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After thirteen years of continued development over eight titles, The Creative Assembly has proven to be a development studio in a class of few. However, the highly anticipated sequel to the beloved 2004 release Rome: Total War, Total War: Rome II has proven that even the mighty can falter.
Despite adding new aspects to the core mechanic which brought about a more dynamic warfare and political experience while presenting a gorgeous topographical rendition of the Mediterranean world from Antiquity; Rome II has fallen short of besting the previous Total War release.
For now the high watermark of the most prolific turn-based real-time strategy series remains to be Total War: Shogun 2. The Creative Assembly set a high standard back in 2011 with their return to not only the original Total War setting but also style of combat, that of melee driven engagements. Nonetheless, The Creative Assembly has not failed with Rome II, nor is the game mediocre. For it passes the quintessential test of turn-based real-time strategy; when your personal schedule seeks to separate you from the game, Rome II entices you to play one more turn. Yet by simplifying the provincial system and minimizing the user-interface Rome II offers a Spartan experience to veterans of the series.
A New Era
Since Empire, the Total War series has offered a familiar overall mechanic with few fundamental changes. Much of the user-interface from Empire found its way into both Napoleon and Shogun 2, and for good reason; the mechanic controlled by those recurring aspects of the UI were recurring themselves.
With Rome II, new mechanics have been introduced, bringing a fresh zest that is well executed, effecting both battles and the campaign. In turn The Creative Assembly has also retrofit the UI, in some cases due to alterations in the core mechanic while most have streamlined access to information and management. On the campaign map the UI has been deduced to sets of task panes which span the bottom of the screen. Though retaining the attachment of events, forces, provinces, and factions to the minimap, the minimap itself has been moved from the top right corner of the screen to the bottom right. Few changes have been made to the battle UI, the greatest of which is the removal of the fine-tuning movement radial, leaving the command and control of units to the impression of right-clicking. Overall the minimalistic UI is a benefit as your access to information and the variety of management screens have been consolidated to reduce clutter. Aesthetically the most apparent change to the UI aside from the task panes is the utilization of icons or images for displaying information rather than text.
For the battlefield and campaign map alike, a new Stance mechanic has been brought into the fold providing a more dynamic warfare experience at the strategic level. Though stances are set on the campaign map, their effect exists both within a battle and out. From raiding provinces to extended forced marches, springing ambushes or fortifying fixed positions, you now have the ability to put an army into a stance which adds a specified benefit with balancing limitations. An army in the raiding stance will provide extra income per turn by plundering within enemy territory though the overall distance they can travel across the campaign map is reduced while the forced march stance allows an army to move across greater distances of the map but negating their ability to attack. An army lying in ambush will not only prey upon an unsuspecting army but also begin the battle much closer to the enemy force. During the deployment phase if you have a sizable force you can even encircle the enemy before the battle begins as you can deploy anywhere around the enemy force. Some factions have traps that can be utilized to kill or slow the ambushed force, such as the well publicized flaming boulders or caltrop spikes. On the flip side an army set in the defensive stance will deploy within a walled encampment forcing the aggressor to not only defeat an army but also capture a fixed position.
Armies have also been reworked. Instead of potentially having multiple generals within an army providing a specified benefit based on their commission, Rome II limits one army to one general while providing both personal and household traits that supplement retainer and commission bonuses. Due to the new general mechanic armies as well as naval fleets take on their own personalities, even names, galvanizing the units into an entity greater than the sum of its soldiers. As an army claims victory in battle it levels up similar to generals and agents, these military traditions affect all of the units within the army unless specified otherwise. If an army is destroyed as the result of battle or attrition, another army can be raised which carries on their legacy inheriting the traditions their predecessors earned. These traditions not only bring continuity to your armies but also provide a sense of elan and personality making them more than an amorphous collection of units.
Although improvements to artificial intelligence were highly touted prior to release, AI in all aspects is a frustrating shortcoming. On and off the battlefield, from unit command and control to diplomacy; the AI of Rome II is a leap backwards.
