Oh, Total War. Here we go again.
Like many of you, I played a little bit of Rome II at launch and just fled it like a rat from a sinking ship. It was messy, a bit stupid, and just generally didn’t live up to the high standard the series has set so far. I’m a big fan of the Total War series – it hasn’t quite occupied the same place in my heart as Civilisation, but that’s because Total War doesn’t have vikings with tanks.
What’s probably worth bearing in mind here from the off is you don’t get anything with the Emperor Edition you can’t already get with the base game itself. None of the paid extra factions etc are included in the re-release. Since the game’s rough launch, a total of fifteen patches have been released (with the new campaign being the latest). The patches have been significant – it’s not the same game now that it was at launch – and it seems like some underhanded attempt to distance the game from the scores it got upon release. Basically, if you already own Rome II, you’re going to get everything that comes with the Emperor Edition for free anyway.
Newcomers beware, the RTS genre probably takes more time to get the hang of than any other genre – especially on the scale that Total War franchise does. This isn’t Dawn of War or Command & Conquer – this is, in many ways, your father’s game. Complex with no desire to explain itself past the bare minimum, vague and distant. In order to really make a good go of it you’re going to need to do some background reading on strategies and the way Total War’s deep, interlocking gameplay elements work together. I suggest starting with The Art of War by Sun Tzu and just working forward from that particular time period if you want to have any hope of going in with all the information you need. I returned to the franchise after a long, long time away from it – the last title I played was Shogun, and not for very long – and I failed the prologue twice before I finally managed to get my shit together and repel the assault on Capua.
There’s nothing that really resembles a proper tutorial, and there’s certainly not any hand-holding. You get told how to select your troops and how to move the camera – and that’s pretty much it aside from the occasional prod in the right direction. You’re expected to take a lot of initiative and learn by doing – but the real flaw in that is Total War games take a lot of time. There’s only so many times a new player will want to repeat a section before they just get bored, feel stupid, and give up on what can be a totally epic and incredibly rewarding experience.
At the same time, I understand why CA don’t necessarily want to pander to the newbies. They sell their games to veterans of the franchise who’d feel a bit insulted at being taught the ins and outs of war – again. You have to have a lot of patience to learn how to play – hell, you have to have a lot of patience to play Total War at all.
So what’s actually new? To list every single change would take far more time to write and read than any of us really have, so in order to make this more of a review and less of an essay, we’re going to bring up some of the most common complaints with the original release of Rome II and see if the patches up to the Emperor Edition have addressed them. It’s only a little bit like academic writing, right?…
One of the biggest gripes people had with the original Rome II was an enemy AI that went past the point of dumbing-down and straight to the Yahtzee-approved pants-on-head retarded scale. Enemy transports would drop off troops on a beach only to have them just kinda stand there like they were standing in line for some big beach festival. Roman history would have been much different if they’d all just had a few beers and listened to Skrillex off their faces. You could run rings around enemy forces a lot of the time – some units would stand stock still as they were pelted to death by slingshots. Not to mention half the time units would break morale ridiculously quickly. This is supposed to be ancient Rome, not France throughout history.
AI-controlled allies seem to be much more on form too. It’s actually possible to pull off co-ordinated strategies with them, for one. It’s nothing short of glorious when you manage to take a city or fend off an attacking army with computer-controlled allies who don’t just wander around like lost cosplayers at a con. The feeling of sending hundreds of troops into open warfare and having it pay off is like nothing you’ll ever experience outside of these huge RTS titles. After spending a short time as a general in Rome II I was beginning to understand why America attacks so many undeveloped countries. It’s thrilling.
Battles also seem to take a much slower, thoughtful pace now, which brings Rome II more in line with the rest of the series. If all these significant patches are doing is making Rome II more like its predecessor, that should be counted as a win – although it would have been better to have the game released like this originally so they could have spent less time fixing it and more time expanding it.
POLITICS AND DIPLOMACY
Diplomacy was an absolute joke in Rome II’s original incarnation. I remember a tiny, inconsequential nation demanding ridiculous amounts of cash from me for a non-aggression pact – much like a child threatening to beat an adult up unless they gave them thousands of pounds – while I struggled to cut even the most basic of deals with nations who had been my friend for years. It’s probably more of a subtle, underlying problem than the glaring flaws with the enemy AI, but even so – it needs to work, or it’s not Total War.
Thankfully this all seems to be rectified now. At least in my time with the game I was able to make trade deals, secure routes, and juggle alliances much more effectively. I was being approached with offers of cash incentives for non-aggression and trade routes rather than extortionate demands from nations who couldn’t possibly hope to withstand a fraction of the fury I could rain down upon them should they decide to disagree with me.
