The Creative Assembly’s Total War series has represented the pinnacle of combining turn-based strategy and resource management with real-time tactical battles since Shogun: Total War in 2000. Since then, the Total War series has garnered a widespread following that only grew as they continued to expand their scope, not just across time but depth. Each entry continues to build upon the previous foundation to incrementally improve the experience while maintaining their historical influences. After much anticipation, Rome II: Total War comes into an already crowded market to bring its unique historical realism and a slew of new iterations in a bid to reclaim their place in the strategy genre.
The Total War series has been known for their historical settings and realistic approach, of which Rome II does not disappoint. The campaign timeline spans the infancy of the Roman Republic in 272 BC over 300 years to 27 BC, when the Roman Senate granted the honorific “Augustus” to Octavian, signaling the death of the Republic and rise of the Empire. This unique niche is the strength of Rome II, but it also imposes an extra level of scrutiny. Is Rome II the continued march of progress, or is this empire starting to crumble with the barbarians (a.k.a. competitors) banging at the doors?
When Rome: Total War came out in 2004, they introduced a number of lauded features, so it’s no surprise that many of these return in grander fashion, though some perhaps more recognizable than others. When playing as the Romans, one of the most apparent changes is the way in which the internal politics of the Roman Senate is represented – a major part of history. While the three competing families are still there, they are no longer treated like separate nations, rather they more realistically represent their influence over the Roman Senate. The three families – The House of Julia, Junia, and Cornelia – compete for the favor of senators alongside the addition of the “Other Houses” family, allowing for marriages and assassinations to change up the gameplay. Unfortunately, this new format relegates the political intrigue to a secondary concern, as it rarely holds any impactful repercussions on the main gameplay besides some “promotions” which offer minor bonuses to generals or admirals.
These generals and admirals are each members of one of the three Families. Unlike previous entries, each army must have a leader, limiting the number of units on the map at any given point, making combat more impactful and strategic. The experience gained on the field increases the level of the leaders and even their armies separately, allowing for the choice of experience benefits. This makes the generals more powerful in battle, while their levels increase and the armies gain traditions that transcend their leader.
It takes advancing the main campaign through Eras to increase the number of Armies and Fleets, each with minimum requirements – usually holding a certain number of territories – and bonuses objectives which attempt to conform the gameplay to history. This new system replaces the old Senate Missions, and while these bonus objectives offer monetary incentives, they are not required to advance to the next era. Due to this and the increased difficulty, they will often be ignored; once the gameplay and historical paths start to diverge, these bonus objectives become increasingly futile.
One of the strengths of Rome: Total War was the seemingly dynamic Senate Missions which changed depending on the situation. This new system neuters the Senate, further decreasing the Senate’s importance in the game. They now serve more as an indirect measure of increased difficulty. Some of these bonus objectives might be to defeat a historical enemy, hold certain territories, or advance a technology tree to a certain point.
Research is split between military and administrative branches, each holding three paths. These technologies offer incremental bonuses related to their paths, such as one in the military cavalry branch that might improve charge bonuses at 10% or decrease recruitment costs at 5%, each compounding upon each other. These are also how new buildings or units are unlocked, improving the efficiency and size of the military or increasing the coffers of the nation. Whereas buildings were locked behind a settlements size before, a small highly advanced nation can now build a better infrastructure than a large under-researched nation.
As interconnected as the research and empire management are, it’s not surprising that there are also branching paths of building types as well. Basic buildings give way to more specialized structures with their own statistical benefits. A basic temple offers certain reductions to unrest and offers minor culture benefits; however, when later upgraded to a Temple of Jupiter or Temple of Mars, their benefits weigh more heavily towards quelling unrest or increasing unit experience, respectively. The limit to which a building can be upgraded is hampered only by the level of research; the number of buildings is controlled by the size of the settlement. Smaller settlements are limited in the number of slots available for buildings, and even if there are open building sites, they are locked until the region reaches a certain growth size.
