Creative Assembly returns with another of their sweeping grand strategy titles. Does the gameplay outweigh the inevitable bugs?
By Mark Ankucic on September 2, 2013 at 10:30 pm
When I saw fire raining down upon one of my cities from ships bearing blue sails, my anger was palpable. Athens, once my closest ally, had utterly broken my sense of trust in them, and in some ways, the game of Rome 2 itself. Not only had I helped serve their military interests, bringing the full weight of my might down on the barbarians who tried to desecrate her lands, we had traded, and we had struck every deal possible to ensure good relations.
Mechanically, I didn’t understand — the numbers showed me exactly why they felt positively about my nation, and we were in the green with each other. Far, far in the green. I wanted to hurt them. I marched my armies to our shared border, my plan simple: raze their city, and if it were to ever regain a populace, to raze it again, and again, till the end of time…or the duration of that campaign, whatever came first.
Then I realised those blue sails belonged to Egypt, and was reminded why playing a game at 2AM is not so great for either your health or sanity.
Writing about Rome 2 is going to force me to use words I normally try to avoid when writing reviews, like meaty, robust, immersion, depth, awesomeness… the problem being that it’s almost impossible to describe what Creative Assembly has done with the latest instalment in their franchise without dropping at least one of them every other sentence.
Whenever a new title of TW is released, it never feels like a step forward, rather, it feels like a universal expansion, and Rome 2 is no exception.
For the noobs
Grand Strategy games are always confronting to those who have limited or no experience with them. Who the hell wants to deal with taxes, unruly peasants and inter-familial politics, anyway?
The answer is: you do, but you might not know it just yet.
Instead of being thrown in front of a full row of pikemen in phalanx formation, CA have introduced a prologue campaign mode to let those of you unfamiliar with the series mechanics get acquainted with the gameplay of Total War… kind of. But more on that later.
You play as Silanus, a Roman commander who progresses through the ranks of both civil and military service as he lays the centurion smack-down on Samnite invaders. In between battles, you are directed on the basic elements of the game – building troops, upgrading units, when and how to use the general’s abilities, how to properly run your cities, and so on.
Surprisingly, I found after the three prologue missions, I was still hungry for more. The combination of strong voice-acting, knowing where and when I should attack and having narrative driven reasons for doing so, and just experiencing an alternate history, was a whole other side of fun never before offered in the series. Sure, you can make your own story every campaign you play, but I wanted to see what became of Silanus – CA, if you’re listening, players are going to love this, and don’t be surprised if they want more by way of DLC or in the next game.
Regarding the how to play… kind of… from earlier, I consider myself having the best parts of both experience and naivete. On one hand, I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into the series, but on the other, I’m still not particularly good, and my most recent progress is solely thanks to my time spent in multiplayer in Shogun 2. Sure, Rome 2 might introduce you to the basics of the game, but the basics simply aren’t enough to truly wrap your head around exactly what you have to do or how to perform even semi-decently once you’re on the battlefield.
Easy mode will only be forgiving for so long, before you find that every decision you’ve made for the past five hours was basically wrong and costs you your empire. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a longer prologue which offered more depth to newer players (and older players that want to know every nook and cranny in the gameplay cupboard) – either way, it was a brilliant implementation that’s inevitably going to reel in a new generation of TW players.
For the veterans
It’s better. So much better. Imagine everything you already loved about the TW series, but more efficient, streamlined, and dare I say it, game-like.
For starters, each region is made up of three or more provinces, and observing the region will bring up all the provinces, showing what infrastructure you’re maintaing as a whole. Combining separate provinces to make up a whole has made game far more accessible and free-flowing. No longer will you have to import units from halfway across the known world – you just recruit them from within a region, and better yet, not directly from a province. Now, you recruit units straight into your armies, or have the option to hire mercenaries in the same way. Sure, it may be forsaking a certain amount of ‘realism’, but it makes for a faster, more aggressive game.
Using troops on the overworld map is also a far more…sigh…robust experience. Campaign movement range is now the furthest reaching it’s ever been, and has a bar to represent how far a force can move and what actions they can take. These actions are called ‘stances’, and vary between defensive stances, like barricading and setting up a defensive position, or raiding in order to gain resources. This addition, more than anything, has brought military strategy to the overworld map. Simply positioning an army in a spot just to show you’re there doesn’t seem to quite live up to the same standards.
