In true Roman fashion, let’s get straight to the point. Total War: Rome II is the best in the series yet and a serious contender for Game of the Year. It brilliantly balances the needs of both veteran fans and newcomers by improving the familiar format, adding a pinch of innovation and crucially streamlining and simplifying a number of features without dumbing down the series’ depth.
The main elements of the game remain largely unchanged. Selecting a faction from the Ancient Era such as Rome, Carthage or Athens, you will wage war, research technologies and develop your empire to become the dominant power. In addition to foreign foes, you must contend with domestic rival families seeking control of your faction through political intrigue, backstabbing and double dealing. All of this is played out in two arenas; a turn-based world map where you manage your empire’s taxes, cities and agents, and RTS battles where you issue orders to your military units when armies collide.
The campaign map has been invigorated to make it less of a “waiting room” for the big battles and more of an integral part of victory (be it military or newly-anointed economic or cultural). Hitting Tab brings up the tactical view which provides a clear overview of the world as you know it (fog of war applies) including the owner, output and happiness of each region. Regions are the de facto grouping for cities and villages which makes issuing regional orders (such as tax levels and edicts) a simple matter. Individual cities and towns still produce buildings separately but the regional view for each lets you compare what’s being done where. This is particularly useful when building temples across a region to quell unrest, for example, while focussing on different types to boost naval production or commerce according to a city’s specialisation. If you’re ever in doubt about how things work, a right-click of almost any feature brings up a thorough but concise web encyclopedia. This is bolstered by introductory scenarios which explain the basics of troop movement in battles. Some standard commands have changed - such as generals levying troops from available regional buildings, rather than cities churning them out from the same - but generally for the better, so veterans need not worry about a drastic overhaul to the campaign interface.
It’s on the campaign map that you’ll utilise your agents - general, spies, dignitaries and the like. Again this familiar aspect of Total War continues recent innovations (such as Shogun II's trait and ability cards) while adding a few of its own. Generals and admirals have had massive boosts to their functions, including the “pooling” of followers for quick exchanges between them. A general leading a siege, for example, will want a follower to boost their engineering skill but then - after a quick swap from the pool - an executioner to lop the head off anyone who’s forgotten how happy they are to have been liberated. Before this point generals and their armies can be allocated “stances” to prepare for a battle, although these all carry risks; force marching an army to rush back to an important area runs the risk of encountering an enemy army, unprepared, with your baggage train exposed on the battlefield. Furthermore, armies have become agents in their own right, taking on names, insignia and traits as they win battles. This allows you to give them certain abilities (provided they’re successful) such as additional damage from skirmishing troops or deploying defensive structures before battles, including spike pits and flaming hay bales to roll down hills. Should an army be obliterated, you can reinstate their legacy by raising another general later on in the game. This will confer the same benefits on his army to reflect the legacy they have adopted from their ancestors.
Changes have also been made to the agents themselves. Champions make their first appearance, grizzled war veterans who accompany armies to boost their morale and experience. Dignitaries and spies are scurrilous as ever but enjoy some overlap of skills, so you’re not left wanting for an assassin on the other side of the world at just the wrong time. While spies can assassinate with poisons and daggers, dignitaries weave words to devastating effect, convincing a trusted friend of the target to bump them off.
For those of a softer disposition, diplomacy receives a much needed overhaul. A diplomatic window presents factions on both a world map and named list; hardly ground breaking stuff but with a greater degree of clarity here than in many competitor franchises, allowing you to easily view alliances, trading partners and potential usurpers. Best of all, factors affecting the likelihood of a successful deal are transparently illustrated when you’re negotiating, including your historical reputation and the current geopolitical situation. This cuts across a problem in diplomacy plaguing many strategy games (such as Civilization) where rivals reach myopic decisions based on hidden criteria. Rome II’s diplomatic engine is a marked improvement in a long history of troubled games design.
Internal politics will also be considered by the astute player. The aforementioned scheming between political families (one of which you represent) allows you to promote, intermarry or assassinate members from each as you please. For example, you’ll need generals to lead your armies, but will you pick someone from your own family or from a rival’s? The answer might seem obvious but always favouring your own will shift the balance of power in your favour and potentially trigger a civil war. But maybe that was your plan all along… how can you ever get anything done through a meddling Senate? Occasional dilemmas pop up to involve you a bit more in this side of things but they’re optional. I had the choice to intervene in a family member’s squabble with a senator by punishing her impudence, rounding on the Senate in her defence, or doing nothing. So there are opportunities to goad or befriend the Senate depending on your preference or you can leave well alone if you don’t care either way.
