Total War: Rome II (PC) Review
Total War: Rome 2 or II as we are all about the Latin in this review (Hardware cælo est optima!). Is, as the name suggest the second incarnation of the Roman flavoured offering from the Total War series. As with all the other games in the series, Rome II was developed by The Creative Assembly and is published by Sega. This is the 8th title in the series which started with Shogun: Total War in 2000 and gave us the first Rome: Total War in 2004 with a jaunt to the middle age in between… as well as a change to Total War being the prefix rather than suffix. To mark this momentous release we built a whole new gaming rig to play test the Steam review download that Sega kindly gave us access to. It is not at all put together from bits lying around from the hardware reviews cause I totally fried the old gaming rig about two days before the review launch! Nope, no sir, that didn’t happen. You just got to watch out for the donkey p0rn and always, always use a proxy tunnel.
Anyway, if you’re wondering what you need to do justice to Rome II the minimum requirements are a 2.0GHz Dual Core or 2.6GHz Single Core processor, 2GB of memory, a 512MB DirectX 9.0c compatible Graphics card and a 100% DirectX 9.0c compliant sound card for all the pretty noisy bits. It is a chunky 20 GB download from Steam, and we would recommend having a little extra for patches, DLC and saves… depending on whether you prefer local or cloud saves. As for our experience well we had no problems playing on an Intel Core i5-2500K, Z77 motherboard, 8GB DDR3-1600, Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 and 120GB Sandforce SATA3 based SSD.
So, back to the game… Over the last 13 year the Total War series has evolved from a real-time strategy game, as it was with the first Shogun, to more of a massively multiplayer online type of gaming experience. This is evidenced by the radical changes made to multiplayer gameplay in Shogun 2 and in the way The Creative Assembly are supporting Rome II post release. They tell us that they are planning weekly updates immediately following release and gradually working towards to monthly updates continuing for years after release. The updates will contain bug fixes, balancing changes, free and paid-for DLC, extra music and feature improvements. On release a couple of extra factions will be available for free should you pre-order Rome 2 the Greek States Culture Pack is added in. Sega were nice enough to include this with the review build but more on that in the gameplay section.
The core gameplay of Rome II, as with the other Total War titles, is a mix real-time battles and a turn-based nation management campaign with distinct ending. That said Rome II has a slightly different balance to mix in comparison to previous Total War titles so while The Creative Assembly are sticking with concept of having an endgame in the campaign, they have not made it quiet as simplistic/dramatic as every other AI faction attacking you as they did with Shogun 2. As well as improving on the endgame concept a lot of work has gone into politically interesting empire management aspects of the game.
Looking a bit deeper the main gameplay remains the same however The Creative Assembly have expanded on the scale of the battlefield, enabling the player to field and view many thousands of combatants at a time with detailed facial animations for individual units, adding a feel of horror and realism to the battles. Rome II also captures more of the differences between cultures and fighting forces at the time. No longer are we given Gaul spearmen that look very similar to Germanic spearmen, differing only in clothing colour and audio. Now we fight with over 700 different units from 12 different factions (9 without the Greek States Culture Pack DLC) within 8 cultures (7 without the Greek States Culture Pack DLC) and 4 different ethnic groups. All with a unique unit roster, play-style and access to different technologies.
The 12 playable factions Rome, Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, Macedon, Pontus, Parthia, The Suebi, The Averni and The Iceni (Athens, Epirus and Sparta) are divided into main ethnic groups of Latin, Hellenic, Eastern and Barbarian. This allows not only a wide variation on play style and unit traits but start locations, tech trees and story arc.
In addition to the field battles, sieges and naval battles found in the other Total War games, The Creative Assembly have developed new battle types for Rome II. Most notable of these is the combined naval/land battles. This is an extension of the work they did on "Fall of the Samurai" to integrate naval and land battle rather than have two stand-alone actions. Where "Fall of the Samurai" allowed us to have Naval artillery support for coastal land battle, Rome II takes it a stage further and allows us to assault or defend a coastal city with both land based units and a Navy marines that can come ashore or board enemy ships as needed.
