Rome: Total War Review
Rome. Marble temples clad in glimmering gold and silver, reflecting light from crimson capes donned by marching Legionares; those Legionares clashing with barbarian armies, conquering new lands. Patrician families lounging in luxurious mansions in the rolling countryside of said lands. The lands of the Empire stretching from the misty frontier of Britain to the scorching desert of the middle east. Such images are fabricated in minds by that one word. That one Empire. You can lead your civilization to such an Empire in Rome: Total War.
The Total War series has been a fairly popular one among gamers, though it seems all of the work on the previous two games has lead up to Rome. Possibly the most epic and romanticized empire in history only seems fitting as the setting for the 3rd installment in the series; indeed, romanticize itself is derived from the name of the ancient civilization.
Although the game’s namesake is that of its setting, you can control 9 completely different civilizations (or 17, if you get one of the many mods unlocking the unplayable factions); from the scattered remains of the Greek city-states to the factional tribes of Gaul. I would hope so as well, as playing just the Romans can become quite repetitive and tiring. Each civilization has many of its own units, building graphics, and other such attributes, including its position on the campaign map in the Imperial Campaign.
The Imperial Campaign is the core of the singleplayer experience in Rome: Total War. Instead of having a linear, story-driven singleplayer campaign like most strategy games, Rome lets gamers play in the sandbox that is Europe and the Mediterranean. While story-driven campaigns result in some memorable times in one’s gaming experience (such as Starcraft’s singleplayer campaigns, possibly one of the best campaigns in gaming history), the Imperial campaign is surprisingly fun to play. Building your empire requires conquering new provinces and exerting your influence into the world, but to do that you need a nice stack of greenbacks (or in this case, denari); cold, hard cash.
Unfortunately, you can’t get that money by the time-honored tradition of counterfitting; you’ve gotta actually put some work into it. In Rome, you need to have the skills of managing your empire’s backbone – the provinces that comprise it – to make the bills. Individual cities represent the political, militaristic, and economic powers of each province; you can heavily manipulate each aspect of said provinces with the cities. Everything that happens in a province happens at its cities; changing tax rates, building different buildings, training new troops. Those new troops you train in your provinces can become armies to be sent to the frontier for some good, old-fashioned bloodshed.
Managing your empire is all good and fun for some (including yours truly), but most gamers will be drawn to Rome: Total War by the epic, 3D battles with thousands of soldiers fighting for their very survival in just about any climate possible. And for good reason, the battle system in Rome is spectacular. I have not encountered a more realistic battle system in any other strategy game; the formations, tactics, and methods of fighting in the game work just as they did in history. Phalanxes are possibly the most powerful units on the battlefield (save for elephants), but are as inflexible as the spears they wield. Flanking can absolutely crush a superior foe, as can a cavalry charge.
All of this gaming realism is held together by the glue that is unit morale. Morale and manipulating it on the battlefield is how you win more often than actually killing units. Flanking, overwhelming numbers, and other such situations on the battlefield heavily effect an and army’s morale; taking advantage of it as a real life general would is the key to victory. Something as simple as morale opens the doors for the most realistic battles I’ve ever seen in a game.
While the gameplay is realistic, the AI using that gameplay isn’t exactly so. Reinforcements controlled by the AI make foolhardy attacks, auto-play battles almost always turn out worse than how they could’ve, and enemy generals seem to have absolutely no innovation in their tactics. Even on its hardest setting, the tactics of the AI are as easily predicted as how many units will be killed from that prediction. An increase in difficulty does just what every other strategy game does; it lets the computer cheat. Units are tougher and are more difficult to rout, making it that much harder for you to win a battle. It requires players to use a bit more innovation in their strategies, but nothing like coming up against a general that’s actually trying to outsmart you.
Generals that try to outsmart you are attainable via the game’s multiplayer, which is just individual battles (randomized, historical, or custom, all of which can also be played on singleplayer). You can either use the in-game server ran by Gamespy or by hosting a LAN game; both ways don’t have that much trouble in them. All in all the multiplayer is just like an individual singleplayer game except for the fact that you’re playing against someone with some actual innovation and possibly some insight on your own strategies. For that reason (and the fact that the gameplay itself is very slick), the multiplayer should prove to have an excellent replay value.