copyright © Jedo Dre 2011

Total War Rome 2



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Impact: Average

Total War has long been a series of games known for their relative consistency in gameplay and in quality, but just like with the real Rome, the sands of time tend to shape and corrupt. So how is the newest installment of Total War holding up?



GAMEPLAY


Despite public complaints about the additions to the gameplay, the core gameplay has not changed that much from the previous Total War games. In the main campaign you pick one of the available factions, then one of the 3 main goals for your faction and you start the turn-based strategy game on the campaign map holding a few settlements and a couple of small armies. You grow your cities by constructing new buildings or improving existing ones. You enter in diplomacy with other factions and fight enemy armies either by automatically resolving the battles or by going to the RTS (real time strategy) part of the game and defeating the enemy in the field or at sea, with the real-time map reflecting the circumstances under which you met the enemy on the campaign map.



GAMEPLAY: RTS BATTLES


The RTS battles are a familiar face. Largely the same controls, dumbfounded AI and battle mechanics have a happy reunion. There is a good depth to the battle tactics as the terrain and weather affect your army units in various ways. You can hide behind hills and in forests, create bottlenecks at bridges, carefully maneuver city streets or rush with your cavalry down a hill to smash an enemy line. Spearmen are effective against cavalry; cavalry wipes out light troops and decimates flanks; heavy infantry defeat spearman and ranged units rain death on everybody from the sky. On sea the tactics are more limited, amounting to ramming enemy ships, firing arrows at them or boarding the ships to fight the soldiers in melee.


One of the noticeable changes to the real time battles revolves around control zones that appear under certain circumstances. If the attacker controls enough of these zones the defender starts loosing points. The battle is lost for the defender when the counter reaches 0. Technically, these zones are not new as they have always existed in the center of cities you sieged in the older TW games, but now their use has been extended, both in cities and outside of them. Control points make sense in an urban environment, but on an open battlefield they destroy the usefulness of tactics, forcing the defender to stay in the open awaiting to be attacked at the enemy's terms. Thankfully the mechanic is limited to certain situations like when the besieging army has to defend against a counterattack, but this one of many unwelcome additions in TWR2.


Another noticeable movement in direction of the Total War games are all the special abilities that vary from unit to unit and can be enabled usually for a short period of time before having to be recharged. Some of them make sense, like a war cry that diminishes the enemy's morale, but others feel more like magic spells and do not belong in a realistic strategy game.


These abilities disappear/expire and recharge quickly, which on the one hand keeps you on your toes during action, but on the other hand can drive you nuts as you keep trying to babysit each unit to ensure that they fight at maximum strength.


Another annoyance in RTS battles: infantry moves too fast. The cavalry can barely escape a chasing light infantry. Presumably this was done for the sake of balancing, but no balancing ever needed to be done. I know this problem will be fixed by a user-made mod as it was done in the past, but the fact itself is boding of the arcade direction Total War games are starting to take.


As a result of all these features the RTS battles feel a little too fast and hectic. There are short engagement periods that can be reached and ended in seconds, with too much to think about, especially in the multiplayer section of the game where you cannot pause.



GAMEPLAY: TURN BASED CAMPAIGN


While the RTS gameplay feels familiar and is largely still fun, the gameplay of the campaign map is becoming ever more alien compared to the predecessors and not to the game's advantage.


The map consisting of Europe, North Africa and Middle East is divided into provinces, with each province containing one major city and one to three minor ones. Each settlement has only a few slots for buildings, with the provincial capital being blessed with a few extra slots and a city wall. You unlock new buildings and other improvements by following research trees, which takes forever so you are forced to choose carefully what to research next.


Information about how the settlements are doing is given per province rather than per settlement, which makes managing cities difficult...not a good kind of difficult.


Each city has a fluctuating public order that you have to keep high enough to avoid rebellion, but the public order level is calculated for the whole province even if only one settlement causes the problems.


While the factors contributing to bad public order make some sense the main effect contributing to the good public order is "difficulty level" ... Difficulty level! Really?! This is the sort of thing that makes you want to find a developer and make his face overly acquainted with a brick.