As with the other Total War titles, The Creative Assembly pride themselves on historical accuracy and as an extension of this as well as the campaign and multiplayer game we are treated to some historical battles. These digital re-enactments have been a pillar of the series since the original Shogun and are a nice easy way to dip in and out of the game when we might not have time for a longer session in campaign mode. Before we get into the campaign we also have the option of taking the prologue. This was a feature introduced in the previous edition of Rome and acts as a tutorial for those that have never played a Total War game before. The prologue is a mini-campaign that introduce new players to the basics of the game and specifically the real-time battles. In the prologue campaign, we play as the fictional Roman general, Silanus, who is voiced by actor Mark Strong. Silanus is on a quest to obtain more military power as he rises from a mid-ranked officer to a pro-consul, ultimately this sets the stage for the beginning of the mini campaign.
The grand campaign proper begins in 272BC, and lasts for 300 years however, the player also has the option to play further, as there are no timed victory conditions in Rome II. The campaign map for Rome II spans modern-day Europe, taking in North Africa and parts of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and is divided into 173 regions that are grouped into 57 provinces. Then occupying the campaign map are over 100 different factions each with their own unit roster and agenda. 9 will be playable on the initial release, more will be included as either free or paid downloadable content and these playable factions are be divided into 4 ethnic groups: Hellenic, Latin, Barbarian and Eastern.
If that’s more than enough faction detail for you, skip to here… if not let’s get a bit deeper…
The Roman Republic (Latin)
The Roman Republic is the only Latin playable faction. It is located in the Italian peninsula and they are a people skilled in metalworking, also having long and distinguished military traditions. The Roman Republic is divided into three houses which we choose from as when we start a Roman campaign. These are the House of Cornelia, house of Julia, and the house of Junia. Each house has its own traits which shape the development of the Roman Empire and its relationship with neighbouring factions. As it is a republic the internal political set-up is that of a senate and the senate of Rome is a treacherous environment, one which can prove fatal should a rival family gain too much power. A player can attempt to send a senator of a rival family away by giving them an army to command however, by doing so, there is always the risk that even then the senator will gain too much power and attempt to start a civil war against the current government. When playing as the Romans we have the ability to choose which patrician family their leader will be a member of, which will provide them with unique traits and opportunities, while dealing with the whims of the senate whose goals may not always align with ours. It is also possible to start a civil war by choice and turn the Roman Republic into a dictatorship lead by the player as Emperor.
Carthage is a coastal city-state with provinces across the Mediterranean Sea. Like Rome, Carthage is also ruled by one of three political powers which we pick to play as when we start a campaign as Carthage. These are the Hannonid Dynasty, the Magonid Dynasty, and the Barcid Dynasty. Again, each has unique bonuses to military and economics and diplomacy. It is also possible to seize power and rule Carthage as a monarchy.
Macedon is one of the Successor Kingdoms which emerged after Alexander’s death. Macedon enjoys a military advantage when facing other Hellenic factions and Barbarian factions. Unlike Rome or Carthage, Macedon operates as a monarchy. This makes for significantly less political in-fighting, however keeping the majority of the Court of Nobles happy is needed unless civil war is what you crave.
Ptolemaic Egypt (Hellenic)
A Successor Kingdom like Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt has preserved its ancient traditions in addition to the Hellenistic influence in its culture. It is the Greek way of life that is held in high regard throughout the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Greek citizens enjoy privileges native Egyptians do not, a fact that has caused many a revolt and mutiny among the lower classes.
The Iceni are a powerful, warlike and ferocious Celtic tribe from Britannia famous for their use of armed chariots. They are skilled ironworkers, and their warriors wear war paint unlike the other barbarian tribes. The Iceni will have population happiness bonus by the number of armies raised and successful fighting.
The Arverni are a Celtic tribe located in Central Gaul. An aggressive faction, focusing on a warrior society and united by a common pantheon ruled by their priests, the Druids. The Arverni are one of the most technologically and culturally advanced barbarian tribes. Like the Iceni, they receive a population happiness bonus when waging war against neighbouring factions but they are also one of the trade focused factions in Rome II, and have diplomatic bonuses amongst other barbarian tribes because of their martial prowess and craftsmanship.
The Suebi is a barbarians faction starting in central Germania. The Suebi have very limited technology, and most starting units rely on fighting using javelin-like spears. They receive a population happiness bonus for being at war and receive bonus for raiding and hostile action against other barbarian factions.
Parthia favours cavalry. Parthia also employs tribesmen of various ethnicity; primitive men from the hills that fight for their homeland. It has preserved the military drill style of the Seleucid Empire, and is a force to be reckoned with. Parthia’s religion is diverse and full of influences from abroad. Both Iranian and Greeks gods and goddesses are worshipped in its temples. Parthia is a tolerant nation, one which is ready to spread and assimilate foreign cultures into its own.
