Rome II, then. I’ve just seen The Creative Assembly’s Al Bickham playing the recently-entrailered Teutoburg Forest battle on a big screen at GDC in San Francisco. As is so often the case with viewing games from the perspective of rapidly blogged trailers and press releases, I’d previously been unable to see much of what was new or appealing about this new Total War game. I knew it was in there, of course, but these things generally only reveal themselves in the busy mess of play. Now, with an inundation of pixels having gone through my eyes, I am excited.
Tiny men are rushing to their deaths.
Bickham played through the entire set-piece battle in front of an audience of mostly bearded men, concluding as intended by getting his troops to a pre-defined objective marker. Of course it was something he had practised beforehand, but despite this, he only got a handful of soldiers out alive, and the entire battle was a nail-biting thriller, even as a spectator. Staged? Well these things tend to be, but it nevertheless plunged us face-first into an unscripted splurge of the real-time part of the game, and I was delighted with what I saw. We watched as Bickham threw the camera about, revealing events and exposing the action in a way that is only ever optional for us playing in the real world. Some of this demoing flamboyance, however, shows the extent to which CA’s forever-iterating approach to this series is etching in new layers of detail and control that we wouldn’t have even known we wanted.
The fidelity of the world is, of course, amped a few degrees up beyond what Shogun 2 was capable of. The camera cruised along the edge of a forest where the vegetation grew thicker out of the shade, and where the sunbeams dappled through the trees. Needless to say, the presentation started with a list of ever-increasing numbers listing polygons and blah blah, but the net result of that continued mining of the depths of our graphics silicon was an extraordinary beautiful forest environment, in which an hugely evocative ambush scene was played out. This, I think, was the main intention of what CA were showing here, because they returned to it several times. The battlefields will not feel like the same few valleys or plains this time. There’s a world down there.
Importantly for the campaign games these ambush scenes are set up with new mechanics. While this was a set-piece historical battle, similar encounters will be possible on the campaign map, with the ambusher gaining advantages from longer preparation for their trap, and the battles kicking off instantly with incredibly close deployment of the armies. Just as the barbarians were able to use their setup and knowledge of the terrain to butcher the real legions of history, so players are going to be playing these advantages in their own campaigns.
Bickham was able to show us exactly what the deployment of such an ambush looked like, thanks to a new overhead tactical map. This looks down on the battle and outlines various units with blocks of colour, further abstracting the busy throng of units. While the full suite of command options are not available in this mode, it is possible to order units to move, and to quickly appraise your overall situation. It should make a good addition to the game’s already extensive set of tools for the real-time battles.
There’s another reason to implement this, as I understand, which is that line of sight will now truly matter on the huge 2km x 2km maps. If your units can’t see the enemy then, while you will know where they have appeared at the start of the battle, you can’t actually peer omnisciently on their deployment. This will mean that scouting and fast-moving horse reconnaissance will be another real option when the terrain is rough and scenery obscures the battlefield’s occupants.
Back in the forest, the camera pings down to behind of the rushing legionary units. This is like a shoulder-sprint cam for an entire unit, and pulls you along like a kite dragged behind the jostling noise of armoured men rushing into combat. The audio in Total War games has stood out for a while now, but I can’t ever remember there being quite this much depth in the battle-din of the other games. I shall have to go back and listen to Shogun 2, because what we were hearing from this presentation was something else.
Perhaps the highlight for me was a point at which, about half way through the gruelling skirmish, the Romans faced off with a huge band of barbarians and their war dogs. This group waded towards the legion through thigh deep water, the dogs splash and bounding through the shallow lake as they made their way towards their target. For a game to be able to pull these sorts of moments off, at this level of detail, remains an extraordinary feat, and it’s something CA are just getting better at.
Later, as the audience of men with beards interrogated the developers, the team talks about the extent to which the enormously detailed and varied environment we’d seen in the forest – which included that lake, complete with a crude jetty, water weeds, and a rock escarpment overhead, on which a scattering Germanic archers intermittently spat flaming down onto the fleeing Romans – would underlie the campaign map. This time, they told us, we should not expect to fight the same siege three hundred times, because the world’s capacity to present these rich and realistically mixed environments was far greater, with a huge palette to draw on.
Inevitably, the questions wandered away from what we’d seen and on to the campaign part of the game that we’ve not yet been shown. There was a lot of talk of diplomacy, and the way that’s going to manifest itself in the new game. The question of how Rome will be handled as a faction – it was split into three factions, or Roman houses in the original – was addressed, with CA’s Mike Simpson saying the issue was far less defined this time. Project lead James Russell backed that up, explaining that the team wanted a more organic diplomatic challenge that the rather artificial decision of simply splitting Rome along hard faction lines.
Oh – what has happened to my Total War fatigue? Surely with this continual regurgitation of the same game I must be getting bored. But all this ancient war stuff is making me tingle. And druidic empires are possible. And so my appetite is whetted for next bit of Rome 2 that we’ll no doubt get to see. And when will that be? June, they said. Not so far away
And I realised I really was falling for Total War hype again. How do they keep doing this to me?