Fans of the series have been waiting for this sequel for many, many years. Happily, it doesn't disappoint.
There is a singular goal for someone playing Total War: Rome II, and that is to dominate and destroy your opponents. Through a combination of turn-based manoeuvring and real-time fighting, a huge map depicting the ancient world must be painted one colour - yours - and any that stand in the path towards that solitary objective must be crushed without pause or mercy.
There's a tutorial on hand for players to learn the basics, but having played that extensively for a preview, we skipped straight on to the main campaign. Playing as Rome, it was time for history to repeat itself. It started simply enough; there were angry neighbours to the north - Etruscans - and war was already upon our fledgling empire. The first task was to subdue their armies, control their cities, and stretch our influence northwards.
Waging war effectively takes time. It's an art form. Sure there's the option to "Zerg Rush" opponents, clobbering them with mighty armies before moving onto the next, but doing so sows seeds of discontent, and fires of rebellion will forever burn in your wake. Better still is to slowly, methodically, deliberately expand your sphere of influence. Indoctrinate. Assimilate. Conquer.
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The thrill of fighting a war comes from the many real-time battles that take place during the course of a game, the satisfaction of conquest comes from the management of resources and the subtle manipulation of the world around you. The latter is achieved via a campaign map that breaks up the known world into regions and provinces. Avatars represent agents and armies, spies and fleets of warships. When opposing avatars collide, we're whisked into the former; fierce battles on varying landscapes where real-time tactics and evolving strategies define how the map is carved up.
The campaign map that plays host to the aforementioned avatars is huge. After many, many hours of playing the edges will still evade one's grasp. Enemies will rise and challenge, old allies will betray and eventually capitulate. There's diplomacy, with nations offering peace treaties, trade, and collaboration, however, much of the negotiation is settled via the tip of a sword. The longer the game continues, the more there is to attend to: citizen's happiness must be maintained, mouths must be fed, borders need defending. Political intrigue bubbles under the surface, with different families vying for dominance in the Senate, and players are often asked to make decisions regarding the machinations of power. There's a lot going on, and much to consider.
It's a balancing act, and a good portion of time spent with Rome II is time spent on the business of maintaining the empire, nurturing its growth. The healthier it is, the more effective further expansion becomes, so making sure that all is well across the board will be every player's bread and butter. A goodly portion of effort is spent working out how to extract the most money from your empire without inciting it to rebellion.
As players advance to one of the several win conditions available (conquer so many states, control so many units), each turn will see cities improved, armies bolstered with troops (the units they recruit are defined by the facilities in the province where the army rests - the better the facilities, the better the troops available), and pieces moved around the board in anticipation of future conquests. At the end of each turn there's a lengthy wait while the AI cycles through the other competing factions; here the game heaves under its own weight. When there's plenty to do and battles are being fought, the following moment of pause is sometimes welcome, but during moments of inactivity, when strength is being gathered and pieces are moved into position, the wait can drag.
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When armies are brought into direct conflict, there's multiple avenues that can be explored. The computer can auto-resolve the battle, judging the victor and divvying out the spoils of war. This option is best used on minor skirmishes, when the result is a foregone conclusion. When the playing field is somewhere near even, it's more fun to assume the role of general and take your troops into battle yourself.
There's two starting areas in every conflict, be it siege, naval or land. Some are parallel squares on an open field, others are cities, with one side defending its core while another encircles it with a view to dislodging the incumbent force (capture points, sometimes more than one, must be held or taken - or enemies must be wiped out). Units can be grouped together and assigned hotkeys, allowing for faster control in the midst of battle, and are organised into different formations in preparation for the battle's beginning. Once started, everything plays out in real-time (although action can be paused so orders can be issued, and the pace can be increased so that distant units can reach each other more quickly). Hitting Insert will take you down into a first-person view of a highlighted unit; useful when firing ranged siege weapons, exciting when watching armies crash into each other like waves.
There are several different ways that enemies can cross swords; more than in previous iterations thanks to combined land and naval battles. Troops sit on ships waiting to board another vessel, or ram each other down into the murky depths. Coastal siege battles require the landing of units on beaches and inside the tall walls of heavily fortified towns. It's a welcome addition, but not perfectly executed yet, as enemy AI often lets armies disembark without interference. Sometimes getting off the boats doesn't feel like the battle that it should be.
There's a huge range of different units on offer, and each has particular strengths and weaknesses. Skill trees climbed during the turn-based element, coupled with the buildings assigned to cities in each province, will directly influence the composition of each army. Skirmishers fling projectiles and skirt around oncoming units, the cavalry sweeps in on opposing flanks, sword men swipe and stab, spears prickle and rebuff horse-mounted enemies. There's more exotic options for the otherd factions: the Parthians can call on elephants and the Egyptians have camel-mounted skirmishers, there's attack dogs, and chariots, and huge siege weapons that pack a mighty punch. Each has an application, and each can be exploited. The detail on the individual units is impressive, especially when the overall scale of the game is taken into consideration, with potentially thousands of combatants on the field at once.
Generals lead each army, and as they accrue more victories, so their skills increase. Different buffs can be assigned, allowing specialisation beyond the basic function of waging war. One fully-stacked army might be engineered to harvest more gold from looted cities, where another bristles with additional damage bonuses. Smaller forces garrison captured cities nestled on the frontier of the empire, keeping the population safe from marauding enemies. If an army is dismantled by an opponent, the traditions earned by that force over time can live on, being passed on to another when raised to replace them.
Designing and maintaining a fighting force is half the challenge, and balancing the demands of the army and the nation requires patience. It's possible to specialise in many different directions, both from military and civic perspectives. Your ability to fight will be defined by the units you keep, the units you keep will be defined by the way you grow you cities. Expansion takes its toll, and there's plenty to be done if a well-balanced empire is to be maintained. It's not a race, it's a marathon. At the end of each turn you're notified of any outstanding actions to be taken, a welcome reminder to upgrade generals or research new technologies.
The campaign is deeper than a well, and brimming with possibilities. What adds to the potential longevity is the fact that you if you're bored of playing as Rome, you can instead control one of the other available factions, tackling the map from a different geographical and historical perspective. There's also the inclusion of a co-op campaign, and although conquering the world is fun on your own, scheming with a friend only heightens the enjoyment. Then there's multiplayer battles, when players can take each other on, building armies from Rome II's selection of factions using a pool of points to select their weapons of war. To complete the line-up there is a handful of historical battles ready for re-enactment, with famous standalone examples like the battles of Teutoburg Forest and the Nile, and the Siege of Carthage.
Overall it's a hugely impressive package. The campaign is ripe with intrigue, the battles are challenging and engaging. In a word, it's epic. There's a couple of things that could be slightly better. For a start, it's very CPU intensive, lesser rigs will struggle at times, and there's the occasional glitch. Some of the unit animations are still not perfect, and scenery can be walked through by troops on the ground. The combined land and naval battles are an interesting addition, but we think they can and will be improved upon in future updates/content. However, at the end of the day these are minor gripes, and they do little to dissuade us from our enthusiasm for the whole. Rome II is a cracking game; epic in scope and grand in scale. Creative Assembly may have lost of couple of minor skirmishes along the way, but overall their latest Total War has ended up a sweeping victory.