One of the main ways to stop public order from deteriorating is to decrease the tax level, but the tax level can only be set for the whole empire, which is both historically incorrect and annoying because it forces you to keep the overall tax rate low, appealing to the settlement with the worst public order rating. You can make a province exempt from tax, but again, since you can only do it to the whole province, you are forced to reduce the income from the whole province because of one settlement. In real life captured Roman cities had different tax arrangements with Rome based on their status. This is a historical reason for changing this mechanic, if the silliness of the mechanic is not reason enough.


There are plenty of other smaller campaign annoyances like Generals acquiring traits too quickly and for no apparent reason, but probably the most annoying bit is that armies can only be led by a General and there is a limited number of them. You cannot do something as simple as reinforcing one army with a couple of units from another army. This is just plain ridiculous. In real life and in the last Rome TW game it is perfectly normal to split armies and the 2nd army can be led by a lesser officer. Distribution of your forces is important because the default garrison present in cities is usually quite useless against an attacking army and also military presence balances out that fickle public order. The new mechanic forces you to pick a spot for your army with the least amount of disadvantages. If the game didn't announce early on that this is one of their new "rules" I would have assumed that this is a bug.


You may noticed the word "force" comes up a lot and that is what the campaign gameplay feels like - forced. There is a lack of control. "Here are all these weird rules we came up with and we say that they fit the gameplay and you have to deal with them now". Okay…but this makes the game less fun. And that is the sad conclusion - the campaign gameplay is just not that fun.


And that is a big problem. If you are the kind of person who does not care for real time battles, you may be woefully displeased with Rome 2, especially if you are coming straight from Rome 1 or from Total War Medieval 2 without having experienced the change in direction TW has been making in the other games. But even if you do like the RTS battles it is undeniable that the campaign is the glue that keeps those RTS battles in perspective. It is essential and if it is broken the whole game becomes less fun.


Not all new campaign features are ghastly. When playing for Rome there are ways to take part in internal political intrigues; when playing for a tribal faction, distinction is made for factions with "same blood", which are easier to negotiate with; both of these features are part of the fact that the campaigns for different factions have a different feel to them, unlike previous Total War games where the main differences between factions consisted of the types of army units they had, the faction symbol and the starting location on the map; In addition to the long-term goal, your faction has shorter term sub-goals that represent real historical developments of factions and then you have even shorter term temporary missions, so you can always keep your eye on the ball; It is also pretty cool that you can take control of the artillery on ships in 1st person view (and land?)


The historical value is really nice. I once came across an Egyptian ship/fleet called "The pride of two lands". "Two lands" for those who don't know is a historical reference to the culturally different upper and lower Egypt, first unified by king Narmer. Nice touches.


These elements are neat but for a new player they are hard to detect, buried under the bad features ( some of which were already slammed by players in the last Total War game and yet for some reason bravely reappear on the scene). It was as if the developers gathered around a table to brainstorm and everyone started shouting out ideas. At a normal meeting certain bad ideas would be turned down, others would be tested out and in the end a few new good ideas would make it into the sequel, but in this case they decided to use all the ideas, including the ones from the rambling homeless person around the corner.


Maybe developers were hoping to overload the game with different gimmicks to appeal to a wide audience. Rome 2 has both a more gamy style than the first Rome and at the same time a more realistic feel, with its use of Latin, extensive encyclopedia, historically accurate armor and terrain tactics. The game is both dumbed down and loaded with complicated rules. It's an overdosing bi-polar monkey.


The sad thing about Rome 2 Total War is that, although it is still a great game taken on its own, you have to ask yourself whether or not it is better than Rome 1 Total War, which is a game that is played to this day. To answer that you have to ask yourself what needed to improve in Rome 1 Total War and the answer to that is that, apart from a few little issues, the 1st Rome was very good to the point that the only thing that really needed an upgrade were the graphics, the addition of sea battles and AI improvement. Rome 2 improves on the first two, the AI seems to be worse than before, and then all these other "improvements" have been added that in some cases did not really need to be, and in other cases really did not need to be. I may sound like an old man, but…don't fix it if it ain't broke.



