Game Review – Total War Rome 2: Emperor Edition

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Platform: PC

Developer: Creative Assembly

Publisher: SEGA

Prologue

Back in Sep 2013 TWR2 was finally released to the utter joy of Creative Assembly’s legion of prostrate fans (of which I am one). Following an unprecedented wave of hype and over excitement across the neck beard, self-molesting PC community the time was finally at hand to wave goodbye to normal life and sink 500+ hours of precious existence into this life consuming game.

Following on from its initially troubled but ultimately polished predecessor Shogun 2, realistic expectations had taken a leap from a very tall building and most succumbed to wild expectations that this was going to be the special one, the epic, all of their historical fantasies made real by a multimillion dollar budget. It was going to be the TW masterpiece for all the ages – a game fit for Caesar himself.

 It wasn’t.

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Despite all of the tough lessons learned developing the disastrous launch of TW Empire, and the more restrained polishing of Napoleon and Shogun 2, it came as a shock to all to find that many long standing issues in the series were still glaringly present, and in some cases  had actually degenerated more than ever before. Twisting the knife in further was the discovery of some altogether new problems. It was a disaster which prompted a wave of embarrassing memes and Youtube montages.

 No matter how positive a player remained at this point, it was impossible to ignore many of the awkward truths. Most damning of all was the shambolic state of the real time battles. This unique selling point of the series was plagued by imbalanced mechanics and obvious glitches. Instead of ordered armies clashing in formation, fights degenerated quickly into Braveheart style everyman for himself brawls which lasted all but 4 minutes. Siege battles suffered further still due to poor AI which often froze or unravelled in comically tragic mass suicides at city gates. Campaign AI too was often utterly passive leaving the player to conquer the world unopposed, completely removing the strategy point of the game.

 In CA’s defense many of these technical problems are now almost to be expected of such ambitious sandbox games so but what couldn’t be excused were the highly questionable design decisions, such as the UI and menu structure, and also the removal of many features standard in previous releases such as cut scenes and the family tree.

The ensuing inquisition was a long and painful one. For the next year CA spent most of their time (to their credit) fixing up their sick baby and teaching it how to walk again. Huge patches have been consistently released (now up to patch 15), new systems introduced, new content added. Finally, a full year after its launch, an embarrassing public apology, after all the recriminations, CA have finally arrived at the place they always wished to be by re-releasing Rome 2 as the Emperor Edition.

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England really hasn’t changed much in 2000 years.

EE is effectively an overhaul (free for all existing owners) which fixes/expands several significant features, adds a few minor mechanics and cosmetic changes, and includes all major updates along with an alternate grand campaign scenario.

The actual review

For the uninitiated Total War is a long standing series of PC strategy games mixing real time battle simulation with turn based campaign map empire building.

Through an era long campaign the player is given freedom to rule, conquer, sabotage, trade and negotiate with a map full of AI controlled rivals each vying for global domination. When armies are ordered to attack a rival (or an ally if you are a treacherous bastard) the action switches to the battle field where thousands of soldiers (bound together in unit formations) clash in an effort to break the enemy. Acting more as an all-powerful overseer rather than a general, the player issues attacks and triggers special abilities at key moments. While your minions are shamelessly cut down in the hundreds by ravenous enemy hordes it is possible to swoop across the battle field to find cinematic views and comical deaths that would make Ridley Scott jealous, or execute cunning strategies and manouvres. This totally unique experience amongst games is all brought to life by beautifully detailed graphics drawn on an unrivaled epic scale with some of the highest production values out there.

Appealing to the history obsessives, each title explores a different (though usually marketable) era of warfare, this time the action covering the early Roman Republic up to the establishment of the Empire. With Legionaries, Phalanxes, War Elephants and hairy blue painted barbarians stripped to the nuddy, the ancient world setting often captures the imagination, something which helped make the original Rome TW one of the most beloved strategy titles of all time.

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Nothing but a flesh wound.

On selecting a faction it is your task to elevate your small regional power into a glorious trading civilisation or cruel military machine and to expand your power across the world map. Rome 2 comes with the greatest selection of factions of any TW title, and while many share elements of each other there is enough variety to make your choice significant. Nations are divided across the main sub cultures of Roman, Greek, Barbarian, Eastern, or Nomadic. Each comes with unique military units to use in battle, building chains and tech research trees to advance, and randomly occurring festivals and political events which may hinder or boost your progress.

More than ever before choosing a faction will affect your approach and play style: do you rely on stealth, mobility, heavy armour, heavy attack weapons, cavalry, or missile based armies?

Despite being generally spoiled for choice their still remain some needlessly frustrating design choices which cause consternation amongst fans. As the poster boys of the game, and the superpower of the age, the Roman unit roster is understandably huge but it continues to needlessly grow with every DLC while many of the Greek and barbarian factions have only the basic soldier types. Playing entire campaigns with such a thin selection of troops and some lazy copy and paste units can be very unappetising. CA have bulked up one or two fan favourite factions such as Carthage due to endless complaints but their favouritism towards certain cultures remains baffling, especially considering how easily it could be resolved – as proved by modders. It is true that some factions are meant to offer a challenge with their limited fighting style but this doesn’t necessarily mean they should be a half thought out challenge.

Once in the campaign the 3D world map is typically beautiful to behold with its enormous scale and variety of environments. The four corners stretch from modern Scotland, Morocco, Pakistan and Kazakhstan – an area so vast it is possible to play entire campaigns without seeing all of it. Watching your Legions commit atrocities across such a beautiful array of landscapes has been a powerful atmospheric touch missing from recent titles. The desolate sand dunes of the Arabia, the dense snowy forests of Germania, and vast dry plains of Scythia all add a sense of scale and the unknown. The seasons update adds a further layer of beautiful weather visuals within each climate as they change at the ending of each turn (although this doesn’t quite make sense as each turn equals 1 year).

