So, how far will you go for Rome? With 16+ patches and counting, Creative Assembly has, for their part, gone the extra mile for Total War: ROME II. Released on September 2, 2013, Rome II is the eighth entry in the Total War series, known for its blend of grand campaign strategy and real-time large scale battles. The initial launch of the game was basically a disaster riddled with graphical glitches, poor optimization, and a plethora of gameplay related issues ranging from awful AI to the “blobbing” of units in combat.
But these are things you already knew since the horrible Rome II launch earned Creative Assembly a year and a half of public flak. We’ve all seen “that” post outlining why we, as gamers, should never accept such a fiasco. However, the Rome II of today is not the Rome II of yesteryear, and Creative Assembly has shown a level of dedication and post-release support that completely eclipses the kind of attention we’ve come to expect. Rome II post-patch has, without a doubt, been salvaged into a title worthy of the Total War brand, even if it isn’t the best in the series. And let’s be honest, with a controversial DLC schedule consisting of 4 campaign packs, 4 culture packs, 2 unit packs, and the fan favorite blood & gore pack, they didn’t have much of a choice.
Now on to the meat!
eXplore: Rome II begins in the classical antiquity period as its name would suggest. You start by picking the campaign and the faction you will play with, and, for the purpose of this review, we’ll be focusing on the default “Grand Campaign.” The campaign starts in 272 BC: Rome, Carthage, Gallic tribes, nomads, Greeks, successor kingdoms, the gang’s all here. With DLC included, the options for your grand campaign lie somewhere around thirty factions with starting locations across the ancient world. Depending on your faction of choice, you will start with one or more cities with one or more standing armies, and perhaps even a fleet of ships. Apart from your immediate surroundings, the map is one giant fog of war and it is up to you to step out in search of other factions. You will find no surprises here since the map is a historically accurate representation of Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia Minor and the Black Sea region known as the Caucasus.
Stepping over your own borders will bring you into immediate contact with your neighbors, be they rebels or another faction, as every region is populated from the start of the game and each city already placed in its semi-historically correct location to form these regions. Regions are the zones in which three to four cities are located, and capturing a region comes down to capturing all of its cities. The region of Italia is, for example, comprised of Velathri, Ariminum, Neapolis, and Roma. Edicts can be issued in captured regions, resulting in further bonuses to your empire, and setting you on your way to reaching those sweet, sweet victory objectives. “The victory condition is obvious! The game is called Total War!” you say? Yes it is, but Rome II has introduced victory conditions other than military domination with the ‘new and improved’ economic victory and cultural victory conditions, which funnily enough still demand a certain amount of regions to be controlled for the win to count.
Now you may have heard of the Total War family tree gameplay asset, but you won’t find it here. Welcome to Rome II‘s new “Politics” system wherein your main house must maintain a balance of power with the other houses, or risk civil war. This system is accompanied by a series of “intrigue” events where other houses plot against yours, injuring your generals and adopting your most famous son out from under your nose unless you pay the ridiculously high price to prevent it. Just in case you are thinking this sounds like an interesting mechanic, let me assure you that it isn’t. From a gameplay perspective you can control generals from any house, who are replaced thanks to an invisible and infinite pool of names and faces that come to replace your characters when they die. This removes any sense of attachment to your faction’s fathers and sons, and the civil wars are far more frustrating to deal with compared to the weak bonuses you receive from juggling your house’s influence to the top. To play a hassle-free game, let the other houses do what they want within the intrigue system and you’ll find that the balance of power is constantly floating around 45-50% (the ideal amount). And they say politics is complex!
eXpand: So you stepped outside your borders and met another faction? Congratulations! You may now partake in diplomacy, trade, and the subtle complexities of stabbing your opponents in the eyes. Diplomacy is carried out through a menu showing the balance of power between you and the other faction, their culture, their relation towards you (with a nice list of reasons why they like/dislike you) and whether or not trade with them is possible. In previous Total War entries, you had to recruit a diplomat whom you could send around the campaign map to do your dealings, which was tedious and sometimes long. It was also more accurate and tense, as each negotiation mattered (you or the AI could walk away from any discussion) and Gallic tribesmen didn’t often set up permanent embassies down in Egypt for immediate discussion. However, you must now maintain a diplomatic reputation which goes up or down depending on how much/fast you expand and how often you break treaties or abuse your power. Neat at first, it ultimately makes endgame diplomacy almost pointless as diplomatic penalties increase with the size of your empire.
