ensuring that the player isn't overburdened with micromanagement. Is that even a priority consideration?
James Russell: It is a concern, but we don’t see these things as conflicting. A great game is immediately accessible but has great (sometimes hidden) depth. It’s that old cliché – easy to play but hard to master.
For Rome II, we do not compromise on depth but we try to make the game as accessible as possible. We try to unlock features and capabilities gradually, but in an organic rather than artificial way.
We also have features like the ‘province system’, where several regions are grouped into a single province – this means you can combine epic strategic depth with fewer territories to administer.
Depth is about creating interesting gameplay decisions, not about forcing the player to make lots of uninteresting decisions.
We’ll also be focusing the player’s mind on their Legions rather than their individual units. For example, legions will have their own history and character (with real game effects).
Dealspwn: The Total War series has long been praised for its real-time tactical gameplay, with a real emphasis on military action. But Rome is as much about political manoeuvring as military might. How have you developed diplomacy and intrigue when it comes to Rome II?
James Russell: Absolutely – both diplomacy and politics are vitally important in making the world feel populated by real people. Diplomacy is getting an upgrade, especially in terms of how the AI negotiates. We also have an interesting politics system… we want the player to be thinking things like “do I save the Republic, or do I make a play to become Emperor”.
Dealspwn: There's been much talk about the Senate and the role they'll play. Will we see deeper mechanics in terms of political machinations? How will the Senate tie into the way you play the game. Will it be a simple binary system of “Do this mission or else...” or something deeper?
James Russell: We want to create a compelling world of intrigue, rivalry and betrayal, and clearly the Senate is a part of the setting in which that plays out. As I said, there may come a point when you want to dispense with the Senate and become Emperor… but there may be other ambitious Generals who might decide it is they who should be Emperor and march on Rome…
Dealspwn: How challenging has it been to combine land-based and naval warfare for this game?
James Russell: It’s always a challenge to develop a major new feature, and we’re still working hard to make the gameplay the best it can be.
We think the combination adds a lot to the game and helps break down the boundary between armies and navies, which really adds depth to the campaign map strategy as well as enhancing the battles.
Dealspwn: Previously, capturing towns and cities has often simply been a rush up the main street to the plaza with the flag in the middle of it and butchering everyone you find. How have sieges been improved for this game?
James Russell: One big point is that major cities will have multiple capture points, and this completely changes the gameplay inside the city streets. It makes things much more dynamic – as the defender, you can’t just park in the plaza once the walls are breached – the attacker would flank your forces and capture alternative capture points. We feel this can really make siege attack and defence much more fun.
Dealspwn: Mod support is something that a relatively large section of the community have been asking after for some time. There was a map editor for Shogun 2, an we expect some player tools for Rome II?
James Russell: It’s great to have a vibrant modding community. We’ve held a modding summit at the studio with some of the community, and we’ve released the Shogun 2 Assembly Kit which is a massive suite of modding tools. Of course at this early stage we can’t make any specific promises about release dates for Rome II tools, but we’ll try to do everything we can to support the modding community.