And if you felt like perhaps taxes, keeping the populace happy, organising trade, researching technologies and diplomatic relations wasn’t enough, you can now contend with in-house politics. Each nation has factions within them, factions that don’t particularly like or support you, and — just like high-school — they are going to say nasty things behind your back and try to hurt your feelings. By dethroning your sorry arse. With a sword.
An ambitious general here and a rumour about you there may start to crumble your empire from within, and despite being a rather simple gamer myself, I cannot get enough of the intrigue. Every turn I check to see how my faction is doing, trying to maintain at least 51% of the power. I’ve had people assassinated and adopted rivals in order to keep my nation mine, and I’ve never felt more (ugh) immersion in a TW game. The names of my generals and supporters have started to mean something.
This carries over to the alliances you make with the other nations. I was generally sad (and a little bit insane) when I thought Athens had betrayed me, and it was the mix of relations we had shared and the numbers proving our close ties that made it hit close to home. For any players that have experienced Shogun 2, and felt that cruel hammer of betrayal fall (in every other second whilst playing the game), it’s been nice to be able to see numerically how other nations perceive you and their reasons for doing so. It’s no longer a case of ‘we won’t trade with you because…your face’, it’s more like, ‘we won’t trade with you because you enslave people. All the time. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?’
On the battlefield, however, your only reliable friends are your tactical and strategic wits, and you’re going to need them…on the harder difficulties.
There have been several upgrades to the RTS side of TW, and all of them make for (once again) a faster, more brutal experience. Nearly every unit has a range of special abilities or formations, but unfortunately this has gone unaccompanied by a mechanic that allows these to be micromanaged in a quick or efficient fashion. Unless you’re a top-notch player, this isn’t going to matter to you much, and if you are, then you’re going to learn how to deal with it anyway.
Probably the most noticeable change in this area is how the line of sight works. Instead of units simply disappearing like they’ve glitched out of existence, enemy units out of sight will fade in and fade out like ghostly apparitions, and your units the enemy can’t see will have an eye floating above them. Not entirely subtle, but a vast improvement from having to constantly check the unit cards on the bottom of the screen.
Your general is also no longer a simple decorative piece (yes, I know level ten generals were a force in and of themselves in Shogun 2, but from about level five and below, they were pretty useless) and has a few special abilities that can be used in fairly consistently, as cool-down periods have been greatly reduced. Against the PC set on legendary, you are going to need to be able to use them well, because you can bet your arse that it’ll be using everything it can against you.
Rome 2 is gorgeous in every sense of the word. Watching as your cities expand on the overworld map gives a true sense of growth and change, the environments are uncannily realistic, and viewing the battle from the cinematic camera button will plunge you into the thick of war. The crunch of sandals on grass before the charge is, in every sense of the word, epic. Every movie you’ve seen in the past five or more years with some shabby excuse for a battle scene will instantly seem like a five year old mindlessly mashing their toys together after you get a taste of Rome 2. When cavalry charge into an unfortunate unit not wielding pikes or spears, they go through that unit. They don’t just run into it, they ride like they have a god-given mission to ensure that those men die as quickly and as brutally as possible. It’s amazing to watch.
On the downside, and I can’t say for certain whether it’s because it’s a review build or my PC (it better not be my PC, I only upgraded it a few months ago), but the game has been crashing on me fairly often into my late campaign and when I try to view some replays. The replays are a bit of a problem as well, as what plays out never actually resembles what happened, and again, that’s not even half as stupid as some of the stuff the AI tends to do. Units will just wander off, or simply not join in with the rest of the army.
In one battle, a unit just ran to the border of the battlefield, waited there till I got close, ran at me, stopped and then ran back to the edge. They weren’t morally broken, and more it was creepy more than anything else. I hope it goes away.
Rome 2 is an amazing game, and easily the best Total War to date, mechanically, aesthetically, in playability and in general awesomeness. Gamers are going to lose a good portion of their lives playing it, and there isn’t single soul on earth that could blame them. There’s the usual assortment of glitches that still need clearing up, but chances are this is still going to eat up every second of my gaming time over the coming months.
- Addition of prologue/tutorial
- Cinematic approach to battles
- Streamlining of overworld gameplay
- Absolutely stunning on every level
- Loads of different units to experiment with
- Occasional crashing
- AI derps every now and then
- Learning curve still very steep
Rome 2 is available on Steam for $80, but why pay that much when you could buy it for $47.99 from Green Man Gaming?
This review copy supplied by the publisher.