Unfortunately one of the game’s biggest problems still dominates here. The politics interface is so messy and the game does such an awful job of explaining it to the player that it may as well just not do it at all. I’ve logged days with the series and I still can’t explain how it’s supposed to work or how to use it more effectively. The Imperator Augustus campaign is centred around politics and civil wars so hopefully it’ll do a better job of introducing what can be a downright unpleasant part of the game to navigate – more on that later.
The food/squalor systems have been given a slight rejig as well to the point of basic functionality – I don’t remember all that much of my first attempt at Rome II but I remember AI nations would periodically just sit and let themselves starve to death. Now they’re perfectly happy to roam about and do some conquering of their own should you let them – which just makes sense, surely?
THE NEW CAMPAIGN
Put simply the Imperator Augustus campaign focuses around a civil war in Rome – it offers ten playable factions, taking place three years after the death of Julius Caesar. There’s a hell of a lot of history nerd stuff here I won’t go into – but it’s accurate, and it’s good.
It does manage to mix it up a bit. There’s a lot of new modifiers – Roman factions start out massively pissed off at each other, for a start – with their own divided parts of the Empire to start with. Depending on where you decide to start you’ll get some different perks – Octavian can recruit Gallic troops, for example – but you can just steamroll over them and take those perks for yourself.
There’s an amazing amount of tension. You have three massive superpowers who start the game at each other’s throats. Every turn becomes a process of hoping one of them doesn’t suddenly turn on you while your forces are occupied elsewhere. Total war (Haaaaaaaaa.) could erupt at any moment. It’s a good, fraught change of pace from the usual plod of the RTS genre – chuck you in at the deep end and force you to navigate a horrible political situation you had no hand in starting.
Unfortunately the game’s flaws still persist. Politics are hard to maneuver through for the majority of players because it’s just not explained all that well. You can muddle through but for the most part you’re just hoping no-one decides to shit on your parade while all of your soldiers are attending the annual twats with spears convention. It has the potential to make you feel stupid – like you’re just missing out on the cool stuff everyone else can do really easily – but in actual fact you’re just not told how to do it that well, and it’s presented rather poorly. Either that or I’m just living in denial of something glaringly obvious, but why change the habit of a lifetime?
War is inevitable in this campaign. Victory conditions demand you take territories in zones owned by other factions so it’s all just boiling down to the moment one of you snaps and makes a move – you’ve just gotta hope you’re the one who strikes first. Make a move too early and you might get crushed. Wait too long and you could find yourself with a horde at the gates, woefully unprepared, because you were too busy overtaking spits of lands and gorging on wine and women.
I enjoyed the Imperator Augustus campaign much more than I did any of the game’s base story. It’s tense, dramatic, and the initial setup makes for a game mode that really has you on your toes throughout, moving at a much, much faster pace than expected. War is inevitable. All you can do is prepare and hope you’re not caught with your tunic down when it happens.
Not trying to brag or anything, but I have a pretty decent PC. Which is why I was horrified when Rome II stuttered and lagged all over the place. It was like watching a stop motion animation at the best of times and just bloody annoying at the worst – what’s the point in having a gorgeous game if it doesn’t run like it’s supposed to? That’s a sentiment that could be applied to the title as a whole. Lovely and enticing on the surface. Neurotic, confusing and deeply, deeply flawed on the inside. Just like my ex girlfriend.
There have clearly been some back-end changes that have improved the performance (…of the game. Not of my ex girlfriend) – the framerate only really dropped down into single digits when the game was attempting to render hundreds of individual troops in ‘very high quality’ fighting in a city all at once. Rome II is gorgeous and well-realised but none of that really means anything when even computers that meet the recommended specifications can’t play it properly. It’s good to see it optimised and altogether more fluid. While it might not run smoothly all the time, it’s still a hell of a lot better than it was.
The extensive work undertaken to fix what was wrong with Rome II definitely shows. It’s a hell of a long way from the hopeless mess it was at launch – but still quite a ways to go until it hits some of the other titles’ sublime perfection. It serves to drive home the point that the release of the game was probably forced a year early, which probably takes a fair share of the blame for how poorly received it was. Some of the more nagging flaws still persist. There’s a lot of the game that remains as confusing and frustrating as it did to me a week ago. This is something that could be quite easily fixed with an optional tutorial system rather than left to internet forums to figure out, but right now, I’m just glad they fixed the game in the first place.
Fixes big and small all come together to make Rome II a salvaged, quality RTS that sits quite comfortably at the feet of the games that came before it, even if it doesn’t quite manage to equal them. Romans, rejoice – the Emperor Edition has brought glory to Total War once more.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.