You can build different kinds of buildings in each of your cities, all of which contribute to a different aspect of the empire-building side of the game. Military structures grant access to new units, boost their experience, and provide a free garrison to boot. However, these also cost food. Food comes in many varieties such as farms, cattle, grain, and cheeseburgers. These keep your armies and population fed and increase the growth of your city’s population. Entertainment facilities spread your culture, ensure public order, and maybe earn some money or gain access to unique units. These are the bee’s knees, but you need to be able to afford them. Economic buildings net you money, which you will need, though they also tend to hurt public order. Ultimately, City Upgrades result in more defenses, more money, more garrisons and much less food to feed the general populace
Some buildings are a mix of two or more categories, but it is plain to see that they are all intertwined and a balance is necessary to keep your armies paid and fed, and your populace growing and happy. You unlock these buildings, and many other things, through the new research tree. Let’s call it a research branch, for it has two categories: Military and Civil, with three subcategories each, ranging from construction to military organization through siege equipment and tax reforms. It’s all very linear, and very fluffy. Entries prior to Empire:Total War upgraded your technology as time went on and the discovery of said research actually happened, to the date. This is no longer the case, and you may very well find yourself unlocking the Marian reforms in 214 BC like I did instead of the historically accurate date of 107 BC. Aside from being a nice feature to boast about on the store page, the research system seems largely unnecessary but isn’t a big enough factor to be considered a hindrance.
So now you’re itching for a fight, but first, preparations are the order of the day! Someone has to feed the army and clean the latrines.
eXploit: Resources in Rome II increase your income via trade, but are limited to certain regions. Apart from building improvements on your extraction facilities to make more gold, the resource game is fairly limited and serves only as a diversifying factor for your economy. Gone are the days of placing merchants on resource nodes and leveling up their profit. Acquiring a resource is now a simple matter of capturing the city or region the resource is found in. Cities with resources will have a graphical icon next to the city name matching the resource it carries, a slab of iron or a pillar of marble, for example.
But that’s not to say there aren’t other things to exploit. There are now three types of agents: the spy, the emissary, and the champion. Each of these have their own specific role that tend to come into their own through the mid-game.
The spy will, naturally, spy, but is also useful for infiltrating enemy cities and damaging buildings or poisoning garrisons. “Know your enemy,” said Rage Against the Machine (and maybe some old guy before them), and a spy is the best way to do it: incite unrest, gain information on army composition, and assassinate enemy generals.
Champions can do many of the same things, though on a lesser level, but where the champion truly shines is when integrating one of your armies to give those newly recruited scrubs a couple lessons in stabbing ’em with the pointy end. This translates into XP per turn for your army and its general, giving you bonuses to overall stats and unlocking military traditions: army-wide bonuses that carry over in the form of legacies if another army takes up the same name and banner as its defunct predecessor.
The emissary is an essential tool for the late game acting as the band-aid that stops the bleeding or the plague that spreads corruption to your enemies. The emissary is best used when deployed in your own regions, increasing tax revenue without lowering public order as city administrator, and assuring your culture’s influence is the dominant one at home. On the other hand, you can send him away to spread the good word to your neighbors, cushioning the blow for when the new overlord rolls into town and avoiding those pesky cultural difference penalties.
Let’s move on to that famous Total War AI. Starting with the campaign AI, there are no glaring issues here other than it being completely predictable: build big armies, attack my neighbors, and refuse to trade. All. The. Time. Some factions actually benefit from, I believe, inherent personalities which makes them fairly consistent in their behavior in ways that add to the immersion. However that’s as far as it goes. If you maintain relations and give gifts to your allies and client states they won’t break their alliance with you, unless you drag them into a war they don’t want to be in or declare war on them yourself.
