Review: Total War: Rome II – Alea Iacta Est

on October 14, 2013 3:21 PM

Rome: Total War has always been one of the most beloved chapters of the Total War franchise, so it’s not very surprising that many, me included, were looking forward to its sequel with great anticipation. For quite a few of us that anticipation turned into unadulterated rage as The Creative Assembly completely botched the launch of the game.

Yes, let’s not hide behind a finger here: the launch of Rome II was quite close to an unmitigated disaster. Like many others I couldn’t even play the game until the first patch, and after that I was plagued by performance issues so severe that the game was almost unplayable for another week. That’s one of the reasons why this review comes so late after the title’s release last month.

The other reason is that Total War games come packed with an enormous longevity. Campaigns can easily last weeks, and the wealth of factions and dynamic situations ensure a very high degree of replayability. That’s why passing rushed judgement over launch issues would paint a fleeting picture of the game that would simply turn into an inaccurate testament to haste in a few weeks.

So I waited, and now that the fourth patch has been downloaded and installed, I finally prepare to cross the Rubicon. Alea iacta est: the dice has been cast.

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Total War games got us used to beautiful visuals, and Rome II is no exception. Both the campaign map and the battles fought on the tactical level on the battlefield look spectacular. Of course we can’t expect every single soldier to be rendered with the same level of fidelity we’ll find in a first person shooter or in a bleeding edge RPG, considering that there are thousands displayed at the same time, but The Creative Assembly still did a wonderful job in detailing them, and in adding a significant level of variation between different combatants of the same unit.

One of my biggest pet peeves with Shogun II was the lack of visual variation within each unit, but this time around when you zoom all the way in you won’t get any “Army of Clones”  effect, which is a pleasing and refreshing departure from basically every strategy game out there.

Naval units are also very impressive to look at. Initially I was a bit miffed by the lack of visible rowers, but considering that the game isn’t exactly gentle on your video card already, it’s an understandable choice. Rowers aside, every ship is rendered in painstaking detail and does justice to the fact that in ancient times they really made beautiful ones.

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Naval battles in general are even more impressive to look at than ground ones, and that’s a tall compliment considering that ground battles look outstanding already.

Animations also received a significant boost since the previous chapters of the series, with beautiful motion captured duels that take place in the midst of the fray, looking very natural and brutal. The only problems come with a few clipping issues that cause soldiers to occupy the same space a bit too often, and the routing animation.

I will be honest: while it’s definitely not the only flaw of the game, the routing animation is the single silliest thing I’ve seen during my career as a Roman general. When you break the morale of your enemies, they’ll turn around and start jogging leisurely towards the edge of the map while gazing down pitifully at the ground. Of course they all play the same animation at the same time, looking clumsy and absolutely weird. I’m not sure who thought that animation was a good idea, but it really isn’t.

Besides that, the visuals of the game are ultimately really fetching, and are topped by an audio compartment that is just as good, with atmospheric music tracks and great sound effects, including officers shouting orders and soldiers generally behaving as individuals. Unless they’re routing of course, but no more twisting the knife in that wound…

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The core gameplay is similar to what we experienced in basically every Total War game since the first Shogun, with armies moving on the campaign map in alternating turns, while things switch to real time as those armies meet in the field of battle.

This time around, though, there have been some pretty significant changes in the campaign gameplay. Some of them are definitely good, some… not so good.

One of the biggest problems is the removal of seasons. Each turn is now a full year, and not only that removes some strategic depth from the game (there are no more winter months causing attrition to your soldiers for instance), but it also means that each army will now march in a turn as much as it would in a full year, and that’s a whole lot of space covered. The result is that armies that were leisurely sitting on one side of Europe in one turn, will suddenly bolt to the other side in the next. This completely eliminates any kind of finesse in outmaneuvering your opponents, and makes taking them by surprise (or being taken by surprise in return) way too easy.

