|Posted by [email protected] on October 10, 2013 at 11:25 AM|
No one can doubt the ambition of Total War: Rome II. Not only is it the long-awaited sequel to a beloved game, but also it's the biggest and boldest Total War to date.
Ambition is a double-edged sword, though. While Total War fans will get their fix in Rome II, it's hard not to notice that the game feels rushed in some ways, as though the creators tried to cram in more material than they had time to polish. The folks at Creative Assembly promise regular patches and updates, so one is inclined to cut them a little slack--but Rome II isn't a great game as it exists right now. It's merely a very good game that needs a fair amount of work.
If you've never played a Total War game before, you'll quickly learn that the franchise is not for weekend warriors. These games have an intricate web of gameplay systems--most prominently, they combine turn-based faction-building with real-time battles. In other words, you have to build a civilization, organize its cities, keep the people happy, raise armies, and then lead those armies as they fight battles. On top of that, there are RPG elements--your units and armies gain experience and skills over time, and you progress along tech trees. There's even some of the family-based political intrigue you'd find in a Paradox Interactive game.
Basically, if you just want to lay siege to a few enemy territories and watch the blood fly, this isn't the game for you. This is a game for people who are willing to deal with minutiae on a regular basis while preparing for the epic moments. Some basic historical knowledge also helps to give the game context--and if you want to learn more about events as they unfold in the game, there's an encyclopedia that can fill you in on how everything happened in real life.
To be fair, Rome II does make room for people who don't want to handle all of this at once. If you prefer turn-based gameplay, you can auto-resolve the battles instead of fighting them out by hand. And if battle is really your thing, you can create custom matches or skirmish against human opponents online, and skip all the fiddly Civilization-style bits. But if you want to truly experience the various faction campaigns that Rome II has to offer, you need to do everything, from setting tax rates to changing units' formations in the middle of battle.
All of this is laid out in a prologue that takes several hours to complete. Playing as Rome in the third century B.C., you command troops as they defend their allies--and proceed to raise more armies, defend yourself, and attack rivals. By the time it's over, newcomers will have a halfway workable grasp of this game's mechanics, though everyone, newcomers and vets alike, will also have a whole lot to learn.
Speaking of vets, they’ll immediately see that Rome II doesn't reinvent the wheel. If you've played other, recent Total War titles (such as Shogun 2), you'll feel right at home. But the game has also evolved in a variety of ways, many of them for the better.
One of the best additions is a "tactical view," a simple screen on which you can see an entire battle at once without the distraction of realistic graphics. Creative Assembly has also improved water warfare--units now move seamlessly from water to land. A "true line-of-sight" mechanic makes it easier to create ambushes without being seen. There are even economic and cultural routes to victory, for those who think that strategy games are too action-fueled and exciting, I guess.
Other elements have been streamlined to keep the gameplay from becoming boring or repetitive. Regions have been grouped into "provinces" of several regions apiece, so you can manage a large area rather than micromanage each region within it. And now there are limits to the number of buildings and armies you can create--which does tamp down on the series' notorious monotony, but will also irritate players who don't appreciate artificial constraints.
After the prologue, there are nine different faction campaigns to choose from--and those who pre-order or buy the Greek States DLC have three more (though these are more difficult). Each experience is a bit different; there are varying stories, starting territories, historical personalities, tech trees, and even battle units. The Barbarians, for example, have poor agricultural skills but high battle morale.
These campaigns are incredibly impressive. Creative Assembly has woven an elaborate history together with delicately balanced gameplay. The more you play, the more complex your understanding of the game becomes. But the game also suffers from a number of serious issues, most of them technical.
The biggest problem I noticed was slowdown during the real-time battles, even when I had the graphics settings turned way down. This game looks terrific with its new graphics engine--but frankly, I'd rather have simpler visuals and a consistent framerate. It's incredibly distracting to watch the entire screen transition from fluid motion to awkward stuttering, especially when it happens as often as it does here.
I noticed smaller things as well. At one point in the prologue, I won a battle, only to have the computer make me fight it twice more; I had to start over to get past it. And glitches are rampant--most are insignificant, but if you take a close look around any battle scene, you'll probably see some very strange things, and sometimes there can be problems with selecting and de-selecting the units you're trying to command.
One of the few non-technical issues I noticed is that the campaigns’ pacing can be hit-or-miss. Even with the steps that have been taken to streamline the gameplay, it's not uncommon to spend a lot of time micromanaging things you don't really care about. Of course, with Total War, micromanagement is kind of the point--it just sometimes feels like things could be sped along a bit.
As I mentioned earlier, there's a good chance that a lot of this will be fixed soon. Creative Assembly has promised regular updates, including not just bug squashing, but also free and paid DLC. The company has a reputation to uphold, and I'm inclined to think these problems will be addressed, even if it looks unprofessional for them to be present at the game's release.