AI


Speaking of the devil, the AI is quite attrocious. Total War games were never known for their brilliant AI, but the on-land AI actually seems a little worse in some areas than in the previous games. It feels not so much stupid as broken. It does react to some of your moves with logic, but trying to capture fleeing infantrymen with a cavalry unit produces a comic spectacle with very few actual prisoners. The situation with the enemy AI is especially bad in settlements, where it has trouble figuring out what to do with its units. On sea, however, the situation is much worse (at least at the time of writing this review). Once I gave the command to one of my ships to ram the enemy ship and my ship turned around and sailed full speed away from the enemy. If several ships get close enough together the AI gets completely confused and any further navigation is excruciatingly annoying. Hopefully the future patches will fix it.



SOUND


The orchestral battle music is great – it made itself noticeable in the very first engagement. There is also good atmospheric tune when the battle is paused and on the campaign map.


The battles themselves sound great too, with a distinguishable difference apparent when you zoom in on the action.


When you zoom on the units you also hear little dialogue exchanges. This is not new for Total War games, but for the first time these short exchanges actually amused.



PERFORMANCE


Performance is average. The loading times are noticeably long, showing the lack of optimization. The game also made my video card run pretty hot. You do need a good PC to run the game on maximum, which is weird because there is nothing that special about the graphics that would justify such heavy taxing of your machine, but on the other hand you do not need the Bill Gates' computer either. I have a semi-modern PC and was able to run everything on maximum with 20+ fps. So far no crashes, but there were a few freezes that needed a game restart, usually happening when you mouse over something for a long time. There are bugs, but they are not game-breaking, though computers of some people seem to have an allergic reaction to this game.


The main outcry from the players has so far concentrated on the amount of bugs this game came shipped with but the gameplay is the true problem because bugs get fixed with time while developers usually stick to their gameplay design choices.



GRAPHICS


Graphically the game looks ok, but not particularly breathtaking. The artwork seen in the menus and loading screens looks good and there are some good animations and textures on the battlefield, but some of them are much poorer than others. Considering that a Total War game has hundreds of troops on the fields it is hard to say how good things should look. After all, this is not your average RTS where 3 soldiers grind against a single enemy tank for half an hour. And yet, it is hard not to again compare the graphics of Rome 2 to those of the last TW game, Shogun 2 Total War, which appear to be slightly better, especially the fighting animations.


The battle camera tends to readjust its angle, keeps wanting to lie flat, which is irritating when you just want a view of what's going on immediately in front of you.


The developers tried to add a cinematic feel to the game. There is an option that zooms in on the action and at the same time gives a slight strength boost to your soldiers – the 1st time I see the zoom function being…well..functional.



MULTIPLAYER


The plain multiplayer was useless. Once you take away the full servers and the password protected ones what you have left are the ones that don't let you join by giving you an "unspecified error". The previous Total War game had a full-fledged multiplayer support with a leveling system and avatar customization. Just copy and paste, developers! Copy and fucking paste!!!!


Quick battle seems to work quite well, though all it does is pair you with a random opponent of unknown skill. But it is effective and it works.


There is also a possibility to play multiplayer campaign in co-op, but at the time of writing, there is not a single server to join. Either it is broken or people just hate the campaign gameplay as much as this reviewer does.


The best I can recommend for the multiplayer side of things at the moment is to join a LAN game with your friends if you can.



VERDICT


In conclusion, many of the familiar and loved Total War features come back in this installment but they are marred by bugs, poor new gameplay design choices and (at the time of writing) a badly functional multiplayer. It is our hope as fans that future developer patches combined with the efforts of the loyal Total War modders will make this game truly enjoyable rather than a promise of what could be. If you are the kind of player that prefers to auto-resolve real time battles and if you are also not a particularly giant fan of the Roman Empire then I would suggest skipping this one, or at least waiting to see what kind of changes and mods come out for this game over the next year or two. But if you are a fan of Total War games then you have probably already bought this game, having bet on its good pedigree. For you I have but one advice: buy some good olive oil to use as lube, citizen.