The Course of Total War Never Did Run Smooth — A Total War: Rome II Review by AdmiralPrice

As a note, much has been made of Total War: Rome II‘s bugs and glitches. While these will factor into the overall grade, I won’t spend too much time talking about them, as I feel that, with the passing of time, they will be less and less relevant to the readership. This review will focus more on mechanics than glitches. 

From the get go, Total War: Rome II had two very big shoes to fill: the shoes of the iconic Rome: Total War, and, as its spiritual successor, the shoes of the finest of the series’ iterations: Total War: Shogun II. Total War: Shogun II was a landmark achievement in the Total War franchise. It was beautiful, complex, streamlined, intuitive, deep, and nuanced. It was the most refined Total War campaign experience, and one of the most fast paced, adrenaline pumping Total War battle experiences.  It was obvious to anyone following the development of Rome II that the developers at The Creative Assembly had refused to simply port Rome: Total War to Total War: Shogun II. They wanted to do something different, something even better than their last achievement. That ambition may have been their own undoing.

The Creative Assembly took the refined Shogun II campaign and used it as the base for Rome II. Thus we see a return of a global food mechanic and increased agent significance, as well as the return of the factions power bar (you know, the one that would trigger the dreaded realm divide). TCA, however did not stop at simply rehashing and refining old mechanics. They overhauled recruitment, significantly altered the long standing province system, introduced many new nooks and crannies in happiness and public order, and and introduced a new political system. The result is a deeper, more strategic campaign than that of even Shogun II’s. The user interface has also underwent a dramatic change from Total War tradition, and to mixed results.

Many of these changes have made the game a deeper, more strategic experience. The new province system was risky, as it was a departure from the way provinces had been handled since the inception of the series. The provinces have been split up into three or four “settlements,” with one acting as a “capital” settlement and two or three “minor” settlements. The capital settlement has five or six building spaces, while the minor settlements only have two. The buildings, too, are much more varied than extensive as compared to its predecessor. What, then, keeps a player from building everything and creating a giant economic powerhouse, recruitment center, and agent specializer in all of his provinces? Surely, one can simply create the most powerful buildings and be done with it!

Well, no, one can’t, and the main reason is the overhauled public order system. Public order is very fragile now, especially as cities grow. Most of the higher tier buildings create squalor, which wreaks havoc on the settlement. Additionally, provincial happiness is affected by buildings in each of the three or four settlements and not just in each individual settlement. Additionally, most high tier buildings require food, which, if negative, leads to a significant happiness hit. Thus, consistently building high power, high tier buildings can easily lead to rebellion in a province. Add cultural tension, very active AI agents, and raiding armies, and the new province system results in a very delicate balancing act. Add to the fact that one can no longer create general-ly lacking (see what I did there?) garrison armies, and provinces can easily spin out of control. Each settlement has to specialize, and public order and food producing buildings are essential to higher level settlements. Even more additionally, buildings are culturally contextual, meaning that a Roman player doesn’t receive benefits from buildings of a Greek or Eastern faction and has to convert them (at a discount, obviously) to his own equivalent culture building. This can all be very confusing, and the forums are abuzz with players unable to properly balance the many different considerations. The best provincial combinations are still being worked out by the best players, and, all in all, the new province system appears to be a major strategic and tactical triumph for both the Creative Assembly and more strategically minded Total War players.

The other major change, the new recruitment system, is much more of a mixed bag. On one hand, the new army system makes armies and generals far more valuable. It also echoes a much more historical and epic tone: no longer do we have giant stacks of units commanded by Captain Kirk and Captain Hook. Generals also have an important role in the political system, making their victories and defeats that much more meaningful. Conversely, recruitment becomes a pain. One can march his army through the enemy territory and become heavily depleted, only to find that, due to the aforementioned complicated and deep province system, he either has to march his grand army all the way back to his recruitment specialized provinces or wait the ten turns (and exorbitant amount of money) necessary to build recruitment buildings and five or so more to finally replenish his army. This is, of course, on purpose, but a needless challenge– there has to be a happy medium between general only armies and giant captain stacks. Perhaps generals should be able to recruit units available in any province, and then some sort of mechanic to actually get those troops there should come into play.

