Developers: The Creative Assembly
I've always loved the more ambitious entries in the Total War series a good deal more than the more battle-focused titles to bear the name. Medieval is still my favourite entry in the series -- and that includes this game, I have to say, but only just -- precisely because it managed to combine fantastic grand strategy with political intrigue and a fairly robust diplomatic system, and real-time battles set in a time period that could legitimately yield up veteran Templar Knights to lead your lines.
But we've come a long way since then. One look at Rome II on its maximum settings is almost enough to make your eyes weep with joy. We often lament this industry's obsession with beautiful shiny things to the detriment of good things, but in doing so we sometimes forget that aesthetics really do matter. The devil is in the details for so many games, and Rome II excels at showing off the extreme lengths to which The Creative Assembly has gone to make Ancient Europe feel alive.
Given that you're staring at a glorified map for much of your time, that's pretty good going.
Returning fans will be instantly at home with the machinations of tens of would-be empires unfolding across Europe and North Africa. The main allure of Rome II -- the expansive campaign, where you choose you faction and are then left to get on with conquering the known world -- is a languid, patient affair, as it has always been. You cannot simply hope to build an enormous army straight off of the bat, and march off into the sunset to fill the next few decades with rampant aggression. There are cities to be managed, carefully struck trade arrangements to be protected, rebellions to be crushed, and a delicate social ecosystem to be maintained.
The map is broken up into provinces this time around, with multiple cities per province. Control all of the cities in a province and you'll earn yourself a tidy little public order bonus as well as the opportunity to pass edicts that affect the whole region. The implementation of multiple-city provinces allows for a degree of diversification when it comes to urban planning. Generals can recruit in the field now, only requiring that one city in the province has the military buildings to provide for troops, and the data for cities in a certain province is now handily grouped together so you can manage multiple cities without having to travel around the map.
A little note on data: Rome II is exceptional at providing visual, practical feedback. Running the mouse cursor over units, cities, regions, trade routes, UI buttons etc. brings forth snippets of useful information, helpful explanations, and essential digital data, as well as all of the hotkey shortcuts you could want. I've not played a Total War game in nearly a decade, but I found the whole experience to be incredibly intuitive for the most part.
There's a delicate balance to be maintained from the moment you are given your marching orders by the Senate or the King or which ever ruling body happens to control the faction you've chosen. Army numbers are limited, and army upkeep is expensive, so there's a certain amount of economic management that needs to be done. Fighting wars on multiple fronts is never a good idea, but expansion does mean more revenue. Sometimes you have to march into battle just to pay the bills. Managing your food is an absolute necessity, too. Should the stores begin to falter, armies will no longer replenish themselves, public order will plummet, and you'll find yourself faced with deserters, rioting, and often open rebellion.
Keeping your citizens happy is of crucial importance too, and Rome II makes a big deal out of cultural conflict, with conquest not simply a military concern. Often, marching an army into an enemy capitol will not be enough to quell civil unrest. It might be only after you've converted all of the buildings in the city to those of your faction, installed a few temples to educate the heathens, and perhaps instigated a system of public works and mercantile importance that you can move your army onwards, safe in the knowledge that you won't have rebels at the gates come the next turn. The best of these agricultural, industrial and commercial buildings can, however, present problems in themselves, with squalor being chief among them. Massive cattle ranches and fishing ports will lead to unclean and unhappy settlements; trading hubs will often leave citizens disgruntled with high slavery rates as plebian unemployment rises. It's important to ensure that you're constantly balancing out actions that will brew public discord with long-term designs for satisfaction. Bread and games will only get you so far.
Of course, should you come across enemy forces, the grand old game of Risk comes to a standstill, and you dive onto an enormous battlefield to play things out in real-time. The theatres of war have grown in size, allowing for truly huge battles across land, sea, and both simultaneously, supplemented by a tactical map that allows you to keep track of reinforcements and events occurring on the other side of the battlefield. Fleets will arrive in harbours, with large assault ships bombarding settlements from afar s other transports unload infantry for a land-based attack. There's a wider array of options and tactical manoeuvres than ever before, with templates for arranging your infantry, ranged units, and cavalry helped on by a faction roster that allows for hundreds of diverse units, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
If Total War games have, in the past, been characterised by overly zealous AI troops, here it seems that the opposite is in effect. More often than not, we found our AI enemies to be a little too cautious, often holding back forces that could swing a battle. Sometimes it works incredibly effectively, and the AI often forced us to give chase, unafraid to break and run and regroup and try again. But equally, it occasionally seemed resolute to the point of stupidity, failing to commit forces that might have otherwise proven decisive. Conversely, when it comes to actually picking one's battles, the AI would readily throw minuscule forces against a 700-strong army of veterans, even on the higher difficulty levels.