At the unit level the game suffers from awkward and confusing behaviors. Whether The Creative Assembly sought to add an element of miscommunication during battle or not, units fail to follow an order or do the exact opposite with alarming frequency; at times the AI’s lacking will dictate your fate. As if your soldiers decided occasionally that today is opposite day, some units will move backwards when instructed to move forwards, or attack the adjacent unit to the one they were ordered to attack. At arm’s length these quarks in behavior are comical, but in the heat of a battle when your victory is hinging on the verge of defeat the AI is remarkably frustrating to cope with. Even when a unit is following an order, unilaterally they struggle from poor pursuit. Assaulting units will halt their advance on ranged units set to skirmish when they fall back to reorganize; when this occurs the assaulting units will face yet another barrage of stones, spears, or arrows rather than charging forward as ordered to route the enemy. Though one can make the argument that said assaulting unit halted to preserve the armies’ formation, that aspect of unit management ought be left to the player. Units also routinely disengage and reorganize their formation when an enemy unit they were attacking routes, rather than pursuing to ensure they don’t rally and return to the fight.
Diplomatically the AI at best is foolish, bipolar, and delusional; not cunning as advertised. Though behavioral patterns have been coded into the factions, based upon aggressive tendencies and loyalty; the blunder of the AI is witnessed at the diplomatic screen rather than at the beginning of a turn. It has happened twice for myself now and I’ve heard it happen to other players as well; an enemy faction that is losing a war against you will not only demand peace on their own time but also their own terns, usually to the tune of thousands in currency. While I besieged the last capital of Epirus, they demanded a peace treaty and 6600 currency when I only had 7000 in my treasury; the next turn Epirus ceased to exist; not what I’d call cunning but rather foolish. After easily taking one of Dalmatae’s cities and marching on their capital, they demanded a peace treaty and half of my treasury; the Dalmatae avatar even quipped as to say money was no concern to them, yet they called for a sum of 7600. Five turns later, Dalmatae fell after I besieged their capital; after I began the siege they did not attempt to sue for peace again, as if they were content or appeased with their downfall.
Nor does this dysfunctional AI end there; even allies are a hassle. While conducting diplomatic relations with the Athenians, having a trade agreement and non-aggression pact set I suggested a defensive agreement; they counter-offered demanding payment which I relented. A turn later when I offered military access between us, though gauged for a moderate success Athens outright refused. I counter-offered for a military agreement, gauged for a low success which the Athenians accepted.
Agents have also become a nuisance, though their sword does have a double-edge. Regardless they presently have a remarkable extent of power on the Campaign Map that is not well balanced, acting as single entity roadblocks. In the more recent titles for Total War, agents have had the ability to sabotage the movement of an army halting them for a turn, it was fair and could also fail. In Rome II agents don’t need to conduct an action to act as a blocking force to an army, they just have to stand in its way… while also being able to conduct an action against that army, general, or accompanying agent. While moving on Dalmatae’s capital a champion and two spies stood between my army and the culmination of our conquest over the faction. The enemy champion succeeded with his action frightening my army from proceeding forward, a turn later I wounded him with my accompanying spy and sought to press on to the city. However, the two enemy spies standing behind the now fallen Champion (both of whom attempted no actions against my force) barred my passage though I had a full action bar; two turns later after wounding one and assassinating the other I could finally siege the city. The problem is that armies cannot interact with an agent as a military entity nor can your general, they can only be interacted with by other agents. Therefore, if you are tapped out on agents leaving one of your armies without an accompaniment, that force can be indefinitely held from marching forth by simply having an agent in their path.
For your own agents, one asinine problem exists; the expected percentage of success. Having played through the entire prologue and a 100 turns into a campaign, the plurality of my attempts to perform an action have been either partial or outright failures, even with a projected percent of success at 80 percent or higher. The question I have though is why? As the commonality of failure cannot simply be attributed to poor luck. Either the mechanic which determines a success or failure and the margin of that success or failure is poor, or the mechanic which calculates your percentage of success does not reflect the opposing agent, general, or armies’ own modifiers. Quite the dilemma when deciding to spend hundreds of currency on an action with an expected outcome that is not flush with the end result.