Armies also come with marching stances: pillaging, fortifying, forced marching, ambushing, and normal. Each has its own bonuses and penalties. For example, the fortify stance provides a defensive bonus and defensive equipment while cutting movement points available, while forced march stance allows for faster movement but harsh morale penalties. Still, the stance system provides far more in buffs than it does in penalties, and so it seems rather one sided.  The bonuses are fine — the penalties, however, should be a bit more exaggerated.

Like Shogun II before it, Rome II allows the player to upgrade his general as he improves in rank, making each general a potential powerhouse. There are major issues with the way these promotions are presented, however, and that will be discussed when we examine the new user interface. Generals in general have a much greater role than ever before. The new political system makes generals both an asset and a boon. If a general from a rival family becomes prominent, it can lead to a serious deterioration of one’s own power. The whole system hinges on the “gravitas” of a character, and one or more gravitas reducing options, such as spreading rumors or arranging marriages, are available for gold and political support. If all fails, however, and political tensions come to a head, the faction can be catapulted into a terrible civil war. These civil wars are not usually token battles — they can even be game ending disasters. Once a civil war is fought, however, the whole political system disappears, and the importance of the balancing act of generals and political maneuvering is made pointless. This is an important oversight, as it would have made the game far more challenging and entertaining had the possibility of multiple civil wars been included. Indeed, another major disappointment is that only two factions, Carthage and Rome, have access to a full political system. All other factions have a shadow of the real thing. Political maneuvers are limited, and, though the system itself is an intriguing and fun addition, it leaves much to be desired. That also makes it a great glad tiding: the Total War series is known for taking small mechanics from previous games and building on them magnificently, and so a much fuller and enthralling political system is probably in the works for later iterations of the series.

While the main conceptual changes have been triumph for the Creative Assembly, Rome II is not, unfortunately, anywhere close to a bed of roses. At its core, the game is a great game. It just takes too many licks to get to the center of that tootsie pop. Rome II is rife with questionable decisions and horrible bugs and glitches. The A.I., never the hallmark of a great Total War game, is caricaturistically atrocious.  The battles are almost cartoonishly fast. The user interface unnecessarily sacrifices intuitiveness for beauty. The multiplayer is a catastrophic step back from Shogun II. We’ll take each of these turn by turn to examine them in full.

I’ve played every Total War game from Medieval I onward, and the A.I. has been, without exception, terrible. The worst, however, was probably Empire: Total War, where the slightest move by the player would force the A.I. to completely reshuffle its troops in the middle of a crossfire (only to eventually charge its troops into a line of shooting musketmen). Still, the A.I. has never been terribly smart. Shogun II’s castles were easily defended by a few bows and muskets against giant stacks of troops. Medieval II’s A.I. was completely incapable of handling horse archers. Rome I’s A.I. was a hill camping super noob. Rome II’s A.I. hasn’t set a new standard for absurd A.I. behavior — it simply follows a long tradition of Total War battle A.I. incompetence. For example, the A.I. simply cannot handle horse archers. The entire army goes into a frenzy and chases them as if they the very bane of their existence. Prince of Macedon’s video of Raphia, for example, shows how the entire Seleucid army chased his two camel archers. It’s bizarre, but it’s also completely expected from a Total War game. What’s far more infuriating, however, is the passivity of the campaign A.I.

