Summary: It's here.
Throughout all this time however, since the release of Shogun, Creative Assembly has been working on Rome: Total War. Imagine that – over four and a half years ago, the developers envisioned a fully 3D game that would support tens of thousands of individual units at the same time. During development they’ve also taken time to avoid the problems that popped up in the first two games, and flesh out weak points like diplomacy.
Both the real-time tactical and turn-based strategic aspects of Rome are good enough to stand on their own as decent, if not great, games. Put them together however, and the end sum has to be one of the best strategy games ever.
Rome: Total War obviously focuses around the city of Rome and its deeds in the Mediterranean basin. The game starts in 270BC, shortly after the last Samnite War and the Pyrrhic War, when Rome seized control of southern Italy and a corner of Sicily, and ends at – don’t quote me on this – 6AD, with the historical ascension of Caesar Augustus. Each year is divided into two turns, meaning there are about 550 turns total.
The player is initially forced to play a Prologue campaign that covers the establishment of the Julii holdings in Etruria and the repulsion of the last Gallic invasion of Rome. With the prologue completed, the Imperial Campaign can begin. There are three factions available at first, the aforementioned Julii, the Brutii and the Scipii.
Since, initially, the Roman factions are unable to attack each other, each tends to focus its expansion efforts in the natural direction. The Julii face the Gauls to the North, the Scipii have Sicily to unite, then look across the sea to take on the surprisingly weak Carthaginians. The Brutii have the unenviable task of fighting the Greeks and Macedonians. Having started all three campaigns and finished the game with the Brutii, let me suggest that new players stay away from the old greentags. They fight too many powerful civilizations, like the Greeks, Macedonians, Seleucids and Egyptians.
Otherwise, the differences between the three factions are nominal. Each gets a unique gladiator unit and different deities, and the Scipii get a more powerful ship, but in the important matters, the Romans are identical.
While 50 provinces may not sound like a lot compared to the totals acquired in Medieval, it is an epic achievement in Rome. AI civilizations are tougher, more aggressive and better managers than in previous games. While the AI does make some glaring mistakes at times, it is very smart about picking its battles, ganging up on weak neighbors and in general being far more of a nuisance than it was in the earlier titles. It took me the better part of a week, with many red-eye nights, to achieve a full campaign victory.
The alternate civilizations – Britons, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Parthians, and Seleucids, are unlocked in one of two ways. Should the player win the grand campaign, all civilizations are unlocked. Also, if he’s not finished it but has personally defeated one of these, it becomes available for a new imperial campaign. Other civilizations, like Macedon, Pontus, Thrace, Scythia, Numidia and Spain are not playable, which is a shame in some cases such as Macedon, who have a nice complement of units.
Typically, the same goals wired into the mini-campaigns are also what the AI tries to achieve. Thus, the Seleucids and Egyptians will almost certainly have a showdown, typically going in favor of the Pharaoh’s men. Similarly, Macedon and the Greek Cities tend to duke it out before the Brutii sweep in and wipe them off the map.
From diplomatic negotiations, it seems as if the AI is also keyed in to try and control certain provinces. The Egyptians always tried to scam Cyprus and Tarsus away during peace negotiations, for example. This lends a great deal of believability, especially since peace negotiations are never easy and, if anything, too often rebuffed by the AI. This does have the effect of making wars grand – often lasting 30, 40 years, not unlike in history. The Egyptians were my particular foe late in the game, being full of resources and churning out armies packed with those damnable chariot archers that prove so difficult to kill despite their defense rating of 1.
The player is encouraged to follow the suggestions of the Senate with rewards like units and money, as well as Senate offices. Senate offices are a great way to boost the stats of the family generals, who are all-important in this game. Cities and armies function best when they have a competent general running them, though we noticed that there are disturbingly many negative traits being assigned to our characters. This is quite unlike our experience at the San Francisco event, where most of the traits were positive. We’re not sure if this is a balance issue or if it’s simply a changed style of play (as the Brutii I spent a lot more time in my cities defending against onslaughts, rather than facing Gauls in the field as the Julii).
Speaking of sitting in cities, sieges are a totally different beast now. Walls have a huge effect on the outcome of a battle. If you or your opponent don’t prepare well enough for the siege, it’s impossible to carry it off. A lone battering ram may be good enough for a wooden palisade or even wall, but once stone comes into play, it’s time to build siege towers (forget ladders, they’re useless) and even bringing your own artillery along to batter the walls. We just wish that there was a way to position scorpions and ballistae on towers to give some return fire, but alas, not all can be perfect.
The detail of the 3D models is amazing. The way they walk, run, charge and fight is conveyed in a remarkably believable fashion, all things considered (ie, that there are often 3,000 of them on at a time). That’s not to say things are perfect, but it’d be criminal nitpicking to point out animation errors with so many units on screen.
However, that’s not to say that all’s perfect with Rome.
There are bugs as well. Once a unit has secured its walls in a siege and is ordered down through the tower, don’t dare issue attack orders or anything of the like until the entire unit is on the ground. Pathing gets totally confused unless the entire unit is coherent. On the strategic map, during the Roman Civil War that develops when one of the factions makes a bid for ultimate power, don’t attempt to establish a protectorate against another faction. While this may seem like an easy win, it didn’t work for us. The Scipii accepted, then the already wiped-out SPQR promptly deemed the Scipii illegal, the Scipii declared war on all other Roman factions (including the defeated SPQR) and yet in the diplomacy screen remained a protectorate of mine despite continued hostilities.
Yet, trying to draw a parallel between Rome and its predecessors is like trying to describe Fallout to someone who only played the old Gold Box SSI RPGs. The core concepts are the same, but the execution, layout, presentation and design are a world apart.
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