A Provincial Nightmare
In an effort to either simplify territorial management or provide a greater emphasis on cultural diversity; the provincial system for Rome II does not mesh well. Though factions have their own unique aspects of culture from the units they recruit to the buildings they construct, provinces have their own cultural aspects (mostly resources) while also consolidating multiple factions into a region of two cities and a capital city. Politically the system does well by providing internal intrigue as noble houses within your faction can vie for power by adopting your own family members or assassinating them. The deep-end of which can lead to a civil war; if you attempt to galvanize total control over your faction the lesser noble families will rise up against you. However, the system does poorly in regards to management of happiness, public order, and taxation (as this is now faction-wide rather than provincially inclusive); the game’s main course for management . Previously if a city teetered on the verge of rebellion you could exempt them from taxation, buying time to increase the city garrison while taking measures to further increase happiness for that city.
Within the new provincial system you can only exempt the entire province from taxation, rather than city by city. Since food surplus is attached to taxation at the hip, exempting a province from taxation also reduces your faction-wide food surplus by subtracting that provinces’ contribution. Though buildings can be constructed which increase public order, buying time to complete them through the exemption of taxation has a greater financial effect with little effect on public order. Your best bet is to either put a dignitary in the province or occupy the it with armies led by generals that increase public order provincially thus weakening your faction by consolidating your forces into a single province. What is troubling is that if one of your cities within a province is happy and providing ample income while another is on the razors edge of revolt, you have to address the province and therefore faction as a whole rather than handling the problematic city as a single entity.
Without a doubt the gutting of multiplayer is Rome II’s greatest failure. Despite talk of big plans for multiplayer by James Russell, Lead Designer for Total War: Rome II, during an interview a year ago with Oyun Fest, the big surprise is that Rome II has taken a great lead backwards in multiplayer.
The lobby user-interfaces no longer have a chat window, therefore removing chat channels and a player list. As for battles themselves, The Creative Assembly chose not to bring Avatar Conquest from Shogun II into the Mediterranean, making the prospect of online battles a stall endeavor. Along with the reduced UI, finding a multiplayer battle outside of friends has become a calamity; I’ve yet to find more than a few listed and those I have hosted did not attract other participants. Though Total War: Arena is on the horizon, the upcoming free-to-play title dresses Total War in the clothes of a MOBA and does not reflect the vast scale of the Total War series. For those seeking a robust multiplayer experience, stick to Shogun 2; you won’t find one in this title.
Although Rome II does have multiplayer campaigns; the extraordinary scale of the game from the numerous factions to the expansive Mediterranean world has led to a quagmire of desynchronization. Although the Friday patch has added an indicator for when desynchronization occurs; routinely having to reconnect to a multiplayer campaign is a tedious annoyance.
Graphics and Performance
Visually Rome II is the most stunning title in the series to day. Encapsulating the verbose grandeur and beauty of the Mediterranean with remarkable detail. For those that were disappointed by the stall Campaign Map graphics of Shogun 2, hardly improved upon since Empire; fear not… this one looks great.
However, with vast scale comes demand in resources.
Graphically The Creative Assembly has pushed the envelope of present day graphics cards as well. With settings from low to high, or ultra to extreme; cranking up everything will push the required amount of VRAM to process those settings over 2GB. Though most graphics cards to date offer between 1 and 2GB of VRAM, the game provides a plethora of settings which will allow most systems to run the game, albeit with diminished visuals.
Those playing on a laptop or with dated hardware ought upgrade their system before endeavoring to play. With over one hundred factions spread out across the Mediterranean from the Spanish peninsula to the steppes of Persia, load-time turn-by-turn will test your patience if you don’t have modern hardware.
Personally the only time performance significantly drops occurs during the weather conditions phase. If you wait over two days, like clockwork, the game bottlenecks exhibiting snail-paced sluggish performance which capsizes the deployment phase.
When In Rome
As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day; for those expecting a similar campaign pace to Empire, Napoleon, or Shogun 2 buckle up for a much longer ride. The scale of Rome II far exceeds the previous three titles in both geography and factions, the campaign pace will proceed slowly; you’re going to face a marathon. For fans of the series, Rome II will require a weathering of both time and frustration to acclimate to; those new to the series will experience a simplified introduction to the series. However be forewarned, this is no masterpiece.