Pontus is a Hellenistic faction located in the Eastern kingdoms areas. They receive a major diplomatic penalty when dealing with all Eastern faction but a moderate diplomatic bonus when dealing with Hellenic factions and a bonus when fight Barbarian factions.
Additionally the Greek States Culture Pack DLC adds a new playable Culture including three new playable factions:
Sparta is a militaristic faction located in south west of Greece. They favours infantry and agriculture and have improved public order.
The Epirus faction located is located in a northern area of Greece. They favours villages and small towns, rather than the city-states of other Greek factions.
Athens is a faction located in south west of Greece. It has a philosophical cultural that give it a research bonus. It is the most prominent naval power of all the Greek factions but receive a penalty for non-mercenary recruitment.
Each of the four ethnic groups play somewhat differently for example variances in industry, revenue, research and new technologies. Each ethnic group has its own speciality also, for example the Romans are superior at growth and the Eastern factions are skilled traders. As with Total War: Shogun 2, we are prompted to make faction wide decisions with the scenario being specific to each group. Each decision leads us a specific path based on our previous actions and this affects the way the campaign plays out.
The territory that these factions occupy are labelled as provinces (groups of regions). We conquer regions seperately however control of an entire province allows us to pass edicts, providing bonuses such as increased public happiness or military production.
In each province, we also have to choose wisely in terms of building management, focusing essentially on centres of excellence rather than building one of everything, everywhere. Public order is also more in depth and changes frequenty as we progress. Growing and decreasing depending on the situation and when it hits -100, a rebellion occurs. Positive rankings also have their benefits, as do scores in between.
There have also been enhancements to the administration of armies and navies, removing recruitment restrictions but also adding in a new limit. This limit is tied to the faction’s "power" which is calculated much like "fame" in Shogun 2. Power is generated by success in the game and when at home we can create specialist units, in the field it is a more mercenary based change in units.
Our military forces are highly customisable beyond just the unit composition. In Rome II it is possible to change the name of an army or navy, select its emblem and over time armies and navies can also gain traditions, dependant on the number of battles fought. This is in addition to an increase in stats based on experience and reflects more an army’s specialisation in a particular fighting style, equipment or battle type.
Armies and navies can also be placed into different stances to perform a number of different functions such as setting an ambush, raiding, fortification or marching further than normal. In another change, since there are no longer resource slots outside of settlements armies can now enter a "raid" stance. This reduces the army’s upkeep and when in enemy territory produces some income. That said, if an army enters raid stance in friendly territory is causes unhappiness in the region so we need to plan our moves accordingly.
As with other Total War tiles, agents can be recruited to augment our military. There are three core types of agents in Rome II: the dignitary, the champion and the spy. Then each ethnic group has its own variants for these. As well as the type specific abilities all agents can assassinate other characters and when an agent is asked to perform one of their abilities there is a deeper set of choices on how to complete.
One significant change for the Rome II battles is true line-of-sight. Terrain now blocks line of sight and enables units to move around the battlefield without being seen allowing us to more effectively create ambushes and removes the need for any stealth specialised units. It also means that scouting is crucial and our choice of units for this task has an impact on how well we perform.
As briefly touched on earlier, naval and land battles have been combined into a single battle system, which allows us to fight with both elements simultaneously but further tweaks have been employed such as the ability to travel up rivers and dock at set places. The Creative Assembly have also refined the unit choices for naval battles, sticking with two main categories with various abilities in the "tech" tree. All of this combines to offer a significant variance in play style from battle to battle.
If conflict and espionage are not your thing, you probably should play a game called Total War 😉 … however The Creative Assembly have given additional attention to the diplomatic system for Rome II which will give it broader appeal.
Rival faction/diplomatic AI is another area which has received enhancements and now, through tool tips, we can better understand the decisions of our enemies, or allies and as a result manage our actions for a better outcome.
Rome II builds on classic RTS roots to offer a wide reaching tech tree during our civilisation development. This is split into civic, military and naval technologies and through building appropriate centres of excellence we can enhance our ability to develop and move through the tree. (Of cource each group in the game has its own specific tree’s and abilities to enhance success)
With this new emphasis on more cultural aspects, Rome II isn’t just about the classic military victory conditions of previous Total War games. We can now play for a Cultural, Economic or Military victory. The various conditions are outlined when we choose our faction and begin a new campaign. We also noticed that we are not tied to pursuing a single victory condition from the start. We can begin in a militaristic fashion but change to a Cultural or Economic focus if victory seems more likely.