The battle AI is slightly better, adapting to your tactics (though not so much at sea) and is not afraid of using cheap units to get the job done. The enemy will no longer line up in front of your city’s walls with horses and gently wait in line to die, but that doesn’t mean it won’t bring ten units of horses to a siege in the first place. When you don’t know what you are doing, you can very well lose the game to the battle AI, losing the last of your men in a close defeat as the enemy then rides through your only city with nobody to stop him, but you would be hard-pressed to get outplayed by the campaign AI and its many not-so-clever ruses.
“Whatever man, this is TOTAL WAR!” Alright then, you’re definitely ready. Get that war horn out and charge your pesky neighbor!
eXterminate: Well, looks like you got wrecked. That’s quite alright, dear reader, you’re not playing standard fare RTS combat here. As previously mentioned, the Total War series is known for one big thing, and that’s the battles. So let’s zoom in: the units sure are pretty, the animations are cool, the sounds are top notch, and there are a lot of soldiers! Or at least, there were before you got them all killed. Total War combat has a bit of a learning curve to it. The simplest way to approach it is to think of it as a rock-paper-scissors system. In this case, spears beat horses, horses beat archers and swordsmen, swordsmen beat spears and archers, and pikemen and cavalry archers beat everything. Just kidding, sort of.
There are many ways to play out any one of your many armchair general fantasies in a Total War battle but for the sake of simplicity I’ll talk about the traditional approach. You have as much time as you want pre-battle to place your units where you want them to be (on your side of the field) and in the formation you like. Tradition dictates that you then form a long front line of spears, placing archers behind them, followed by swordsmen and cavalry on the flanks for the quick reaction. The spears are meant to hold the other side’s bulk while you go around the back and hit them where the sun don’t shine (or the hammer and anvil strategy).
You will not kill everyone of the enemy’s units in battle. In fact, that is rarely the point except when you are besieging a city. Each unit has of course it’s own damage, health, and armor stats, but also boasts a somewhat unique morale and fatigue system, with morale being the most important. Fatigue is straightforward – walk, don’t run and don’t commit to any meatgrinder situations unless you can backup your unit when they tire out. The longer they fight, the harder they run, and the more tired they are, the easier it is for their morale to break. Units have different base morale stats (depending on the value of the unit, usually) which can be improved by your army’s general and bonuses. The unit’s flag icon will flash when they are beginning to waver and that is your warning to get them out or bring your general around to motivate them. A broken unit routs, and unlike the preceding games (and Rome II‘s successor) they don’t ever seem to man up and come back to battle from time to time. Arrows down the flank or several tons of horse in the rear (via a charge) is the most efficient way to break a unit’s morale quickly and ensure they are out of play. Morale breaking is a domino effect, one unit routing will lower the morale of the other units around it or simply break it if it was low enough to begin with. Killing the right unit like say, a general, can end the battle then and there if the conditions are right.
Apart from general battle strategy, generals and certain special units have arcade-like “abilities” that either boost morale, speed, damage, etc. for a short time. This is really up to the player. Previous Total War games did not have these aside from the general having the ability to rally the troops around him, and I feel they cheapen the gameplay on the whole and take away from the tactics. But you are allowed to like them, I won’t be mad. That aside, there are toggles for switching ammunition types, unit formations, and group composition which all come very much in handy.
Naval battles in Rome II are peculiar, revolving mostly around ramming other ships and boarding to overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. As you upgrade your tech you can unlock ships with siege weaponry, such as catapults and ballistae, which completely change how you do battle on the high seas. I have stopped naval sieges where I am outnumbered three to one by simply setting up a small four ship wall of basic assault ships with two catapults behind it and sent the opposing navy sinking to the bottom of the sea. It was fun. I have also been bored to death by the AI’s lack of tactics when it attempts to board all of your ships from the get go.
