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EGM Review:
Total War: Rome II

Posted on September 2, 2013 AT 06:00am

Dulce Bellum Expertis

I’d like to take this opportunity to confess that I’m in an unhealthy relationship with empire-building games. It always starts off the same way: A new strategy title promises nuanced tactics and control over the fates of men, and I swarm to it like a Napoleon-shaped moth to a flame that looks suspiciously like Russia in the winter.

Every time, I go in thinking that it’ll be different.  This time, I’ll conquer my enemies and control the world. I’ve been plotting out a strategy so sound, it can’t possibly fail.

And every time, I come out a week later with my ego bruised after countless men have died due to my ham-fisted decisions…and all that remains of my empire is a lone statue in the sand.

I’d like to say that Total War: Rome II was different—that it wasn’t another in the long line of strategy games that sucked me in and spit me out—but that’s not the case. Rome II is still Total War, after all. It’s a strategy series for those who want a test of tactical prowess and are willing to endure myriad failures until the glint of victory appears. If you win, you feel like you beat the world—because you effectively did.

Over the last two years, 2011′s Total War: Shogun 2 earned its place as a top-tier strategy game. Apart from the feudal Japan setting, its evolution of the Total War series’ trademark mix of turn-based and real-time campaign just felt right. In the last expansion, last year’s The Fall of the Samurai, you could even pit an army of samurai up against 19th-century infantry with modern rifles, cannons, and Gatling guns. And if you don’t think Gatling guns and samurai go together, you haven’t played Shogun 2.

It seems odd, then, that after bringing the series to the cusp of the modern age, the new iteration would turn back the clock 2,000 years to the formation of the Roman Empire. Would that really open up the possibilities for a new, more exciting game?

Rome II continues the Total War tradition of slightly tweaking the formula. There’s still a turn-based campaign mode where you build and move armies, command subterfuge, and diplomatically harass the other denizens of the world. And there’s still a real-time battle mode where you face the enemy in direct conflict.

What’s changed? Key structural campaign elements and some noticeable—if less dramatic—tweaks to battles. The map, to state it simply, is huge: Rome II includes all of Western Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. To help players deal with this massive collection of humanity, the map’s no longer separated into individual, independently controlled regions. Instead, up to four county-like areas are combined into a province with a walled city in one section as the capital. This becomes both the most fortified and the most desirable target in the region, but without all the other settlements in a province, you’re missing out on bonuses in tax income and public order—a measure of the overall happiness of the population. Order, food supplies, and taxes are calculated for the province as a whole, and any changes affect all the cities in the province. When your empire stretches from the Adriatic to the Atlantic, it helps that you don’t need to start doing local politics for every place you conquer.

Armies and navies are no longer recruited at a city, but instead through a commander who must be hired before any units can be assigned. The available units are still limited to whatever buildings are in nearby cities, but you won’t find loose armies wandering the map without a leader. Generals can also hire mercenaries to fill the ranks faster—but at a price; mercenaries cost double to triple what normal units cost to maintain. As you expand your empire, you have to balance your military’s ever-growing salary with its might, sometimes hiring mercenaries for short campaigns as you besiege cities far from home.

In addition to the new command structure, battles now have more variety. The terrain and cities have more possible layouts, and a single battle can include both naval and ground in the same conflict, so now it’s possible to launch amphibious assaults, as well as the normal land or sea battles. Along with the varied terrain, Rome II features 700 unit types. Most of these, though, are simply variations on a theme with slightly adjusted stats and textures (like multiple versions of Roman legionnaire battalions with different titles and shield insignias), and during a battle, the difference between the multitude of similar units is not as apparent when thousands of troops are fighting in a melee.

But war isn’t just about human conflict. It’s possible, for example, to send packs of Roman bulldogs to attack herds of Carthaginian war elephants in a gruesome display of animal cruelty that would make Caligula proud (Note: The elephants will almost always win).

With all the changes, though, some alterations are less beneficial for players familiar with Shogun 2. The most obvious is the overhauled user interface. Even though most of the same information is available somewhere within the menus, it feels less transparent than its predecessor. The research trees, for example, are split into eight different tabs instead of the single page of Shogun 2. When so much of the game depends on your ability to plan moves far in advance, the information should be much more accessible and assessable than it is, especially when it wasn’t as obscured in the last game.