Technological research, which has never been awful in Total War, has had similar treatment; there’s a simple distinction between military and civic technologies with none of the complexity of, say, Civilization. This allows a greater focus on the intricacies of the campaign map, and the battles themselves, but may undermine the new victory conditions (economic and cultural) for anyone interested in branching out beyond warfare.
But enough about strategy - it’s called Total War and not Total Hugs and Sharing for a reason. Battles are superb. The enemy AI is, as ever, intelligent and adaptive, and will often surprise you with its tenacity and insight. There are occasional glitches, particularly with naval boarding and embarkation, but Creative Assembly have promised regular and frequent patches to remedy such teething issues. The number of unit types on offer is truly staggering (developer estimates put the number at around seven hundred) and reflects the huge number of separate factions in the game. Better yet, land and naval battles are now integrated onto one map. You can reinforce ground forces with embarking troops or use the fleet to draw off defenders from a city centre, only for your other army to swoop in and attack them from the rear. It’s a big advance to the tactical side of battles and presents more than just fancy eye-candy, although it’s worth mentioning that the vistas on offer are breathtaking.
Graphically this game is superb. Individual soldiers all seem to have their own expressions, personalities and animations (they fidget restlessly when not engaged). They’ll curse their enemies or banter when waiting. I had to take a moment when “You stink of lobster!” sallied forth from some scurvy dog boarding an enemy quinquereme. It’s perhaps a truism that successive generations of games will improve graphically, but Rome II really deserves special praise. The era is picked out with vivacious colour schemes and intricate renderings of harbours, colosseums and temples. It’s perhaps formulaic now for Medieval games to be all browns and greys, and the Ancient era to pop out in reds, blues and purples, but it does make Rome II feel more “alive”.
Battles have an astounding level of detail too. Like the campaign map, hitting Tab takes you to an overhead tactical view (much like Supreme Commander's strategic view) where you can see unit positions, lines-of-sight and the terrain. At the other extreme, it’s possible to zoom right into the detail of a soldier’s weathered cuirass, dented helm and steely expression. A new “cinematic” button transforms the camera-lock on any unit into a close-up, visceral trailer of the melee taking place. Coupled with a new half-speed option on the battle timer, the result is a “click here for awesomeness” feature. Remember that bit in Gladiator, with the mock-Carthaginian cavalry getting cut down in slow-motion? That. That x100. Of course, you’d better have the hardware to back-up the highest framerates… the current Ultra specs leave even an overclocked i5 CPU and HD 7950 graphics card chugging. Creative Assembly have promised support for mid- and lower-spec machines but it’s worth checking the minimum specs before buying all the same.
Battle mechanics don’t stray too far from the accepted format. Capture points (also seen in Shogun II's multiplayer) steer the course of the battle by focussing attention on strategic areas such as hills or town centres, but they don’t make an appearance in every battle. Instead they’re used sparingly to reflect when an area could be legitimately conquered through control of a point, such as hilltop fortifications, without the need for total destruction of an incumbent army. It’s a bold move as it dictates the course and tempo of a battle but mitigates turtling which makes things easy for a well armed, defensive and recalcitrant army. Other features provide new and innovative variations to the tried-and-tested battle mechanics. Line of sight now applies to all troops and makes scouting forests and cities particularly important. A formation button lets you test out different, err, formations for your troops which have all been well researched (my undergraduate degree in Classics came in handy here - finally). It might not sway experts who know exactly what they want and where, but for most of us it’s a great tool for experimenting and better understanding the rock-paper-scissors combinations working furiously behind the scenes.
Finally, multiplayer makes a welcome return. In opposition to many other PC strategy titles, Total War has not built its legacy on multiplayer gaming. But this is not to say it’s lacking in any way in Rome II. A huge range of factions is available to play (although some are only available as DLC - the times, they are a-changing) and many familiar and notorious scenarios can be played out, such as the Teutoburg Forest massacre. Anyone familiar with previous incarnations will know what to expect and everyone else can simply picture the battle part of the game, although multiplayer campaigns are also possible for those with the requisite patience and free time!
All in all, the features unique to Rome II mark a fundamental shift and improvement to the series as a whole. Although founded on the formidable Total War canon it’s worth remembering its success is far from a foregone conclusion. Since its predecessor took the world by storm and reinvigorated the PC strategy market, a host of young Turks such as Europa Universalis IV have taken the stage. F2P games have emerged and business models have changed; the diminishing distinction between PC and consoles has also blurred the lines of gamer allegiances. Rome II is a testament to all that is great about PC gaming and should be a must buy for all its followers.