I remember Shogun II’s Legendary campaign A.I. It was brutal. If one had two frontiers, one could expect two wars. One could be allied with someone, and the next turn he would invade you with three giant stacks. It was almost impossible. Not completely, as my Legendary playthroughs (available to watch on this blog!) proved, but definitely difficult. As time went on, The Creative Assembly tuned down its aggressiveness to a more manageable, and yet still somewhat rabid, level. This balance is completely absent in Rome II. For the first three videos of my Rome II Parthia campaign, I simply waited for someone to attack me, and no one did. Even those with whom I was at war did not really attack me. It took me hours to realize that, hey, this isn’t Shogun II: I’ll never be threatened at multiple fronts and at a constant struggle to defend all my frontiers at the same time. What this means is that expansion is almost laughably fast. Additionally, once one or two decisive engagements are fought, the A.I. chooses to recruit as many generals it can and fill each of its armies with two or three units, then send that small and ineffective army to die against your walls. Sure, there are a couple of large, epic, cinematic decisive engagements at the beginning of a war. The A.I., however, due to the new general mechanic, is completely unable to deal with losing. Once the A.I.’s main armies are defeated, you’ll never have to worry about large scale engagements again. What this means, therefore, is that the full exploitation of the beautiful, rich, and deep new province system is completely pointless, as the A.I. will never be able to challenge you enough to actually use it well.

Much has also been made of the fast passed battles. Starting from Napoleon: Total War, The Creative Assembly has had the motto “fast is a blast.” Napoleon’s musketmen fired as if they were on speed, and Shogun’s infantry engagements were over before hammer and anvils were even possible (mostly because of the very low defense values of units). Things are actually quite different in Rome II. Infantry engagements, especially between elite units, can take minutes to finally resolve. Archers and skirmishers in general need time to actually do any damage. Cavalry battles also take a far greater time to resolve as compared to Napoleon and Shogun II. Why, then, are battles over so quickly in Rome II? I think the answer is Battle A.I. aggressiveness. The battle A.I. is very quick to commit all its troops, and though the individual fights take place at a slower pace, they start much faster. Personally, I don’t mind fast battles. I enjoy the thrills of hectic micro over slow and steady. I also think that faster battles appeal to a wider audience over the slow, grind it out affairs of Medieval II. I am far less charitable, however, with the multiplayer aspect of the game.

Multiplayer is somewhere between a disappointment and a total mess. Unit balancing has never been a Total War strength, which can be attested by anyone who remembers the Old Guard from Napoleon or Naginata Warrior Monks from Shogun II. Indeed, there are many balancing issues: Elite Parthian cavalry, supposedly the best in the game, for example, cannot win head to head cavalry engagements against Macedon, Rome, or any of the Barbarian factions. This is, of course, completely inexplicable. Parthian infantry is trashed by any other faction, and yet it still doesn’t even have cavalry superiority. Horse skirmishers are completely useless due to their crippling ammunition. Phalanxes are overwhelmingly strong, but even they aren’t balanced between themselves: Spartan pikemen, cheaper than Foot Companions, for example, can beat the best of the best Macedon has to offer (the supposedly best pike phalanx faction). Rome is, thankfully, very well balanced as a faction: its infantry is not by any means the best. Rome is a jack of all trades and master of none, making it a versatile, balanced, and fun faction to play. Price and statistics simply don’t match up. Elite units can be spammed with the only limiting factor being money. Giant stacks of Foot Companions, Praetorian Guards, and Royal Spartans is about all you’ll see in multiplayer. The rest of the roster is completely obsolete. The Creative Assembly should seriously consider a cap to the amount of elite units in an army. What truly angers me about Rome II’s multiplayer, however, is not what is in the game; it’s what’s missing from the game.

Shogun II’s avatar system was far from perfect, and the balancing issues it created were enormous. I still remember a Loan Sword Ashigaru unit, buffed with Rennyo’s Teachings and Way of the Ikko ikki, routing my Katana Cavalry after the latter had charged into it. The release of the Ikko Ikki DLC was possibly the most imbalanced multiplayer period in Total War History. Still, it added a dynamism and customization that expanded the replay-ability almost endlessly. To put it plainly, I miss my Lavender Lovelies and Rosemary Romantics (my great guard, for the uninitiated). I miss my wildly colored and terribly named No-Dachis. I miss my ironically named Bow Warrior Monks. I miss specializing my army based on my general’s statistics. I truly thought that, after Shogun II’s triumphant multiplayer mechanics, that Total War multiplayer would never be the same (in a good way). I was wrong, and I miss Shogun II. The inexplicable thing is, however, that The Creative Assembly had a great opportunity to do as great a job with Rome II’s multiplayer as they did with Shogun II’s. Instead, it delivered a very minimalist, barebones multiplayer that leaves much to be desired. Hell, one can’t even choose whether one would like to search for a siege, land, or naval battle in quick battle (those options are only accessible for multiplayer lobby). The leaderboards only show wins. The Creative Assembly could have done so much more — should have done so much more — following on the heels of Shogun II, and yet it failed terribly to do so.

