Ever since Creative Assembly’s landmark Rome: Total War catapulted the Total War franchise into the mainstream of strategy gaming fans of the series have eagerly awaited its sequel, Total War: Rome II. Elements eagerly anticipated in a sequel were increased control over family members, improvements to naval combat, and a greater number of diverse factions. Rome II promised all of this and more. In development terms it was also considered the next step in advancing Total War game mechanics and technology as a whole.
Veterans of the first Rome: Total War game will actually find few similarities in the new Rome. Most of the factions make a return alongside dozens of new ones, but otherwise the game has received an overhaul derived from the years of experience and development Creative Assembly accumulated from its subsequent Total War titles after the first Rome’s release. The campaign map is populated with numerous towns and cities organized into provinces each composed of a walled provincial capital and one to three un-walled towns. Local resource deposits provide real economic benefits in the province and indirectly the player’s empire as a whole. Naval combat can now be fought in real-time and armies are formed around the generals (an army cannot exist without appointing a general).
For all that’s changed, the basic formula of Total War remains. Wealth is generated in the cities and towns of the player’s empire which is in turn used to raise and maintain armies of period infantry, cavalry, archers, and warships to conquer the ancient Mediterranean world. The great factions of the period, such as the Roman Republic, Empire of Carthage, and Ptolemaic Egypt are all present. Historic figures such as Hannibal Barca and Julius Caeser can make an appearance, but are not afforded any prestige or abilities beyond other generals. City populations must be controlled and diplomatic relations between factions can be manipulated for trade, alliances, and threats.
Like its Total War predecessors Rome II’s single player is at the heart of its entertainment value. The campaign, with downloaded content, features over twenty playable factions to choose from over one hundred on the campaign map. Factions are placed into culture categories such as Latin (Rome and its neighbors) and Hellenic (Greek city states) with each culture bringing some faction bonuses in addition to the unique attributes that individual factions gain. All factions follow the same general rules of economics, internal politics, and Imperium levels (with the exception of Rome and Carthage which also feature political sub-factions within their primary faction). The Grand Campaign, Rome II’s primary single player element, starts at 272 BC with most of the factions (aside from a few successor states) starting off with only a province or two in their control.
The Imperium level, a new mechanic to the Total War series, is a defining feature for gameplay in Rome II and applies to every faction, not just Rome. The Imperium level is determined by the number of cities under the player’s control and as it goes up it applies small but steadily increasing levels of empire wide stats such as taxes, morale, and corruption. The Imperium level also defines how many armies, navies, and agents a faction can maintain. As a mechanic the Imperium level is a fairly effective way to emulate the feel of an expanding, powerful empire and certainly encourages aggressive expansion on the part of the player. However its limitations cut into the some of the “total war” aspects of the game; at higher levels players can feel strapped for armies and navies to cover increasingly larger and complicated campaign theaters.
Like in Shogun 2, technology makes an appearance and is divided into three trees. Research unlocks buildings, units, and empire wide benefits. The Roman Marian Reform event from the first Rome is gone; now all factions share a similar unit tier system. Once a technology makes a unit obsolete, all of those units throughout a player’s army can be manually upgraded for a minor sum. Structures upgrade in similar fashion although the process is far more costly and some higher tier units require the empire to have access to special resources such as lead or iron.
Politics is another new addition that Rome II brings to the Total War series. The political system is basically an expansion of the loyalty and family tree mechanics for generals and replaces both mechanics with statesmen that become generals or admirals, and a set of statistics that emulate the power struggles of the republican Roman Senate. Each statesman increases the influence of their family/party in the empire’s political affairs which allows political actions such as assassinations to be used. Additionally the more influence the player’s family/party has grants increased bonuses and penalties to the empire, but also increases the chance that the other families/parties will rebel and attempt to overthrow the player’s faction.
The political system is a clever and heavily integrated design, but sadly does little to actually improve the gameplay. Benefits to having political dominance are minor compared to the arbitrary threat of civil war and the other families/parties provide minor but persistent annoyances that cannot be removed. The system is well thought out and does not hinder overall gameplay, but the lack of control the players can ultimately develop over the gentry of their own empire becomes tiresome and breaks the immersion of world conquest.
Overall single player combat has been streamlined and refined to arguably the highest level to date in a Total War game. Units are well designed to reflect their historical roles and battlefield performance. The AI is competent enough to know how to use the different units and abilities under its command. Empire and city management is easily accessed but incorporates some new details that greatly increases its learning curve. Naval combat, a feature that’s been greatly expanded since Shogun 2, still needs some work to adequately define and balance the roles of different ship types and thus avoid having all naval battles turn into numbers games.
Multiplayer, particularly the co-op feature for the grand campaign, is very well implemented in Rome II. For the most part load times and real time combat are amiable to lower internet speeds and the mechanics of cooperative play did not produce any problems. The only glaring problem with co-op play is the presence of so many diverse cultures in Rome II. Cultures affect public order and competing cultures generated by allies in close proximity can cause some trouble in border provinces. This often requires players to choose factions a fair distance away from each other, eliminating some of the elements of cooperative play.
Graphics are certainly fresher and on higher settings require a mid-to-high end machine to run. This is one of the great tragedies of Rome II. Individual details have been modeled to an unprecedented degree but the player can rarely enjoy this feature. Large scale battles require the player to constantly shift their attention to different units with the screen zoomed out, away from the shiny details.
Rome II’s combat is more integrated and diverse, although at times suffers from its own improvements due to the degree of micromanagement brought on by increased options to the player. Multiplayer is one of the best experiences to date. Sadly, many of the new features Rome II added to the franchise are as troublesome as they are new. Seeing historical military tactics pay off is as rewarding as ever and even more accessible with the greatly improved faction and unit designs, but outside the battlefield empire management remains overly cumbersome and sometimes outright frustrating.
Rome II’s place in the Total War franchise is highly debatable since many of the new mechanics have uncertain futures in upcoming titles. Fans of the first Rome will miss some of the old simplicity, but those looking for greater options in their conquest of the Mediterranean will appreciate the increased detail. Casual gamers, especially those new to Total War, should probably refrain from purchasing Rome II until they experience a different modern Total War title to avoid Rome II’s steep and somewhat ambiguous learning curve.