It’s a curious thing, strategy gaming. It has all the things gamers like – big wide open maps, visceral action, swords/guns/magic – but with the massive caveat that you can’t do any of that, because you’re piloting a camera around the battlefield watching hundreds of indentikit little men doing the fighting and exploring for you. And yet, for some reason it remains incredibly popular. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s the only genre in which you can make 20,000 peasants charge a line of armoured knights, just to see what happens.
At least it’s better to commands troops than to be one, like in that terrible-looking Call of Duty knock-off Ryse: Son of Rome. If there’s anything that’ll make you feel less significant than a general in a strategy game, it’s being one of the puppets on the ground.
So it is that we come to Total War: Rome II, or whatever they’re calling it now since SEGA have this habit of titling the Total War games in the most convoluted ways imaginable. It’s a sequel to 2004’s Rome: Total War (see what I mean about the titles) and functions in broadly the same way. You control an army, usually of a couple of thousand men, which you pitch into battles against enemy armies of similar sizes.
The battles really are the meat of the game, and while the essence of them remains similar there have been a few changes made. Firstly, the units are now significantly bigger and the 3D models more detailed, presumably because computers have come a long way in nine years, but having said that my eight-month-old, custom built gaming PC still chugged a bit when things got busy. Still, there are a nice variety of units on offer as well as a decent selection of factions, even if some of the rosters do feel a bit copy-pasted. There also seems to have been some bizarre effort to obfuscate the menu since the last game, and it’s now driven by dropdown boxes and a distinct lack of coherent labelling of symbols that make fast decision making very difficult indeed while you dither over the controls and all your swordsmen are cut to ribbons.
On a slightly larger scale, there’s also a campaign carried out on a nation-scale map on which you can direct armies, build structures and conduct diplomacy and trade with other nations. This has relatively little in the way of functionality, because as previously stated it’s all about the battles, but it does have some nice features like the ability to pick your ground for fighting and the way city sizes are represented makes it clear if you’re about to walk into a death trap.
Still, outside of a few graphical tweaks and a more detailed game world, it’s quite hard to see much that’s been added on top of the original game. Following up the more recent Total War games, there’s now naval combat, which features the ability to board enemy ships. That’s quite cool as a feature, but it’s not as heavily-used as perhaps it could have been and given the non-archipelagic nature of Europe, most of your conquests will still take place on land.
The graphics are very lovely, and deserve a comment because it’s still very impressive that The Creative Assembly manage to present tens of thousands of 3D models on screen at any one time. Despite the strain this puts on hardware, it’s easy to overlook when you consider quite how sumptuous the thing looks as a whole. Unfortunately, all that comes at a frame rate cost, and you’ll have to make a decision – slide show of beautiful imagery or a merely functional view which you can properly control.
Musically – well, really, do you care? It’s a strategy game, nobody plays them for the music. Frankly, the reason I’m prevaricating in this paragraph is that I genuinely can’t remember any of the sounds from the game. I know the hammy voice actors have returned, all sounding like bad Brian Blessed impersonators while still ostensibly being Italian. But otherwise it’s just utterly forgettable, and that’s a great shame. The Roman era offers a lot of flexibility and creativity in terms of potential styles, but here it’s just generic.
Total War: Rome II is cheaper than most other AAA games right now, and if you’re looking for something which will keep you playing for a long time you could do a lot worse. It’s well-presented and it’s still fun to set up insanely huge custom battles, but you have to ask yourself one question and that is this – does this game make the most of its heritage? For me, the answer to that question is a resounding no, and as a fan of the series it saddens me to say that. But it’s the only way they’ll learn. 62%