This is further worsened by the (otherwise positive) fact that now armies have different stances, and that the forced march stance lets them cover even bigger distances in a single turn. While theoretically troops engaged in a forced march cannot attack in the same turn as they move, they can still reinforce another army. That transforms gathering large amounts of troops for an assault on an heavily defended position, or to defend a garrison in trouble, into an overly elementary operation.

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Another nasty side effect of the year-long turns is that your generals will die way too fast. After a while I simply stopped caring after them, because all the effort gone into making them grow is simply lost after a few turns. If you asked me to tell you the name of even one of my surviving generals in my current campaign, I’d have to tell you that I can’t remember. They’re so inconsequential that they’re simply not worth remembering.

Agents have also become absolutely ineffective on their own. While in Shogun II they were ridiculously overpowered, bribing entire armies to switch sides or completely paralyzing them for a turn, this time around you’re better off simply keeping them bound to your troops in order to get some beneficial effects and counter the occasional enemy action (that will be laughably weak anyway), because basically every available skill is way too weak to be worth its cost.  As a matter of fact you could very well not recruit any agent at all, and you’d still be perfectly fine. Like your generals, they die too fast anyway.

The worst flaw of the game, though, is the same flaw that the Total War series carries on its back since its inception: apparently the good folks at The Creative Assembly aren’t able to create artificial intelligence routines that are even remotely challenging.

If you want to ever be put in the condition to have a slightly hard time, you better be ready to ramp that difficulty up, and in that case it isn’t because the AI is particularly smart, but just because it’s given unfair numerical advantages. The game’s version of “normal” difficulty is more like “easy as cake.” As a matter of fact my Latin is pretty good, but I didn’t know that “Normal” meant “Walk in the park” or “Stealing candy from a kid” in the language of ancient Rome, because that’s exactly how the game feels.

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On the campaign map the AI is absolutely oblivious of its surroundings: it’ll often charge in and abandon its settlements completely undefended, leaving you (or other AI factions) to waltz in pretty much undisturbed. Of course there’s often no need to wage war on your opponents at all, because they seem completely incapable to handle public order, so most of the times they’ll get a rebellion, lose one settlement after the other, and let you take advantage of the situation by defeating the rebels instead. As a matter of fact, rebels are “smarter” because they don’t leave their cities pretty much undefended.

Things get even worse on the battlefield map, where you’ll see your AI opponents do some massive tactical mistakes even in extremely advantageous situations. In a particularly big battle I was pincered by two enemy armies (to be more precise, I put myself in that situation due to a mistake, because the AI isn’t smart enough to intentionally pincer attack you). I had one army at the front and one coming in at my back. The army behind me, instead of charging my unprotected artillery, happily tried to walk around my army to join the other. Needless to say, they were slaughtered.

The AI is so stupid that it’s not even able to properly take advantages of an ambush where its troops are placed surrounding yours and you don’t even have a chance to deploy properly. When you walk out of that kind of situation losing 74 men and killing 2500, you know that there’s something seriously wrong with the game.

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To top that, your artificially stupid opponents seem to be completely allergic to artillery, meaning that they almost won’t recruit any. The result of that is that they’ll have to happily walk towards your army as you leisurely rain fire upon their heads. Guess how a battle ends in which one side has heavy catapults, giant ballistas and similar implements while the other doesn’t? When melee is engaged, the side without artillery will be decimated and have only half of its men left.

Diplomacy is also direly lacking in options, with unacceptable oversights like the inability to even ask two client states of yours to stop waging war against each other (let alone force them to, which is something a patron state should be entitled to do). As a matter of fact you can demand your client states to attack basically everything, but you cannot ask them to stop.  I better not define what I think of that choice, because I don’t want to be offensive.

This basically cripples a large part of the diplomatic system, with client states that will be too busy killing each other (or someone else, including your own allies) to generate any stable income for their patrons.

Of course when you occasionally get a good one, and someone happens to conquer one of its territories, you won’t be able to get it back for them, as there’s no way to gift a settlement to your client, regardless of the fact that it could have been theirs to begin with.

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Luckily not nearly everything in Rome 2 is as disastrously bad as its AI and diplomacy. As a matter of fact there are quite a few positive changes from the previous titles of the series.

