The third in Creative Assembly’s line of Total War games, Rome: Total War was hailed as a hallmark title in the series and one of the greatest games of its genre. Like it’s predecessors in the Total War line, Rome: Total War follows a formula of turn-based strategic gameplay where players manage a single faction’s cities, family members, and economic and military capacity to conquer a historical region of the world. In this case it is most of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. These elements are backed up by, occasionally optional, real-time tactical battles where the armies raised and equipped in the strategic map are deployed to engage each other in a very well rendered battlefield with terrain and climate indicative of the region it represents (the Balkans in the winter are snowy and dark while Asia Minor shines with golds and greens in summer).
Rome: Total War is an example of fully comprehensive grand strategy done right. It achieves a very harmonious balance between the detail and sometimes drudgery of global economic and political management with the thrill and challenge of real-time tactical combat. These elements are also seamlessly blended together, with properly managed economics allowing for powerful units on the battlefield and successful military actions in real-time, such as holding a critical town from a superior foe, paying very high dividends on the strategic scale in allowing your other armies to concentrate elsewhere.
In the game’s main campaign the player takes control of a faction from the Classical period of Mediterranean history, which is initially one of the three fictitious but very colorful Roman sub-factions but eventually includes several of the other historical powers of the time such as Carthage, the Greek Cities, and Ptolemaic Egypt. The game clocks the passage of time through turns which divide a year between summer and winter with the game beginning in 270 BC and ending in 14 AD. In that time-frame the player must conquer 50 provinces (15 for a short campaign) and capture specific objectives such as Rome itself. Obviously military conquest is the only way to accomplish this, but a strong army can only be raised and maintained through effective economic, diplomatic, and cultural manipulation.
The entire world map is divided into provinces with a city representing the wealth and capacity of each province as well as the means to take control of that province. Cities generate wealth through agriculture, production, and commerce and serve as the training centers for military units and special agents like spies and diplomats. Cities grow in population based on their public order and local food productivity, eventually turning into metropolises which provide increased income and defense as well as unlocking the final tiers of production and economic buildings.
The player’s effect on their faction is represented through their faction’s family. The family is composed of male characters who serve as generals when on the march or in battle and governors when stationed inside the city. Generals come with powerful cavalry bodyguards and inspire their armies to fight more effectively when present, making your family a valuable asset in conquest. Additionally family members are born and die as the years pass making family management important. Promising heirs must be preserved from death and plague while incompetent administrators should be out of the city and on the march. If a faction’s family is wiped out the faction dies with it, their units becoming leaderless rebels.
The main campaign, which comes in short and long versions, is the primary element of single player in Rome: Total War and features all the elements of the Total War series. All playable factions are unlocked after the short or long campaign are completed as a Roman faction. These factions range in degrees of power and culture across Europe and the Mediterranean allowing for a wide degree of replay options. Although base-building and family management remain essentially the same among the factions, unit and building rosters, as well as the power and circumstances of neighbors, changes dramatically allowing new strategies to be employed and new enemies tested. Some of the most spectacular challenges can come to those factions farthest from Rome who will have to face the three Roman factions in the later game where their power is better represented.
Single player also offers historic battles where the player takes control of an army on one side of some of the famous battles in Classical history such as Hannibal’s more notable battles or the Roman defeats at Carrhae and the Teutoberg Forest. Single player and multiplayer also feature the custom battle option where a predetermined amount of funds is used by the player(s) to assemble and upgrade an army chosen from the unit roster of any faction in the game, including ones non-playable in the campaign. This only adds to the many options players have to enjoy the rich variety that Rome: Total War brings. Ambitious players can construct their own ‘custom campaigns’ by battling factions across the different regions represented by the custom map choices.
Without doubt Rome: Total War introduced new elements to the series and to a lesser degree the genre as a whole. Graphics moved from 2D to 3D, user interface was improved, and greater detail and control was added to the world. Players were given an increased degree of control over their faction family and unit command and maneuver on the battlefield was greatly improved; indeed many would argue that such tactical effectiveness among formations has yet to be equaled in another Total War game. Many changes that have appeared in later Total War titles such as real time naval combat, increased model detail among units, and more balance among factions might cast Rome: Total War as antiquated. However for all its shortcomings Rome: Total War outpaces its predecessors and successors in the combination of detail, simplicity, and enjoyment.
Author’s note: Rome: Total War has often been criticized for claiming to be historical but featuring many ahistorical aspects, the most notable of these being the three Roman families that together form the Roman faction. While it is true that many of these elements are fictitious it is important to remember that Rome: Total War is a war game designed to entertain, not a historical narrative designed to teach. Indeed many of the invented elements make the game more exciting by expanding the role of historically small, elite formations like the Spartan Hoplites into the military vanguard of a vast fictional empire. Additionally, and I might add on a level that has yet to be achieved by any other Total War game, the vivid coloration of the factions aids greatly in rapid identification of forces on the battlefield. Though not viable as a presentation in a history seminar Rome: Total War more than suffices for its intended purpose of thorough entertainment.