Total War: Rome II
339 hours. That’s how long I’ve played Empire: Total War. Shogun 2 is no slouch either, at 139 hours. I didn’t play the original Rome or Medieval 2 on Steam, but I assume those numbers would be comparable. I’m not a Total War master, but Total War: Rome 2 is hardly my first rodeo. I love the series (the design, not always the execution, more on that later) and even with all of its flaws, I could go on playing Empire into old age. So, it saddens me that I’m now wondering if I’ll ever pick up Rome 2 again once I’m done writing this review.
For those of you who are somehow still unfamiliar with the series, Rome 2 places you in charge of your own nation (or political faction within a nation) as it grows from your small starting city to world-spanning empire. And as the name “Total War” implies, you primarily grow your nation through conquest. The action is divided between a turn-based campaign map and real-time battles.
I’ll get this out of the way at the top because there’s no way I’m going to be able to mask my ultimate conclusion: Rome 2 is probably one of the worst entries in the series. I knew it within the first few hours of playing but for a while there, I couldn’t quite figure out why. After all, the basic game mechanics are the same as previous versions. How could this be so different from Shogun 2 or Empire? I kept playing and analyzing and the one word that kept echoing in my mind was “joyless”.
The first joy-sucking aspect of Rome 2 is the absolutely abysmal coding that chugs the game along. I have a decent i5 Intel dual-core CPU and a much better graphics card but I expected that I might have to play on less than max settings. So sure, let’s turn the graphics down to medium. Huh, I’m only getting about 10 frames per second, even on the campaign map (which should be the easiest thing to render). Low settings? Same deal. I tried the game on a newer quad core rig and it was better, but not by much. From what I can gather, from my decades of PC gaming, is that Creative Assembly shipped this game without an ounce of optimization. After hours and hours of slideshow visuals, it just saps the fun out of playing.
Needless to say I immediately jumped on each and every beta patch that was released. My performance went from 10 frames to about 15. Fine, good enough, at least I can better judge the other parts of the game. Unfortunately, that same spirit of half-assing their release carries over into almost every other facet of Rome 2.
Let’s start with the empire-building mechanics. Instead of managing each city individually, now settlements combine to form provinces which serve to cut down on micromanagement. On a map as large as Rome 2’s, this is actually a great feature. But good design doesn’t always mean competent execution. Buildings are all subdivided between military, industry, religion, food, entertainment and ports. Where things become overcomplicated is with all the modifiers. Entertainment buildings can modify food buildings which can in turn modify industry, which can affect tax rates, which are governed by commerce buildings, and hey, where the hell are these supposed commerce buildings? The system is Byzantine and poorly documented to boot. After enough time trying to figure it all out, I got the sense that Creative Assembly didn’t really intend anyone to bother and that the best way of playing was simply to place buildings around based on whim and as long as you are making money and keeping your food stores stocked, it was “good enough”. It’s as if someone started to design an intricate system and then got bored and moved onto something else.
Politics is the worst “half-assed” offender. From what I can tell (I’m still pretty confused), you lead a particular noble house in the government, and you want to attain more power in said government by winning the approval of some vague “senators”. How do you do this? Well, sometimes you are given little choose-your-own-adventure vignettes about how some nephew of yours has befriended an albino goat or somesuch and you have to decide whether to order him to become a priest or eat the goat at a feast. And a few turns later, you’ll either gain or lose senator approval based on some random under-the-hood dice roll. You may also choose to spread rumors about rival families or have them assassinated. Honestly, none of this matters. In all of my games, I simply ignored politics and nothing negative (or positive) came from it. Sometimes I was evenly esteemed as my rivals, other times I had political dominance. The game changed not one iota. This “feature” could have been cut from the game entirely and no one would have noticed the absence.
New to the series is the addition of joint naval and land battles. Now, you can have proper amphibious landings and port defense missions and it all works pretty well, actually. In most other ways, the combat is the same as it ever was – archers in the back, soldiers in the front, cavalry on the flanks. There have been really strange AI behaviors during battle (in my games, the enemy would repeatedly send out one unit at a time to get slaughtered by my javelin throwers), and once the rumble starts, your melee units will form into a huge blob of mashed-together bodies. But those problems are getting ironed out in patches. Still, once again, who ships a game in such poor condition?
Finally, what I view to be the biggest problem is the complete lifelessness of the campaign AI. Diplomacy has never been Total War’s strong suit, but in Rome 2, it’s as if every nation of the world simply doesn’t care…about anything. Almost no one declares war, even when they vehemently hate you, trade routes and non-aggression pacts are gleefully extended and there’s seemingly little consequence to rampaging across the map like Attila the Hun. It’s like fighting an unarmed opponent – sure you’re winning but it’s just not much fun if they don’t fight back. It gets to the point where taking city after city seems more like a menial chore than a challenging thrill. Even the agent movies have been left on the cutting room floor, so poisoning a town’s water supply or setting fire to a barracks has lost all of its personality.
In judging Rome 2, one has to look at the greater context. Creative Assembly is a game studio that makes and remakes the same game over and over. It’s not as if they are juggling RPGs, shooters, flight simulators…and also Total War. Total War is all they do! And yet, they don’t seem very good doing that one thing, making the same mistakes time and again. They almost always release their games too early, they are constantly apologizing (this time, they seemed to have an apologized pre-written for launch day), and even when they learn their lesson (fans loved the reintroduction of agent movies in Shogun 2!), they backslide into the same mediocrity they had previously dug themselves out of. Put simply, Creative Assembly is succeeding only because there is very little competition in the genre, at present. People love the formula, and so they keep buying into Total War, but when is enough enough? Are we ever going to get a consistent level of competence out of them? Rome 2 is a colossal let down and while I’m sure the game will be decent after the 20th patch, I’m just tired of being jerked around. Get your head in the game, Creative Assembly!
Reviewed By: Brian Mardiney
This review is based on a digital copy of Total War: Rome II for the PC provided by Sega.