My final gripe with Rome II is with the redone user interface. Shogun II’s interface was a thing of beauty: it provided information in a beautiful and easy-to-handle way. It’s tech trees, agent trees, and general trees were simultaneously streamlined and deep. Rome II’s UI is a marked departure from the traditional Total War scroll heavy information panels. Now, everything is done in opaque mini window screens. Information is normally displayed in a very barebones fashion, and only scrolling over and then waiting for an expanded tooltip allows for deeper, more relevant statistics and numbers. This is particularly frustrating when trying to find out why a province is unhappy. One can no longer double click on the province and, presto, there is all the information one needs in an extremely easy to access and absorb scroll. Agent and general trees are even worse. There’s no clear path for promotions. Everything seems to be randomly decided, and only after multiple mucked up generals and agents does one truly understand the pattern. The tech tree is absolutely atrocious. I can’t make heads or tails of it. It’s supposed to be divided into easy to understand groups for both civil and military techs, but, counter intuitively, it makes it more complicated and less easy to decipher. The absolutely essential battle information about a unit is hidden in a tooltip, while the obscure difference between circles, squares, etc to differentiate between unit types is very difficult to understand at a moment’s glance. Was diamond heavy infantry or light infantry? Was a bi-colored square with spears and a dash in between a heavy horse unit or a heavy spear infantry? Even worse, the green bar to indicate morale has been replaced with a tiny green diamond which becomes almost completely lost. Instead, most of the time one just has to guess a unit’s morale. Not only that, even if one mouses over the unit, one has to wait till the tool tip expands to get the unit’s morale. The UI change is absurd. I can live with it, but I doubt that I can ever like it.

Rome II was the most highly publicized Total War game in series history. The result were extraordinarily high expectations. It seemed that The Creative Assembly was promising the best, deepest, and most enthralling Total War to date. What we received, however, was a mixed bag. Many of the new features, particularly the province system and the combined naval/land battles, are fantastic and should definitely be continued in later iterations of the series. Some of them need more polish and further expanding upon. Others, such as the new user interface, were quite disappointing. The A.I. is still abysmal (as it probably always will be), the campaign A.I. is way too passive, and the siege A.I. is still inexplicably stupid. The plethora of bugs and glitches, as well as the complete lack of avatar conquest and multiplayer customization show that the game was released before it was ready. In the end, its core gameplay is very solid — it just takes a lot of licks to get to the center of the tootsie pop.

Final Grade: C+, with the potential of an A-

3 thoughts on “The Course of Total War Never Did Run Smooth — A Total War: Rome II Review by AdmiralPrice

  1. Spot on review! I agree with all the aspects. About the multiplayer – they obviously have other plans with this ARENA thingy. We payed more money for ROME, we will pay more for DLC’s (that are pointless since there is no MP experience like in Shogun 2)… Ill wait and see if they fix this game at all or just patch it up to be playable and leave it to die….. SHAME! This is one of my fav. eras to play and I am so dissapointed i can’t explain.

  2. I agree.

    Compared to Shogun 2 and it’s success, I am simply at a loss with how they to where Rome 2 currently is.

    I could deal with a completely braindead AI – if the multiplayer wasn’t so stripped. If they didn’t want the Avatar system, veteran units and what not, I could understand that. But everything is gone; no custom name, no special armor, no minor retainer type stuff, no custom banners! I just don’t get it.

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