When it comes to Creative Assembly's Total War: Rome II, there's a lot of confidence bubbling around the Sega camp. Who'd have thought that the house of Sonic would eventually transform into the home of hardcore PC strategy games (they recently published Relic's Company of Heroes 2, as well as Football Manager 2013)?!
At a recent event they shipped in journalists from around Europe to a film set just outside Rome (used for the HBO TV series, Rome), and let us get hands-on with a preview build of the prologue campaign for the latest entry into the Total War series.
During our time in the blistering Roman sun, we were only able to try our hand at a couple of the battles that take place during this tutorial campaign. However, waiting for us on our return home was a preview code of the said campaign, that has allowed us much more time to explore the opening battles of CA's newest title. Like previous entries in the Total War franchise, it's a mixture of turn-based strategising and real-time tussles, but this time we're returning to one of the most fertile periods of history, the rise of ancient Rome.
Through the earliest missions we take control of the fictional Gaius Fulvius Silanus, and with the armies under his jurisdiction we wage war against the neighbouring Samnites as we seek to establish Rome as the local superpower. The first battle is the Siege of Capua, where Silanus (voiced by Mark Strong) and his entourage arrive mid-fight. The Samnites are besieging the city, and its defenders are struggling in the face of overwhelming numbers.
Straight away we're thrown into a skirmish away from the main battle. Our forces quickly roll over this initial opposition, and the troops that we rescue during this early exchange join us and swell our ranks. We've got Italian Swordsmen and Hastati (they carry the iconic Roman shields), as well as ranged Levy Slingers under our control, and with them we march onto the main battlefield. Troops are once again directed by a combination of WASD and mouse controls, with units dragged and dropped around the starting area before each round commences, and sent marching with a right-click when the battle is underway. As ever, the basic controls are simple and intuitive, a feat considering the complexity on offer.
Arriving on the Samnite right flank, the first task at hand is to dispose of the artillery units that are bombarding the town's defenders. Our ranged units are spread out and take position on a nearby hill, raining down death on the artillery crews, while our troops rush into close-quarters combat with the soldiers that are defending the slow moving and vulnerable units. It's a swift battle that ends favourably.
With the Samnite's artillery no longer presenting a threat, we move to join the battle via a river crossing at a shallow ford. The numbers pitted against us are overwhelming, and despite being able to use a catapult located on the walls of the town (it's mainly there for show and isn't particularly effective on its own, but hitting Insert brings up a first-person view, with the camera swinging down to reveal where each shot lands), the tide is only turned once CPU-controlled reinforcements arrive over the hill on the left flank, smashing the Samnite assault from the rear.
Following that victory we're treated to several different types of battle, as well as given a basic introduction to the campaign map and the options that'll be presented to players in the turn-based part of the game. There's a lot to take in, but anyone who's played Shogun 2, Empire, or Napoleon will feel instantly at home. The changes to the formula are more context-specific refinements, not massive overhauls. The main difference between Rome II and previous entries in the series is scale.
We were only battling over the west coast of Italy, but the campaign map for Rome II will stretch from the Isles of Britannia, all the way to deserts of Afghanistan. It's going to be eye-achingly huge. With such a large area for players to explore and conquer, there have been several innovations that allow for a more streamlined experience. This will likely be most noticeable in the end-game, where players would traditionally have a lot of things to do each and every turn as they tend to their ever-expanding empire. Here, governing the provinces under your control should be a simpler affair. The depth is still there, but by banding territories together (into threes) and issuing edicts that'll impact regions, rather than just individual territories, and by allowing players to recruit direct to their armies rather than have units being created in towns and sent one by one to your army, CA look to have done a nice job in streamlining the turn-based element.
The campaign map is a crammed full of nuanced detail and eye-catching terrain, with avatars once again representing armies and units (like agents) as they move around like pieces in an elaborate game of chess. There's nice detail in the environments, and little touches like the animals grazing on the grass give some indication to the resources available in the different regions (for example, horses in Italy, camels in Egypt). When avatars collide and battle ensues, short animations sum up the encounter succinctly.
When governing over your burgeoning empire, there's a plethora of options. There's tech trees to boost (Civil offers paths towards increased skill in construction, economy, and philosophy, while Military skills can be improved in management, tactics and siege). Besieged settlements need to be repaired after battle, and cities need expanding. There's different filters that can be applied to the strategic overview, allowing for players to quickly gauge how the land is divided up between factions, diplomacy, public order, wealth and growth.
When it comes to the units under your control, there's a similar amount of options available to the player. You can create new generals and level them up as they accrue experience, build up armies around them (by either training new troops or hiring mercenaries) in order to complete objectives handed down from the Senate (such as quelling local rebellions from unhappy plebs). As armies move around the map they can be set to one of several preset actions; specific areas can be fortified in preparation for battle, the local landscape can be raided, a force march can be initiated in order to cover more ground, and ambushes can be set (particularly useful now that once a battle takes place in one location, the landscape generated there is then persistent, so if you find a nice place to spring a trap you can revisit that area later and do so again). Perhaps the most interesting feature for armies is the fact that as your force becomes more proficient on the battlefield, they earn certain buffs and skills. If that army is later wiped out, a new one can be raised using the legacy of that legion, passing on some of the skills earned in previous battles.
There was only a limited number of turns (14) allowed during the preview build of the prologue campaign, but these turns yielded up a variety of different types of battles. Naval battles were the most obvious deviation, and they still need a little work. This being a early version of the game, there were several issues, and I won't nitpick here, but glitches and bugs aside, the naval battles weren't as exhilarating as their land-based counterparts. Even with ships colliding and troops boarding opposing vessels, it felt a little lethargic.
When naval and land battles combine, things become much more interesting. Reinforcements can be strategically placed on the battlefield when flanking an enemy force, and as it is with the purely naval encounters, ships can ram each other into an early grave, with all on board drowning in the surrounding waters, an excellent trick if you want to cut off an enemy's supply of reinforcements. Via the campaign map, ships can blockade coastal towns, but given the limited nature of the campaign we played, we weren't able to truly explore the nuances of combined land and naval battles.
Back on land we were able to partake in a variety of different encounters. Some where minor skirmishes over small towns, others were huge battles with one side defending fortified positions. Silanus was unnaturally vulnerable in this build of the game, so most of the time I kept him out of harms way, which meant I wasn't able to really utilise his leadership skills, but I was still left with a variety of tactical options on the battlefield.
From the simplest units, likes plebs and mobs, through to cavalry and ranged artillery, each has particular strengths and weaknesses that need to utilised and/or exploited in true Total War style. Ultimately learning the pros and cons of each unit is the surest path to success, because you can't always rely on brute force or a numerical advantage to turn the tide of battle. A line of sight mechanic means that scouts must be sent out before you can truly gauge the strength and composition of the opposing force, and terrain will once again influence battles, with slopes offering advancing troops advantage, and trees providing cover for surprise attacks.
The preview build that we got hands-on with was a tantilising glimpse of what we'll be getting in September when the game is finally released. Given that we were playing with a limited pool of units on a small portion of the campaign map, I think it's fair to say that there's plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Total War: Rome II, both in terms of scope and scale. Sega and CA are clearly confident that they've got all the bases covered, and after what we've seen so far (you can read about our experiences during the Battle of the Nile here) it's easy to imagine their next Total War game dominating the strategy battlefield for the foreseeable future.
During our visit to Rome we had the chance to catch up with CA's Al Bickham, James Russell, and Jamie Ferguson. Come back here at the same time tomorrow to find out more about Rome II direct from the developers in our Q&A with CA special feature.