City-state countries that are prevalent in most empire strategy games are given further depth in Rome II with the addition of regions. A region can be two to four cities that share a geographic commonality, and in Rome II they also share some of the building benefits, such as unrest decrease and cultural spread. This makes controlling complete regions yet another incremental increase to the effectiveness of empire management and control. This additional level of strategy creates a dynamic where cities that would otherwise have been given a lower priority gain value for their connected regional benefits. Additionally, depending on the Era progression, a certain number of regions can enact Edicts that affect every city in the region, adding benefits on top of their normal production.
Along with the larger map and detailed regions, Rome II features factions. Where once there were nondescript barbarian encampments allowing for unfettered expansion to ease the tension of early-period gameplay, there are now 117 total factions acting as independent nations. These small factions exponentially increase the difficulty, realism, and dynamic aspects of Rome II. Not only can war be waged with these civilizations; they can form trade, agree to treaties, and enter alliances that change the diplomatic landscape.
Diplomacy adds more options and a balance of power, which can be handy from a position of growth or strength. The diplomacy in Rome II has undergone an impressive update, creating interactions that feel understandable and appropriate. The new system takes what was great about the original Rome and builds upon the years of experience since then. Whether creating a trading an empire or alliance, diplomacy adds value to any campaign. The interactions are so well represented that the only complaint might be they don’t offer every query or option you might think of, like demanding a ceasefire on a third party.
Of course, for those who would rather take a more back door approach, Rome II offers another update to an old system: Agents. Now Spies, Diplomats, and Champions as well as their attributes act more in a rock-paper-scissors capacity. Agents can be used to weaken the resolve of enemy forces, sabotage defenses, or even cause an enemy to defect to your side. Of course, these units are made to support and strengthen their military counterparts.
In the Total War franchise, the act of war has been the standout feature, and Rome II is no different. Taking to the field in real-time battle is the most dynamic and compelling aspect of Rome II. With the addition of sea battles, land and sea coordination, sieges weapons and defenses, everything adds up to a realistic, thunderous experience. Each unit feels sufficiently different, able to utilize their independent strengths and special actions to their advantage if used correctly. Even the small changes like a more realistically accurate - and strategically important – use of line-of-sight stands out next to large changes like allowing sea and land units to fight on the same map. That’s why it’s a shame the auto-resolve has been broken down to such precise details with chance of victory, unit loss, and three “stances” that many will only ever delve into only the toughest of battles.
After the tutorial section introduces the basic mechanics and the campaign is finished – of which each play through can last twenty or more hours – there are eight playable factions at the time of release, with more to come in the form of DLC, each offering unique play styles. Of course, a staple of the historic strategy genre is the recreation of historic battle scenarios, of which Rome II offers plenty to challenge every level of player. These scenarios also feature a scoring system for further challenges. Another definitive addition to longevity was introduced with Shogun 2: Total War in 2011 – online gameplay. Days, weeks, or even months could be spent replaying thanks to the dynamic nature, making no two games exactly alike.
As with most iterations, not every change is welcome. Changes to the Senate and Families, while more realistic, decrease the importance of such key components to the original game. Buildings and Technology are more in-depth and offer a great level of customization for empire builders. Unfortunately, these added levels of depth raise a great barrier of entry for new players or those who haven’t kept with the Total War series since Empires: Total War. Of course, with battles being one of the key components, this area saw some of the most impressive and pure improvements. On top of this, Rome II: Total War is the most visually impressive strategy game on the market.
Overall, Rome II: Total War changes the pacing to be more purposeful and strategic than the original Rome. Total War fans will find Rome II to be the culmination of years of improvements, more realistic and challenging, with the most engrossing historic references with a balance of gameplay mechanics. Alternately, while the turn-based gameplay has become more realistic, the slow pace and deeper level of interlaced mechanics detract from the “pure” fun of running an empire. The key advantage – and reason Total War titles remain one of the kings of strategy games – lies in their real time battles. The level of realism and difficultly only adds to the barrier to entry, making it more enticing to the core strategy gamer but may be less appealing as an entry to the series. There have been a number of improvements in the series, but they’re weighed down by some unfortunately heavy new mechanics.
Despite some technical flaws that have required an update the Friday following release, it’s no wonder Rome II: Total War was the most pre-ordered Total War game in Creative Assembly’s history, with seven times the number of Shogun 2. Creative Assembly has also promised continued support and additional DLC down the line.