Speaking of veterans, I do enjoy the way in which Rome II deals with legacy. Should an army fall in battle, it's possible to reinstate that army's legacy with all of the perks that it earned while it was functional. Win battles, and you'll earn traits and traditions for your army that can be carried over to new forces via reinstatement. However, some of the traits you can earn are pretty damn risible and, as with everything in this game, it can take an age to get an army of veterans up to a meaty degree of speciality and expertise. If anything, it seems to actually take a bit too long, as I'e found my generals often die of old age before their crack teams can become...well....crack. Something else that takes an age is R&D, though this actually forces you to make hard decisions for the future of your faction and ultimately leads to a more rewarding late-game. It makes sense that technological advances take such a long amount of time and dividing your time between civic evolution and military research will reap benefits down the line.
The diplomacy side of things has been tweaked too, both for better and worse. You can now instruct allies to attack specific targets, which is great. Moreover, being able to break down the reasoning behind a faction hating your guts is welcome, too, as is the degree to which nations will haggle over things. You only have to look at today's world to see how petty and vindictive politicking can get, and it's nice to see that reflected here.
But there are also major issues when it comes to internal domestic politics. The familial infighting makes no sense in terms of the game itself (historically it's one of the things I was most excited for, sadly); worse yet, it's never explained properly. The premises is that within your faction there are a number of families all vying for control. In Rome, you're fighting over the Senate; in other factions, you're fighting over a throne. Your generals all have varying degrees of "gravitas", but other families' generals always seemed to have greater gravitas ratings than mine. There are options to assassinate or adopt or marry off other generals, but in over 25 hours of play we failed to see what benefits the entire system brings to the game. It's convoluted and poorly implemented and seemingly completely optional. We ignored it totally and nothing happened.
There were a few bugs here and there; nothing game-breaking, more humorous than anything else -- things like armies wading into the ocean rather than turning into a little transport boat, or agents passing through bridges rather than over them, or an army icon beating up another army as its avatar just sort of stands there and takes it. But ultimately, Rome II plays a fine game of grand strategy. It's telling that my first stint with the game lasted eight hours, and only finished when singing birds and a rumbling stomach told me that not only was it 4:30am, but that I'd forgotten to have dinner.
There's a nice narrative-driven prologue for newcomers to ease themselves into Total War and plenty of challenges and historic battles to get stuck into, not to mention 4v4 head-to-head multiplayer battles and the option to jump into the campaign mode with a friend. We'll be coming back to you for some expanded impressions a few weeks after release on that front. But now that Total War has hefty, challenging competition from Paradox Interactive when it comes to grand strategy, I find myself wihing for an amalgamation of certain games. Rome II is far from perfect, let down by occasionally dodgy AI, disappointing veteran systems, and a political system so irrelevant that the developers themselves struggled to find a way for it to have any impact on the game But the empire management is fantastic. The ambitions of the real-time combat are impressive, and so often you forget the inadequacies of the AI just to live and breathe these virtual battles, zooming in to see soldiers raising shields against missile fire, swordsmen thrusting and parrying, and elephants trumpeting as they charge. It's spectacular stuff at times.
But I want it all. I want the intrigue of Crusader Kings II mixed in with this period empire building and sprinkled with a little dash of Sid Meier's genius. Rome II is fantastic in places, but flawed in others. It falls short of greatness, but it's easy to recommend because its reach extends so far. The sheer size of it renders the gripes we have small and relatively insignificant in the long run. But that's not to say it can't be better, only that we'll perfectly happy playing this until our dreams are fulfilled.
NB. Stick the Game of Thrones soundtrack on while you play this. It works a treat.
- Fantastically detailed world map, brought to life in astounding fashion
- The sheer size of the battles you can fight boggles the mind
- Huge array of factions and units
- Intuitive UI with plenty of visual feedback
- The empire-running is brilliantly designed and balanced
- Lashings of content
- Battle AI a little too reserved
- Interminable wait between turns due to number of factions
- Call pest control, there are a fair few bugs in this one (though nothing game-breaking that we've found)
- Domestic politicking makes no sense and proves completely superfluous
The Short Version: Rome II is the most ambitious game in the Total War series thus far. The sheer number of diverse, distinct cultures and factions presents a more nuanced and comprehensive slice of grand strategy than ever before, modernising and streamlining the user experience for the better. It's just a shame that not everything feels quite up to scratch. Don't let that deter you from buying it, though; it's still a damn fine game.