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Settlement design has caused much furore thanks to the CA team indulging in some Game of Thrones references. When upgraded towns now sprout up out of the ground in the same clockwork toy town fashion as the shows iconic opening credits and though the effect undeniably looks cool, and at least allows the player to see how powerful enemy settlements are, at full growth their ridiculously large size can consume small but important parts of the map like Italy or Greece. Lying so close together it becomes too easy to hop from one settlement to the next within a turn, drastically reducing the number of field engagements in the later game. Considering CA announced before launch they wanted to avoid creating a siege heavy game it seems like they have let their design ethos be compromised in favour of superficial gimmick.

Rome 2 also introduced a new streamlined settlement management system which allows management of construction and review tools by clustering settlements into predefined provinces, with up-gradable building chains offering complex perks which can be carefully planned to create synergy and bonuses. The system certainly makes vast empires much easier to navigate but more importantly it forces strategical considerations over whether a province should be specialised for war, industry, agriculture or a compromised mixture. The system is still in its infancy and hasn’t its problems, specifically how quickly and cheaply it is to transform settlements once circumstances change, but if the problems and exploits can be ironed out it could form an integral part of future TW titles.

Complaints have also risen over the limitation of building slots which prevents turning every settlement into sprawling metropolises but the compromise of sand box freedom over strategic choice will always be a balancing act which can’t please all. Yet despite the EE overhaul adding a more expansive choice of building chains, the limited slots does feel just a little too restrictive and could do with a slight rethink.

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The tech tree has been slightly rebalanced but retains the newly streamlined and perhaps overly simplistic design. Most significantly the tweaks now allow the AI to fully develop provinces so that the later game is full of huge and costly siege battles against elite garrison armies and towing gate houses. This acts as an important check on the late stage game when your Empire becomes unstoppable while the AI is crippled by food shortages and rebellions.

Following the many balancing tweaks, the campaign AI has dramatically improved since launch but it is still a rarity to see huge superpowers emerge to rival your own. Ideally the late game would see a clash between 2-3 huge power-blocks but it is more common to encounter easily smashed regional powers and patchwork empires spread incoherently. There is also still a problem with bankrupt empires being stuck in a state of starvation which  needs to be ironed out.

Politics management – the most maligned and embarrassingly poor feature of the original release – has undergone a significant and much required overhaul in order to make it at least somehow relevant but it still remains flawed and unenjoyable. Stillborn in its original conception, it was meant to provide the build up to the end game boss battle in the form of a Civil War. Even a year after launch players had no idea how it worked, nor did they want to know. The resultant and entirely random instant spawn of 10 – 20 full fresh stack armies made no sense and has been swapped for a more logical splitting of your own forces. It works better but is still based on an entirely random system and trigger.

Many fans wanted the removed family tree feature (dynasty management) to be returned with EE but nothing materialised. But a fully fleshed out politics based system allowing the player to manage its own government through intrigue, power plays and violence sounded far more appetising than arranging marriages.

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On the battle field Rome 2 has always had a solid foundation and following heavy patches is now up to as high a standard as the series has ever achieved, perhaps even better than ever as far as AI goes, although it can’t really be said that much innovation has been added. Battles now encompass most scenarios from traditional land battles, river crossings, settlement sieges, naval battles, and combinations of both land and sea. Unfortunately the addition of naval landings have not lived up to the promise of Saving Private Ryan style cinematics they were advertised to be.

Given the mind bogglingly complex nature of the gameplay there are always problems people will nitpcik and hold up as proof that the engine is broken but compared to the older games it is a significant advance and CA haven’t finished fine tuning just yet.

Unfortunately CA has still yet to get to grips with naval battles which remain too much of chore and are often skipped by most players (check some of the prominent Youtube lets plays). They require an endless and frustrating click fest of quick fire orders as the player battles against unresponsive ships which need constant babysitting. That each confrontation degenerates into an ugly chaotic scrum is not such an issue considering this is probably quite realistic for the era but the exciting potential of ramming, ship to ship boarding, and hail of artillery fire is nowhere near as playable as it sounds. The pace of the naval battles is slow, the man management too intense, the results too unpredictable. Even on a more basic and manageable level of one ship vs one everything feels weak, lacking weight or punch. Iconic naval technologies of the era like the Corvus and grappling hook are also still missing and suggest that CA didn’t get anywhere near where they wanted to with this part of the game. Hopes remain of a naval overhaul in a future patch but for now it is more convenient to auto resolve.

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Clearly much has been fixed and rebuilt in EE but some minor problems still linger and are unlikely to be entirely removed, largely due to early design decisions. Though certainly not game breakers, they do detract from the over all experience. Character portraits, previously lovingly hand drawn artwork giving characters much needed personality, are now ugly 3D puppets with barely distinguishable features. Randomly generated names seem much less authentic than in past titles. Faction leaders are difficult to identify on the campaign map and haven’t been given any significant role with the removal of the family tree.

Perhaps the most difficult thing CA continually have to contend with is the awesome inspiration a player gets from sinking so much of their time into a game of this size and scope. With all the endless possibilities presented it is difficult not to get drawn into constructing a fantasy list of all the potential features and then wonder why CA haven’t thought of them first.

Rome 2 Emperor Edition, like all TW titles, is a vast behemoth of complex mechanics, play styles, and features, and as such there are always parts which seem to be missing and others which don’t work as well as intended. These prevent Rome 2 from being the ultimate Total War experience many were expecting it to be but that shouldn’t detract from the incredibly impressive package it has become.

FINAL VERDICT:

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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