Normally streamlining and simplifying has some very negative effects on strategy titles (and the one year long turns are a perfect example of that), but in this case it also brought some good things. Now you won’t need to walk freshly recruited troops to your armies anymore, as you can recruit them directly on site, which is a rather huge quality of life improvement.

Speaking of armies, the military traditions progression they’ve been given turns them into the real protagonists of the game. Now that your generals will die like flies every turn, armies will keep their progression and the flavor you give them as they level up, while units will acquire more and more experience.

Add to that the fact that you can choose their emblem and name, and you’ll end up actually caring for your armies, making sure that they always have the best equipment (which you can now dynamically upgrade when they move into a region that has the necessary facilities) and that they aren’t put in the condition of being sacrificed. The ability to realistically recruit auxiliary troops from other cultures also helps here, as you can create legions with a truly unique “personality.”

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I ended up building my legions around solid cores of legionaries, but giving each a strong cultural identity. My African legions have Egyptian archers and elephants, my Greek legions have hoplites and peltas, and so forth. It’s simply a lot of fun (and also historically accurate) to give your armies a story and imagery rooted in the area where you recruit them, adding a further level of depth to the game.

The title also handles cities and settlements a lot better than previous Total War games did. At long last gone are the nasty castles from Shogun, and now most cities don’t have walls, meaning that you’ll have a lot more field battles than actual sieges, and field battles are simply a lot more fun, allowing more tactical variety.

City progression is also more interesting and deep, with different cultural buildings making a comeback, and giving a lot of room for customization and specialization. This is topped by the simply beautiful province system, that lets each city in the same region contribute to the overall bonuses you get from it. Owning all the settlements in the same province becomes an important tactical advantage and a good driving factor for wars and skirmishes, driving campaigns forward at a better pace.

The battles themselves are fun to fight, if you don’t expect to be really challenged, and the variety of tactical situations and maps means that it’ll take a long time to finally get bored. In Shogun II I ended up spending most of my time during the second half of a campaign auto-resolving encounters. I still didn’t feel the need to do that even once in Rome II, and that’s a big testament to the fact that The Creative Assembly did something right there.

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Even more variety is provided by the ability to mix naval encounters and land battles, with coastal maps that will let you land your troops on the beach or use your ships as artillery support. Not only is that kind of battle quite spectacular to watch, but they’re also very engaging to fight, replacing the lacking challenge with the necessity of keep a lot of elements under control.

Gone is also the unbalanced, cheap and simply nasty “Realm Divide” mechanic that The Creative Assembly used in Shogun II in order to artificially ramp difficulty up in the second half of a campaign. It’s now replaced by a much more interesting and balanced civil war that will see your own compatriots trying put you down if you get too powerful. I won’t spoil how it works, because it’s more fun if it comes as a surprise, but I’ll just tell you that it’s quite fun, and one of the few much needed elements of challenge for the game, especially if you’re unprepared. 

Ultimately variety, size, and scope are the biggest positive factors in Rome II. Shogun II was seriously lacking in all those elements, as basically every faction had the same troops, the map was small, and the whole game lacked the depth a great strategy title needs.

On the other hand Rome II has a mind boggling number of different units, factions are strongly characterized with different cultural flavors, and the map is big and expansive, creating a gameplay experience that feels more fulfilling and simply more like Total War. 

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Unfortunately the game launched with some serious flaws, and quite a few survive to this day, with little hope for those that are more rooted in the core gameplay to be addressed via patches, and the score you can see just below reflects that. Hopefully the valiant modding community will take care of those in time.

That said, despite that score Total War: Rome II still has what it takes to be a very enjoyable game, coming packed with that enormous longevity which is one of the trademarks of the series, actually improving it at the very least on the latest three titles, and that’s no marginal thing to improve on.

If seeing me wholeheartedly recommend a seven dot five game surprises you, please be surprised, because despite all its flaws Total War: Rome II is still a game that no strategy and history enthusiast should miss. It’s rough around the edges, but the overall experience is worth braving the rough spots.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.