Multi-player sessions were limited in advance of launch which means we don’t have the full experience tied down yet however here are some details from The Creative Assembly on what to look out for at retail.
First up, The Creative Assembly have told us that they have focused on the most popular areas of multiplayer which are straight-up head-to-head battles (1v1-4v4) and multiplayer campaign (1V1 or 2-player Co-Op). New features include Quick Match (1v1-4v4) which enables players to choose a faction and jump straight into a match made game with a balanced, preconfigured force on a carefully crafted battlefield or if we want to configure an army from scratch this is also possible. (Quick Matches also have leader boards to chart our position against friends) The entire range of battle types are available in multiplayer as well, along with the five great capital cities of the ancient world: Athens, Rome, Carthage, Babylon, Alexandria.
Speaking of locations, a great new feature of multiplayer lies in the battlefields. We are now able to select a battle map from the full Rome II campaign map. Simply drop a pin on the map and the battlefield at that location will be available to play upon. This means that there are around 10,000 unique battlefields to discover and if you find one you love during the campaign, you can mark it as a favourite, and share it with other players.
Graphics and Audio
The Creative Assembly have created another visual masterpiece, with particular emphasis on the character and facial rendering and even the screens outwith gameplay have received a lot of polish. We also liked the level of detail on the map which mirrors the terrain of the battles or is covered with a blanket of fog, depicting the area we have not yet visited.
Significant camera changes have also been applied giving us much more control over our view of the battlefield, in addition to offering the classic mode. Then as an extra touch The Creative Assembly have added Unit Camera where we can get a soldiers eye view of the action. Add to that enhancements in weather systems and we really do have the best looking Total War to date.
The sound effects that accompany the battles are extremely realistic. The clash of metal, twang of bow, creaking boats and splintering wood are all without flaw. But more than that The Creative Assembly seem to have put extra emphasis on audio during the battles. As well as the usual vocal barks confirming our clicked commands, each unit automatically jeers a variety of insults at the enemy. Zooming into individual units we can hear commands being issued and moral boosting speeches given.
I’d like to call myself a Total War Veteran (some would use another word) having been into this series of games since the beginning and notched up over a thousand hours over all the Total War titles (except last year’s Total War Battles: Shogun). So I approached this review with equal parts excitement and dread. Given just how much of a move forward the last game gave to the franchise I was approaching Rome 2 with the idea of what could be new… could things be improved? After all, there is only so far The Creative Assembly can take what is, in essence, a sophisticated form or rock, paper, scissors, where spearman beat horse, horse beats archer and archer beats spear. And we’ve done that, played that game with uncountable variations for the past 13 years.
At a time when Microsoft and Sony are launching the next gen super consoles and gaming is expanding into controller-less gaming, social media gaming and F2P MMO we had to ask ourselves are Sega and The Creative Assembly releasing a glossy version of a game they first released 9 years ago? Or a re-skinned and tweaked version of Shogun 2?
The simple answer is that The Creative Assembly have done nothing significantly new with this game. It is the same format as Shogun: Total War, released 2000 in the same setting as Rome: Total War released 2004. That said, on top of those they have added over a decade of tweaks and improvements as well as enhancing the gameplay enough to offer appeal to those who like games such as Civ 5. As a result we get masses of detail, loads of variation, endless possibilities, brain bursting stats, frantic, tactical excellence in the battles and just loads more Total War. So while there is nothing revolutionary here, how could we not enjoy this game… we certainly loved it…
…and we HATE it. Why? Well, it’s probably time for The Creative Assembly to move on… not to a new genre but to a new era. As I peer over the top of my cubical and look out the Hardware Heaven office window, I see the rain and the streets filled with exhaust smoke. There is a homeless guy round the corner begging for change and the news feed tells me that the USA and UK are on the brink of getting involved in the Syrian civil war, which ( for those of you not following global politics) is not just a civil war but also a more subtle war proxy between Sunni Vs. Shi’ah, Iran Vs. Saudi Arabia and the west Vs. Russia and China. (WE ALL GONNA DIE! IT’S WWIII! START BUYING CANNED FOOD!) And that’s just this week… there are so many significant eras in world history which The Creative Assembly could take and develop in the Total War world. To have now dipped into another "sequel" seems a waste.
…but it is a fantastic waste, with some great enhancements to the game engine and presentation which is staggering in its scope.