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Total War: Rome II Hands-On

Posted on August 26, 2013 AT 09:00am

A battle primer for neophyte centurions

The Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise has legions of hardcore fans who’ll snap up the developer’s latest, Total War: Rome II, no questions asked when it releases in early September. This is a given.

But the U.K.-based developer also knows that they can’t rely on these players alone to carry the critically acclaimed real-time strategy franchise. While they’ll never reel in casual gamers, The Creative Assembly is well aware that plenty of longtime strategy fans have either overlooked the games or simply lacked a rig that could run the PC-exclusive series—guilty as charged on both counts here. I consider ancient Rome to be the most fascinating period of human history, though, so there’s no better time for me—and strategy devotees of all stripes—to jump headfirst into the Total War experience.

“Even if you’re not really interested in Roman history, it’s a very accessible game in terms of picking it up and playing it,“ says lead battle designer Jamie Ferguson. “It has a lot of familiar control mechanisms that you’d see in any strategy or RTS game, but at the same time, it has more depth and more breadth than pretty much any strategy game out there. In terms of the real-time aspect of the gameplay, it’s battlefields bigger than anything you’ve seen in any RTS game you’ve ever played.”

Part of easing players into the experience is Rome II‘s prologue sequence, which is specifically designed to bring new players into the fold—and inform returning fans of what’s changed. As a series newcomer, I took particular interest in this segment, which showcased the Romans’ bitter 4th-century-B.C. rivalry with the Samnites, fierce mountain warriors from the central Italian peninsula.

“The first few battles of the prologue are quite heavily scripted,” says studio communications manager Al Bickham. “This enables you to try a number of different things out and look for the best result without the AI taking over and reacting too much to what you’re doing. You’ll find in the later battles—once you’re past the first three of the prologue—we relinquish control to the AI so it starts doing its thing. In that regard, it opens up to more of a sandbox experience toward the end of the prologue.”

This scripting is illustrated starkly during the prologue’s Battle of Vesuvius, where the outnumbered, rain-soaked Romans must deal with the Samnite threat through a series of skirmishes, whittling down their numbers with cavalry flanking. Unfortunately, I didn’t approach the battle this way at first—and badly paid the price in a display that would’ve left Augustus shaking his head in shame.

“We have a tendency to think of cavalry as a sort of ancient superweapon,” Bickham says. “But that’s not how it actually functioned in those battles.”

Once you’ve learned the basics and get a sense of how the basic unit types function, though, you can take matters into your own hands if you don’t like your odds, Bickham explains: “Eventually, it opens up to a point where you’ll face armies, and you can say, ‘You know what? I’d like a better balance of forces in my favor. I’m just going go and hire some mercenaries.’ Bang, bang, bang—three new units in your army just before you go into battle. In the greater game, that’s one of the things that can really affect the outcome of a battle: using locally hired forces.”

While teaching the basics might seem like a slog, after some considerable hands-on time with the game, I think it’s necessary to educate players who might be more used to the glacial pace of turn-based strategy—or, for those players who, like me, were weaned on Koei’s excellent strategy fare on the NES and Super NES like Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Nobunaga’s Ambition.

“We gradually introduce the player into the mechanics of the game. You don’t start out with 200 regions under your control,” Ferguson says. “When you actually start out, it’s very elementary—for example, if you’re playing as the Romans, you have control of Rome, and that’s pretty much it. You’ll have a couple of units under your control, and you’ll have to grow from there. The point of that is, you actually learn how each element works, slowly, as you play the game. And as each element is revealed, bit by bit, you’re not bombarded with information all at once, and you can slowly grow into an understanding of the game. Even if you put down the game for months, we’ve put an encyclopedia into the game that explains all the intricacies. We also have video tutorials, so you can watch and get a sense of how it’s done.”

All of these teaching tools are necessary in a strategy game featuring this much complexity, explains campaign designer Dom Starr.

“It’s much more of a dynamic, realistic, visceral style here than you’d get if it were a turn-based, grid-based strategy game,” he says. “That whole chess element of turn-based games is nice, and there’s a good element of consideration into planning your moves. But this feels real. There’s something quite astounding about seeing these massive bodies of men moving around the terrain and clashing violently—it just feels real.”

When I note the Egyptian elephants trampling Roman legions during the Battle of the Nile in 47 B.C. as a segment of the demo that stuck out to me, Ferguson points out that’s exactly the type of immersion The Creative Assembly is looking for when they design these conflicts.

“You don’t have to imagine how those two armies fought against each other,” he says. “You’re actually in control.”

But in designing the incredibly detailed ancient warfare, the team wanted more than sheer numbers. “It’s not just that there are thousands of men on the battlefield—it’s that they’re all individuals,” Ferguson says. “If you get up close to them with the camera, you can actually hear them interacting with each other, shouting insults at the enemy or encouraging each other. If they’re scared, they’ll let on that it’s something that they’re feeling. That won’t just be in terms of voices; it’s also something you see in the way that they behave. That kind of human interaction is something that goes all the way through the game, all the way from the battlefield to the grand strategy element.”

Even for returning Rome players will be in for a surprise, given the nine years between mainline entries.

“The scope is huge,” Starr says. “It’s the biggest game we’ve made in terms of geographical expanse and the variety of cultures that live within that. [Feudal Japan–based] Shogun 2 was very much a monoculture, so we were dealing with similar sets of units, whereas here, we have very Hellenic cultures, Eastern cultures, Egyptians, Parthians, these very exotic units, and then you have the northern barbarians with their huge swords and big beards. Each of these is fully fleshed out.”