You cannot build random one-off armies anymore as you require a general to lead every single army you raise. This was implemented to reduce the small skirmishes and to streamline battles into big clashes which, in theory, should matter more. You are also limited in your number of generals on the field, as well as fleets, which is dictated by your imperium. As it goes up, so too does the number of armies, fleets, agents, and edicts you can deploy. The idea is sound, but unit recruitment is based solely on the buildings you have in place and the previous Total War method of “area of recruitment,” where units had a finite availability depending on the region and city, is no longer there. Essentially, you can lose an important battle and recoup your losses in two turns of spammed recruitment, nullifying what the developers were going for in the first place. Expanding your empire increases your imperium, but most factions start with a three army, and two fleet, limit. This was implemented to not only limit how far you can spread your influence around early game, but also forces you to pick and choose your military campaigns and diplomatic behavior according to where your forces are strongest.
eXperience: So how far would I go for Rome II? Apparently somewhere around 95 hours and some offline change. Rome II has its flaws, and its successor, Total War: Atilla actually manages to fix many of them, effectively rendering this game obsolete for some today. Despite that, there simply is no replacing the epic setting of Classical Antiquity with its gleaming hoplites and sturdy legionaries, ambushes in the forests of Gaul, and the inevitable out-of-control elephant who decides to throw a wrench in your plans and run over your own troops rather than the enemy’s. Above all else, Rome II is a huge game and all of the Total War entries are worth a try for any strategy enthusiast. I couldn’t cover each and every facet of the game even if I wanted to, for I am limited both by how long and boring this review would be and the fact that I would always forget something.
The soundtrack is fine, soothing on the campaign map and horn heavy in the battles. The music is actually barely noticeable yet you find yourself humming along after too many turns, underlining its simple efficiency but also its lack of variety. The graphics can end up seeming quite brown or ugly on lower end PCs, though this is less of a problem if your specs are up to the recommended options.
The campaign map is extremely pretty and well done and, though the cities are obviously not to scale, the weather effects and geography are on point. The sound effects in battles are as meaty as they should be. Armor clangs, feet stomp, swords clash, and your neighbor screams a bloody girly scream as you finally take back what’s yours and start on your path to glory. Sit back, relax, and go into Cinematic Cam mode as your cavalry charges the rear flank of some unlucky band of slingers thinking they can just throw rocks all day without consequences.
Oh, and if there’s something you dislike? Just mod it right out or mod it better! The majority of my playtime with Rome II has been using mods, for that is the beauty of the Total War franchise, host to one of the most active and largest modding communities out there. There are a multitude of complete overhauls to fix all of the things I just complained about, or you can pick and choose smaller modules that affect your game in the small subtle ways you need it to. From bigger unit sizes, more turns per year, better character skills and perks, to enhanced AI and about a million different custom units with retextures, finding the right mod is a matter of perusing the Steam Workshop, ModDB, or the classic TWCenter forums. The only downside to Rome II modding is that changes to the campaign map seem to be hardcoded, making complete overhauls seemingly impossible for the moment.
TL;DR: Total War: Rome II is an intense and fun real-time tactical combat game wrapped in an overall decent strategy package. Creative Assembly continually strives to add depth to the campaign and empire building aspects of their series, and though not every change and feature in TW: R2 rings as true in practice as it does in theory, the game is definitely in a state that is not only playable, but worthy of the Total War name. You will not find deep economic or diplomatic gameplay here, but the city management and grand military strategy are enough to keep you going that extra turn. Not to mention that next turn, you’re going to be laying siege to that big walled city with thousands of men on either side, where the game allows you, in true Total War form, to plan out your favorite military tactics and watch it unfold on an epic scale. With solid animations, off-the-charts unit variety, great design, and sweet historical quotes on the loading screen, this game does many things right. Unfortunately, all flash and no substance makes Caesar a dull boy. Save this one for those lazy weekends!
You might like this game if:
- You enjoy real-time combat with a deep morale system and huge unit variety that also looks cool.
- You enjoy 4X strategy games with light empire management
- You enjoy the historical period the game is set in.
- You are a Total War vet, or are looking to get into it with an approachable title.
You might NOT like this game if:
- Fluff features irritate you to no end.
- You absolutely need proper diplomacy and economy, or deep empire management in general.
- You don’t care about combat, or are uninterested in real-time combat.
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Elie “WG” has played over 103 hours of Total War: Rome II on a PC with an Intel quad core @ 2.4 Ghz CPU, 8 GB RAM, and 2 Nvidia 750GTM’s , running Windows 8.1