[20 October 2004]
“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”
It’s tempting to suggest that Hollywood’s current fascination with the Ancient World (Gladiator, Troy, two versions of Alexander the Great) has influenced the gaming industry. But Greece and Rome have always provided inspiration for developers; the latter alone has been featured in everything from Centurion: Defender of Rome and Rome AD 92, to the city-building Caesar series and Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome. Romans have also been a de rigeur faction in strategy classics like Civilization and Rise of Nations. When a large, well-organized, aggressive, pre-gunpowder nation is needed to stir armchair generals to action, the Roman Empire fits the bill.
Rome is the third in developer Creative Assembly’s Total War series. Even though it’s not a true sequel to Medieval: Total War, Rome fulfills the demands of one: improved graphics, a streamlined interface, and tweaked gameplay. But a successful franchise also avoids messing too much with the formula, so Rome retains the basic mechanics of the Total War series.
You start with a campaign map, centered on the Mediterranean. It’s divided into provinces, each with an accompanying town that must be conquered if you’re to reap the benefits of that province’s resources. (In a thematically appropriate addition, some provinces contain a Wonder of the Ancient World bonus.) On this map, you make strategic decisions, moving your armies, diplomats, and spies around while simultaneously building up your cities in order to generate income and larger populations. You must also choose construction projects in a sequence that will best assist your growing power.
The most prominent change in the campaign map is the elimination of the Risk-like interface of Medieval. No longer do armies pile up in the middle of a province to slug it out in one battle. In Rome, your units move throughout the provinces, giving the game more variety. Now, armies are blocked by mountain ranges, can engage in more than one battle per turn, and be slowed down by poor travelling conditions. This last point is a welcome addition, as it integrates the Roman Empire’s famous road-building skills into the game; in order to increase the speed of your armies, you have to upgrade road conditions, creating better connections between your cities.
There are multilayer options, as well as historical, quick, and custom battles, but the single player mode centers on the Imperial Campaign. Here, you start off as one of three Roman families (factions like Carthage, Egypt, and Greece become available later). In addition to capturing provinces, you also have the option of accepting timed missions from the Senate. In another nod to the setting, when you feel yourself powerful enough, you can, in true Roman fashion, turn against the Senate and march on Rome itself.
When two opposing armies meet, the game switches to Total War’s calling card: the battle map. It’s here, where the tactical decisions are made, that Rome really excels. There’s a climactic battle in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus between escaped slaves and a Roman army. Before that, there’s a slow build up in which Spartacus and his men watch from a hill as the Roman army approaches. From their position, the legionnaires are so numerous that they appear as giant black rectangles, moving and shifting against a green background. It’s scenes like that that Rome recreates so successfully.
While gamers self-defensively wait for games to be declared a true art form, there are moments in Rome that indicate the wait is over. Whatever one’s definition of art, it’s obviously more than “that which provokes a simple ‘Wow, this is fun’ response”. Rome’s battle scenes are epical, in a manner that is awesome to behold. So many games have tried to deliver a sense of scale, from the galactic empires of Master of Orion to the space battles of TIE Fighter. But in the past, armies were either represented by symbols or limited by graphical considerations. Now, here’s Rome presenting scenes of true spectacle: siege towers disgorging men who swarm across castle walls, war elephants trampling formations, cavalry charging through the streets of a besieged city. While the soldiers in each unit are identical and move a little chunkily when you zoom in, that’s not how best to enjoy the game. Pull out as far as you can and watch as literally thousands of soldiers march into battle.
The reviews for Rome: Total War, uniformly favourable, caution against the game’s overwhelming details. But the scrolls that pop up, giving more information than you need, help exaggerate the game’s complexity. For example, if you choose Land Clearance as a building option, it includes a description, when all you really want to know is that it gives you +1 in food and farm improvements. It just isn’t that significant in the long run if you decide to build, say, a market first instead of upgrading your barracks, since you’ll get around to doing both anyway. The fact that city management can be automated points to its somewhat inessential nature. And while your generals get bonuses in the form of retinue additions (example: a Merchant, which gives a 10% trade bonus), what and when additions are given is out of your hands (though retinue members can be transferred); all you can do is have your generals continually win battles—something you have every intention of doing anyway. That being said, the game offers great depth when it comes to making decisions on the actual battlefield.
Ultimately, with most of the game’s mechanics having already been field-tested in Shogun: Total War and Medieval: Total War, the appeal of Rome rests on its subject matter. But while we can all agree that things like 3D graphics are a good thing, it’s difficult to extol the appeal of certain time periods; after all, The Cool Factor is a hard one to qualify. Suffice to say that for me, Medieval suffered greatly from its setting, since I think of the Middle Ages as a time of flagellating monks, unsanitary conditions, dreary castles, and tin can armour.
The Roman Empire, on the other hand, had real grandeur and style, and was so long ago that its unsavoury aspects are more easily overlooked. It certainly had the warrior aesthetic working for it, as evidenced by its standards, uniforms, and architecture. Rome captures all of that, and as an added bonus gives us the only set pieces in games reminiscent of The Return of the King’s Battle of Pelennor Fields (at least until The Battle For Middle Earth is released). It’s enough to satisfy even the most discerning megalomaniac.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/rome-total-war/