“And each has their own flavor and culture,” Ferguson adds. “That’s something we’ve gone into more depth than we have with any previous game. With the way that the economics of the game work, the management of the provinces, the whole thing. For somebody’s who’s played a previous Total War game, I’d say there’s a lot of things they’ll be coming across for the first time. It’s not just an ordinary Total War.”

With 13 total factions—Rome, Carthage, the Iceni, the Arverni, Egypt, Pontus, the Suebi, Parthia, and Macedon available at launch, with the Seleucids coming post-release and Athens, Sparta, and Epirus added as a special pre-order “Greek States Culture Pack”—players can pick a side representing anywhere from modern-day England to present-day Afghanistan.

“This is the most ambitious Total War we’ve ever done,” Ferguson says. “That’s not an exaggeration. That’s the truth of it. We have more than 600 units in the game that stretch from different cultures, obviously, so when you play as the Romans, you aren’t necessarily going to have 600 units to choose from, but you’ll see a lot of variety in the terms of the enemies that you fight and tactics that you’ll have to learn how to counter. All of those things are going to be something that players won’t have ever seen in any previous Total War game.”

That complexity also extends to the design of the various factions, with special care taken to ensure that the geography, culture, and even weather plays a distinct, believable role in each area of the map.

“Each faction has their different way of playing,” Ferguson explains. “They’re not the same. They’re not cookie-cutter units with different-colored banners. The Romans, the Greeks, the barbarians, the Carthaginians, they all have different philosophies. They all have a different way of fighting, different way of managing their conquered foes, and also different ways of politicking within themselves. You’re not just an absolute ruler who has no questions asked of anything you do. People will actually challenge you within your own faction. They can tell you they don’t like the way you’re doing something, and you can choose to either go along with that and change the way you manage things—”

“Or assassinate them!” Starr interjects.

Roman history is intertwined with history of Britain, of course, as is the history of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. But even though the U.K. is packed with Roman ruins like those found at Bath, Colchester, and the like, the team at The Creative Assembly went to the source for inspiration and hands-on research—Rome itself.

“It’s only an hour and a half by plane, after all,” Bickham says. “You can get a lot from history books, obviously, but nothing really replaces seeing it—and you can’t turn a corner without seeing something in Rome.”

The team augmented those firsthand impressions of the Eternal City with their own late nights deep in tomes usually more associated with history professors than game designers.

“We’re very meticulous in our research, and we have many sources,” Starr says. “There are so many books written by people in the know—although they tend to disagree with each other, which is always amusing. Whose version of history is the right one?”

“We’ve read hundreds.” Ferguson elaborates, specifically mentioning Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed (an excellent read that I’d recommend to any Roman history buff or anyone interested in this game) and a particularly helpful archaeological atlas that, according to the team “shows what Europe looked like in terms of geography, city placement, and tribal locations.”

“It’s a scholarly work,” Ferguson explains. “It’s not the sort of thing you just pick up at your local library.”

Anything else the team might have found useful? “The entire bloody Cambridge history of everything!” Starr jokes.

“We’re dealing with a period that’s more than 2,000 years ago,” Ferguson elaborates. “The result of that is, there’s a lot of information that’s pretty sketchy. History is written by the victors, and the Romans didn’t necessarily tell the whole truth. Something we discovered through research was that the Romans weren’t the first ones to build straight roads. The Celts were already doing it 500 years beforehand. And if you look at Roman equipment, a lot of it was actually stolen from other cultures. For example, the gladius is actually a Spanish sword. Chain mail was a Celtic design. If you believe the Romans, they did it; they invented it. But that’s not the truth. And that theme runs all the way through everything that we’ve done when we look at the research. A lot of history that appears black and white on the surface isn’t necessarily so.”

“The Romans kept great records,” Starr adds with a laugh, “about how awesome they were.”

While the team aims to keep the experience as accurate as possible, Bickham says that isn’t always the best solution, given the gameplay considerations they need to balance.

“Sometimes—and it doesn’t happen very often—but accuracy wars with gameplay,” he says. “And in those cases, gameplay wins. ‘Historical authenticity’ is a much more relevant phrase than ‘historical accuracy’ as far as we’re concerned.”

The authenticity doesn’t just come down to the battles and art on display, but it even extends to the sounds players will hear as they march across the ancient world.

“The music is a big deal for that sense of atmosphere and antiquity,” Bickham says. “Our audio lead, Richard Beddow, he absolutely went to town. He went and booked an incredible amount of ethnic musicians playing ancient instruments, like the oud. But it’s also about the compositions. For example, if you’re in the Greek lands and playing as the Greeks, the music is composed in Greek scales, which feel so different, because the underlying structure is fundamentally foreign.”

So, taking into considering the exhaustive research everyone at The Creative Assembly has done to bring this project to fruition, which faction would the team recommend new players start out with?

Despite the title of the game, Starr suggests new players actually start not with Rome, but an overlooked power far to the east in current-day Iran. “I’d start with Parthia, because they start off with a single region, so they’re quite easy to manage,” he says. “They’re also the only major Eastern power that we have. There are several insignificant tribes around that you can flex your muscles beating into submission and getting extra territory. And I also think their story is quite interesting. After Rome, they’re the faction that, historically, we know the most about.”

“I think I’d go with Carthage,” Ferguson says with a hearty chuckle, “and the first thing I’d do is go destroy Rome!”

Andrew Fitch, Managing Editor
Andrew Fitch, a proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, has been attending E3 for more than a decade now. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth. Follow Andrew’s adventures in avoiding cursed furniture at his Twitter feed: @twittch. Meet the rest of the crew.

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