By Ethan . September 8, 2013 . 11:00am
Total War: Rome II is a strategy game. Perhaps that seems obvious from the title or screenshots or just because it’s the latest installment in a long series of games that have all been strategy games, but I think that it bears repeating. This is a strategy game. As in, no amount of maneuvering or multitasking or cute little skirmisher raids will allow an unprepared force to defeat a battle hardened invading force with siege engines the likes of which you haven’t even researched yet.
Going into Total War: Rome II I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had played turn based strategy games before, and I had also played real time strategy games before. The hybrid turn based/real time nature of Total War was new to me but having some experience with both parts I thought I was probably competent.
I was wrong. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but under my care that’s how long it took for her enemies to raze it.
I wasn’t wrong the way one might guess though. Total War isn’t actually a terribly difficult game to play. The turn based continental map has a lot of things going on, but the menus are pretty logical (though figuring out your income is a huge pain) and it’s not too hard to go from knowing nothing to understanding where everything is and how it works. The real time battles are pretty manageable too, as every battle is preceded by extended marching maneuvers as the two forces jockey for position on the field. Units move ponderously even at a charge, and I was never attacked by a force I hadn’t discovered at least two minutes prior. I was indeed prepared to go about the business of controlling Total War.
No, I was unprepared because those other strategy games had prepared me to play strategy GAMES. There’s an important difference. Strategy games allow and even encourage to various degrees such nonsense as retreating from battle, attacking forces that outnumber you, and exploiting AI routines that don’t understand the game as thoroughly as the player. Total War brooks none of that. Swordsmen who turn tail and run from a pitched battle will lose half their number or more in their retreat. Superior numbers will envelop and eliminate smaller forces.
The AI knows when it has the superior position and it will make you pay in precious blood to advance once it does.
Video games have perhaps explored the idea of combat more thoroughly than any other entertainment medium. Competition, strategy, teamwork, individual skill, player empowerment, gaining strength… combat isn’t always used in the same way or for the same reason, but it’s prevalence in games is unquestionable. I’ve played a lot of video games in my time and seen everything listed above and more, but I’ve never had to approach combat as this game taught me to. I shudder to say this about a video game but it’s more… realistic?
“Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” –Sun Tzu
This has been learned by generals and businessmen as the essence of battle for generations, but never before has it been so relevant to my experience of conducting video game war. When my Rome was crushed it was not because I sent my army in to die, it’s because I was put in a position where my army was doomed to die and I was left merely to determine what the blood price for my capitol would be. This is the essence of combat in Total War. Victory is usually assured for one side or the other before battle even begins, and skillful play on the field will very rarely tip the balances.
Having learned a hard thing or two, I struck out for a second time to hold the entirety of western civilization in my grasp (iron fist). This time, I opted to play as the Egyptians. Total War: Rome II is set around the turn of the millennium when the great Empire of Rome had peaked years ago and factions had risen. This is a period of time filled with rebellion and intrigue and conquerors to be, but unfortunately it also was a time when the influence of the Roman empire had homogenized technology and military thought across their lands. When I say I played as the Egyptians, I mean I played as the Roman consulate who happened to be ruling that little chunk of the empire when it all fell apart. The lack of unique personality to the different nationalities is a big bummer.
Regardless, the Egyptian campaign began! Having now learned the basics of upgrading my cities, managing my food, income, and population I felt ready to take on the world. I decided to take advantage of my position near the outer edge of the game map with relatively few borders to focus on improving the territory I controlled rather than expanding immediately. A few smart alliances later, and I was running a thriving little paradise. That is, until Corsica decided to make trouble. Though I had been at war with a great many nations from the outset (that’s another thing that’s pre assigned based on who you play as) nobody had been able to send trouble my way yet.
My enemies made the same mistake I once had. They picked a battle they didn’t know they could win.
I now control half the Mediterranean sea, and have my sights on razing Rome (this time on my terms). The campaign will require many turns of harassing trade routes, deploying spies and dignitaries, and forging empty alliances. By the time all that is through though, Rome will have already fallen. The troops that march in will merely be a formality. This, I have learned, is the art of war.
Food for thought:
1. The game has some pretty severe performance issues. I’m not too concerned as games are now evolving products and testing version 1.0.0 of a PC game is hardly representative of the experience people will have in 12 or even 6 months. That said, be aware that early adopters are in for some long loading screens and severe framerate issues even on minimal graphics settings.
2. The music side of the audio in this game didn’t do much of anything for me, but it’s the sounds of troops marching, doing battle, and hearing commanders relay your orders is extremely well done. I strongly recommend zooming all the way in when you can find a moment in battle to listen in.
3. Not only does this Total War: Rome II come with an in game encyclopedia stacked with historical and game system information accessible at any time, but the game also allows the player to play out a number of famous engagements from the era attempting to recreate famous victories or deviate from the script as they see fit. It’s a great option not only for the historical appeal, but also because it’s a much smaller time investment than the absolutely massive campaign mode.