Pros: addicting, excellent setting, solid game
Cons: interface issues, too much load time, rebels are too active.
Rome: Total War (RTW) is actually the only game that has come out these past few months to receive a 9.0+ score from Gamespot and IGN.com, the two major gaming sites on the web. Given that, since Ive been in a drought for good PC gaming, I decided to pick up a copy to check it out.
Even though Im not a huge fan of strategy games other than those made by Blizzard, RTW is surprisingly solid and dragged me into a few full days of gaming even though Ive been cutting down on the habit lately. While it could use a few tweaks here and there, the concept, the battle engine and the actual gameplay are excellent.
RTW is a cross between a micromanagement world-map based game like Civilization III and an RTS game with actual battles that can be fought and controlled in a 3d environment. Most of the game time though is spent on the world map and micromanaging construction of units and buildings. The actual combat is optional for the most part since you have the option of automatically fighting, but for optimal battles, it is best to get in on the action and control your generals movements during combat.
As the title suggests, you start the game by selecting a family of Rome to play and then you are given a set of territories to manage and control. The game captures the Roman political atmosphere correctly. Essentially you work for the government and have to carry out their missions like a typical powerful Roman family should. But after youve sent out your family members to conquer large parts of the world, gain money, prestige and large armies, you can turn upon your allies at Rome (like any good Roman politician would) and march on the capital. As with Roman politics, its all about family power struggles, and the game captures the Roman atmosphere quite accurately. Ive studied Roman history for 2 years and I found no grievous fault in the games system. It was actually quite thrilling to get to see in a sense how things could have possibly worked.
Unfortunately though, other than the historical setting, there isnt much history involved. The game allows the player to replay certain major historical battles (but since there isnt much information on these battles anyway, it doesnt really matter). There are a number of war-promoting quotes from all sorts of antiquarian sources during the load scenes which are nice, but that is it in terms of Roman history. It would have been nice to have major historical players active throughout the game, but nonetheless, at the very least, RTW gets the historical setting and the battle concepts right.
The game plays out like much the way other world map strategy games do, you move governors and armies around a world map with Rome as the focus, and you conquer all sorts of ancient territories, such as Carthage, while being sure to defend yourself from enemies from all ends, like the Gauls and the Germanic tribes of the north. The gameplay is mostly mouse clicking, telling your armies where to go on the map, queuing up buildings and recruitments and setting taxes and such. The senate will suggest missions, which when completed can result in rewards. On the contrary, if you disregard their orders you can lose power within the government and get fined or accused as a traitor, a quite fitting realistic response the ancient world would have had to generals that did not follow their orders.
The main strategy is all about knowing when to basically move out your armies and when to be patient. Because the conquered territories you possess constantly rebel, it takes a good amount of micromanagement to keep everyone happy, while gathering excess resources to expand with. That said, there isnt much new about RTW, but its solidly made and the Roman theme works well into the buildings and military units.
When you encounter a battle, you have the option of micromanaging the battle by ordering your troops on a 3-d battlefield. This is the treat of RTW. Here you will have thousands of troops all lined up in formations pitted against one another. Strategies that worked in the ancient times (such as Hannibals careful use of hiding troops along the enemies flank) do work in the game, and are fun to execute. When attacking a city, all the siege strategies are present, the use of towers, battering rams, and ladders are in the game. Its really amazing to get to see how an ancient battle might have played out, and it is the biggest treat that RTW has to offer.
Unfortunately in terms of difficulty of the combat, the game has almost none. Smartly chosen battles, with simple but well executed maneuvers around the enemy, and attacking the enemys general, give rather easy victories. I played the game on Medium mode and found I had no problems easily dominating my opponent. Also, though the game tries to restrict your field of a view a bit, by not allowing the player to see past a certain distance, the fact youre already given an overhead god view of the battlefield is a superb advantage. The enemy will basically never be able to flank you because of the superior point of view you hold as a gamer. If the game had forced the player to see through the limited perspective of a general on the field, it would have been really challenging and interesting, because then the strategies would have been far more difficult to pull off. For me I used the strategy of simply waiting for my enemy to come to me, and then I targeted his general, which when killed causes most of the rest of the army to lose hope and flee, resulting in easy victories.
Despite the relatively easy strategies, the graphics on the other hand are great. Even though they are incredibly simple, and lack textures and effects, with thousands of polygon troops fighting it out on a 3d landscape, the sheer epic feel, makes it all worth watching. Its like being able to view a very basic Lord of the Rings battle in action from any perspective. When you see your troops drop the ladders on the walls of Carthage, and engage in sword fights and skirmishes up close, one can really appreciate the work put into the engine. Spectacular and entertaining for the first several dozen times, though it eventually does grow old.
The music of RTW is noteworthy. It is filled with melodic Latin chants and drumbeats that fit the setting well. After a day it does repeat too often, but for the first few times, it will be noticeably enjoyable.
Now having presented RTW as a solid strategy game, here are the gripes.
It took me about five days to conquer most of the world and along with it most of the games playability. Id say 2/3rd of it was load time, needless mouse work and suppressing annoying rebellions.
The problem with RTW, first of all, is the load time. While it does let you press spacebar, to eliminate most world map animations, and even lets you turn off enemy movements, the load time in-between turns is unbearable, even on my Athlon 3200+. It takes about a minute for the computer to calculate what all the enemies are doing, and during periods of times when one simply needs to wait for construction and recruitment, clicking on end turn like 5 times, easily gives the player 5 minutes of waiting.
Another big problem, partly due to a high bar because of Blizzards ridiculously good interfaces is that RTW does not have enough keyboard shortcuts. It requires a lot of clicking to manage things, and it would be nice actually to not have to click so much and to simply issue orders without dragging the mouse around. There are so many menus and scrolls to go through, that it is kind of irritating to not be able to hit a few keys to queue up army production or building production.
The third major problem is that rebels are amidst, and a bit too active. While it is realistic that rebellions occur often in the ancient times, when it becomes overbearing on the gameplay, it can be too irritating. At times, cities will randomly seek to rebel even when I have built all the proper buildings and have plenty of troops stationed. Then it takes like 10 turns to siege and conquer the territory again carefully. When more of the gameplay is about conquering rebelling territories and not fighting actual enemies quite so much, it becomes more like tedious micromanaging with no actual progress. It took me 4-5 hours longer just to micro my settlements to get a few territories when without random and frequent rebellions it could have taken 3. I suppose its how RTW expands its gameplay so that it really lasts a long time.
Finally, after conquering the entire world, which takes 3-4 days of hefty gameplay, the game pretty much loses all playability. Its like, whoopee, I took out my enemies, and Im done. And while the game offers the chance to play from different families, essentially the gameplay is the same except for your starting location, which allows you to either focus on the Roman eastern campaign or the western one.
In conclusion, RTW is a solid game. I did after all get hooked, even though I was irritated thoroughly by the nuisances I mentioned above. Its addicting, and presents a very interesting setting in the ancient times. If RTW had cleaned up its interface a bit, it would have indeed been one of the best games of this year. But nonetheless, I would contend that this is an excellent strategy game for diehard strategy fans. For those looking for casual gameplay, I would wait for the next big thing, because as addicting as RTW was, micromanaging is not necessarily everyones cup of tea.
Note: Some glitch caused my game to crash during a battle. It only happened once, but it was somewhat annoying. However, the game does auto-save after every turn, so it is not the end of the world if such a thing does happen.