In my main campaign, all of the aspects of the game coalesced into a stream of action and contemplation. I kept checking the main map, the diplomatic map, the army stats, and all the other minutiae to make a cogent plan. As my borders expanded, more former allies became sworn enemies. The wait between turns became a tension-filled halt as I expected the inevitable march on my land—which wasn’t necessarily mine the last turn. My empire was growing at the end of a blade, but I still wanted to avoid open conflict with the entire ancient world at once.

The game makes you feel powerful and vulnerable at the same time. You look at the map and think, “The Italian peninsula will be unified under the banner of Roma,” and then realize, “But if we attack the Ardiaeans, we’d immediately be at war with Macedon, Greece, and Sparta!”

Can we take them all on in a straight war? No.

Can we give ourselves an advantage before things get bloody? Maybe.

Plans get revised. You send in spies and diplomats to whittle down the enemy’s defenses and gain valuable intel. As you move forces to the border, ready to commit to a full Adriatic war, your western empire in what is now Spain appears threatened. No one has declared war yet, but the Turdetani have amassed a fleet near your port of Qart Hadasht (Carthage) and look poised to strike. Should diplomatic appeasement be brokered? Should forces be shifted West to bolster the Iberian defenses? Should mercenaries be hired to strike them first, before they completely outnumber the First and Second Roman Legions? Questions like these haunt you as the campaign progresses, your empire grows, and your armies fight and die in skirmishes across the known world. It’s frantic and calculated, and you feel like your decisions are what determine your ultimate fate.

Individual battles through the campaign feel like a means to an end. Each can be a fun diversion, but the game is focused on expanding and building an empire.

What the battles do well is take out the randomness usually associated with turn-based games. Instead of conflicts decided by chance, you can take command of the engagement on your terms. Battles are voluntary. Before each one, you can opt for an automatic resolution instead of manual control if the scenario doesn’t interest you. I’ve gone into battles I knew I’d lose just to whittle key enemy units down during my retreat. The game might call the outcome a “Decisive Defeat,” but delaying the enemy may allow another legion to reinforce my army in the next turn and reverse the hostile advance. The seamless shift from high-level planning of an entire war to a single confrontation works so well that the battles become a tool of imperial might and not just a gimmick tagged onto a digital board game.

Rome II performs at about the same level as Shogun 2. The game offers a few more graphical-prettiness options for modern PCs, but any machine capable of running the previous title should find Rome II to perform nearly the same. The larger battles will tax even the beastliest of rigs, and the wait between turns is even longer now with so many more factions to fill in all that extra space. I clocked a two-minute wait per turn, so it may be advisable to bring reading material or light busy work to fill the time between moves.

Over the course of its campaign, Rome II proves itself as a fitting evolution of the Total War series. A game named for one of history’s greatest empires should be epic, and in both the scale of your missions and the size of the world, Rome II most certainly is. The new features streamline some of the micromanagement from previous titles, allowing more of your energy to focus on expansion and not satiating the needs of your populace. While some of the changes may be jarring and difficult to reconcile, they can be mostly overcome with some practice—after which it’s possible to experiment and explore without needing to constantly reference the manual. Is Rome II as sadistic as Shogun 2? Definitely, but it’s also an excellent mix of strategy and action to keep things interesting—even as your empire regrettably crumbles around you.

Developer: The Creative Assembly • Publisher: Sega • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 09.03.2013
While the interminable wait between turns and overhauled user interface may be shocks for players flocking from Shogun 2, the overall experience still delivers a top-tier strategy epic.
The Good The world is massive. The battles are exciting. The campaign can be measured in many days of real time. It is epic.
The Bad Some changes to the user interface are a little off-putting to veteran players of the series. With so many AI troops, long waits between turns are understandable but inevitable—expect to lose hours just waiting between turns.
The Ugly Watching the barbarian hordes ransack your empire after you overextended your reach.
Total War: Rome II is a PC exclusive. 

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