Creative Assembly has provided the gaming community with yet another gem. Each of the Total War titles has improved upon its predecessor while continuing to challenge the conventions of the strategy genre. In a world littered with mediocre to downright bad strategy games, the Total War series has always distinguished itself as a Titan amongst the mortals. Rome: Total War takes yet another positive, exponential leap in conceptual design and game play that will have its competitors sucking on their thumbs and mewling for their mommies.
For those unfortunate souls who have never played a Total War game, it is an expert blend of a grand, turn based empire-building game with a real-time tactical strategy game.
All of the play modes are here: single player campaign, multiplayer battles. Also included is a prologue campaign. This is a short campaign that acts as an extended tutorial, and it is a brilliant addition by the developer. Appealing not only to veterans of Total War who need to familiarize themselves with the new dynamic of Rome, the prologue also helps those unfamiliar with the series get comfortable with the game. Newcomers to the Total War series who picked up the original Medieval for the first time had a common reaction when I talked to them: “Holy crap. I don’t know where to start.” With the addition of a fairly significant prologue campaign, Rome makes that transition to the big Imperial Campaign map a bit gentler.
The Imperial Campaign begins in 272 B.C.E. You must choose from one of three Roman factions: the Julii, Brutii and Scipii. Additional factions are unlocked for play once you defeat them. Some of the other playable factions include the Gauls, Germans and Carthaginians. Each Roman House is located in a different geographical area of the Italian peninsula. Thus, each house is tasked with different types of missions. The Julii must deal with the Gauls, Britons and Spaniards. The Scipii will spend a lot of time in Africa battling the Egyptians, Carthaginians and Numidians while the Brutii are presented with the challenge of taking on the Greek Cities, Macedonians and Thracians.
Your goal as the head of a Roman house is to expand the light of Rome across the uncivilized world. Another nice addition to Rome is the use of specific senate missions. The senate and Rome itself is an AI-controlled faction that will issue the player periodic missions. In return for completing the missions as specified, your faction will receive one of a number of different rewards from cash to new units. More importantly, your standing with the senate and the people of Rome will increase. Once your popularity with the people increases to a high point, the campaign shifts into another gear.
Once popular support is gained, it is time to march on Rome. The goal of the long version of the campaign is to control 50 provinces and Rome, thus making yourself Imperator or Rome, but be warned: this is not an easy step to take. Keeping your conquered towns happy and your economy solvent is much more challenging in Rome: Total War. When it’s time to move on Rome, you do not want to do it in half measures or let your outlying provinces disintegrate into chaos. Nor will the other two houses stand idly by and watch your grab for power. Your faction will immediately become enemy number one of the ancient world, and you’ll be forced to desperately withstand the attacks and subterfuge of your enemies in order to emerge victorious.
Gone is the online game board of Medieval: Total War. Rome’s 3D campaign map does not bother so much with borders and provinces. The land determines the player’s area of control. The new 3D campaign map contains beautifully realized mountains, impassable forests and rivers that delineate the factions from one another. In order to succeed, you will need to use the terrain to your advantage.
With an eye to further integrating the turn based world map with the real time battles, Creative Assembly made some changes designed to bring the campaign map to life. Caravans and trader fleets will move about the map and the occasional volcano will even erupt. When battle is joined, the camera zooms in and loads the map for the specific area in which your armies are placed. If you’re engaging on the campaign map between the mountains and the sea, that’s where you’ll find yourself on the real-time battle map. Though it’s no longer possible to determine the order in which your reinforcements appear during a battle, the placement of those additional armies will correspond to their place on the campaign map as well.
Gone are the dull, repetitive and homogeneous city sieges. If there was a common complaint about Medieval, it was the sieges. Rome: Total War makes siege warfare fun again. Siege equipment can be built by an army on the spot. Though the big stuff still needs to be built in your towns, this means that you’ll never have to sit your army outside an enemy town while you struggle to inch some siege engines to the location.
On the battle map, the sieges are much more compelling. Shorter time limits for all of the battles force you to move with a bit more speed, and the 3D terrain and units now make for some beautiful and exciting encounters in towns of various sizes. Cities can be won by annihilating all opposition or by taking and holding the town center for three minutes.
Gone are the game board pieces. Your armies are represented by soldier icons with a traditional turn based strategy convention: a movement meter. Gone are the ubiquitous princesses. Marriage for members of your family is handled by the AI now. Which fact, brings up another important change in focus where Rome is concerned.
The family comes first. Rome: Total War focuses on the family. You can now choose your faction heir. Within a limited RPG-type system, your family members will accrue different traits, both positive and negative. One impressive example took place while I was playing as the Gaulish faction. During a skirmish with the Spanish, I got my general into a bad spot, so I ran what remained of his cavalry unit to safety. At the end of my turn, my general received a new trait of 'Doubtful Courage’ because he had a tendency to run from the enemy. There is no shortage of details to consider in Rome.
If you’re new to the genre, don’t fear, the game allows the player to assign just about everything to the AI. If you don’t care to manage the economy of every one of your towns, you can choose to have them auto-managed. All battles can be automatically resolved if you so choose.
The only thing that keeps Rome: Total War from being perfect are a few nitpicky bugs and complaints. Sieges, while much more compelling are a practice in unit micro-management. It is not safe to try to move large groups of units around together. For some reason, they will occasionally turn around and run out of the town after you’ve told them to move forward. In order to avoid unnecessary casualties, it would be prudent to move units about in smaller groups. This is frustrating but small and easily overcome. While navies now play a more significant role: blockading ports and acting as transports for your armies, sea battles remain less than intriguing. They are still automatically resolved, and the statistics from the battles are not accurate, but these are minor issues.
Rome: Total War is quite simply the best strategy game now available. A new standard has been set for the genre and the industry as a whole. No other game so expertly combines a cerebral challenge with visceral thrills.