The RPS Verdict: Total War: Rome II

By RPS on September 3rd, 2013 at 9:00 pm.


Jim and Adam sat down over a pint of internet to discuss the recently released imperial epic, Rome II. They had things on their mind.

Jim: So then. I am usually in the Total War apologist camp, but not this time. I am not sure if it’s because I had a better experience with Shogun 2, or whether there’s some kind of allergy due to over-exposure going on, but Rome II rubbed me up the wrong druid.

Adam: A terrible place to be rubbed. Is there any one single complaint that sums up the experience? For me, the scope of the game was enticing but eventually – and in fact almost immediately – problematic.
Jim:Disappointment, is perhaps the overwhelming feeling. I wanted this to be a step forward, but actually I didn’t find it to do anything I wasn’t expecting, except perhaps a bug where a boat was spinning around and clipping through the beach. Perhaps it was an element of my playing Iceni first, rather than Rome, but I felt myself just hitting the End Turn over and over, without really doing that much, because I couldn’t take on my neighbours or do anything much, really. Leveling up my agents seemed like the only activity for a long stretch. Ultimately, I gave up and started Carthage, and that didn’t seem to be all that much more interesting – especially in variety of battlefield toys – even though the brighter atmosphere of the Mediterranean made it 36% more palatable. It really is gloomy in Northern Europe!
Adam: I’ve played seven or eight campaigns – not all to completion obviously – and the opening drags every time.
Jim: I was wondering whether for formula was beginning to break down – whether actually what Total War needs is a fresh start. Things like the length of the AI turn just appalled me this time.
Adam: I think there is a formulaic problem, at least to some extent. In that Shogun II was a step forward in terms of quality but a retreat in so many other ways. There are limits and moving beyond them, as with Empire and now Rome II, causes a sort of collapse.
Jim: Shogun II’s limited field seemed to work, but also it seemed to work better in terms of which faction you play. In Rome II choosing an outlier, like Iceni or Carthage, seems to lead only to a long boring grind, with limited access to interesting units.
Adam: I think it’s a design problem. The wider world isn’t interesting enough – it doesn’t feel like things happen there so much as that it exists to be enveloped. There is land and that land has inhabitants, but it’s there to be conquered rather than experienced. Too much of it ends up simply being space to be filled.
Jim: Do you think the Paradox games avoid that stuff?
Adam: Not all of them – it’s perhaps notable that their take on Japan, Sengoku, suffered from its compactness. Bizarro Total War. EU IV certainly does avoid that problem – but, again, it goes back to the formula. There are definite and more obvious lulls in activity during an EU IV campaign but the player still has options. The world is interesting to observe, a proper simulation, so it’s possible to spend time watching and waiting.
Jim: I suppose what irritated me most about Rome II was that it felt less slick than Shogun. When a company is making the same core game year after year, I want their production to be spotless. I didn’t feel like that with Rome II. It felt unfinished.
Adam: And also, the Paradox games aren’t turn-based. There’s no need to punch the clock. Speed up during quiet decades, slow down when need be. I find it stunningly attractive in places and I’m possibly more tolerant of some of the interface deficiencies. It is messy though. Shogun, looking back, feels like a sort of peak that I didn’t recognise at the time. It’s sad that Rome II has made me more interested in going back to play Shogun II because it’s not a period that I have any real interest in.
Jim: I’m not sure Shogun was a better game in design or technical terms, but in production and feel, it was tighter, which I definitely appreciated.
Adam: So was the original Rome, unless memory is betraying me.

Jim: Oh, I love the era for Rome II, but I found myself frustrated here. The pace of it, that weird thing with agents blocking armies, random unreadable morale collapses in a couple of battles, full on bugs. It really irritated me at times. I want to love it, because I want a Druid Empire that spans the world, but I feel myself being kept at arm’s length by it.
Adam: (The Old Gods allows for vast pagan empires!) At the core of the Total War situation is this – Empire and Rome II are the most ambitious and, I’d argue, interesting Total War games. But they’re also the most obviously flawed. Total War works best when it’s performed within a sort of civil war scenario – contained, controlled and directed.
Jim: Agreed. I suspect this is what has kept Total War from ever doing something radical, like WW1 or Space War, something like that: they know if they stray too far that it breaks down.
Adam: Stretch beyond that for too long and the design doesn’t have the chops to keep the player’s interest. If you’re not at war, you’re doing it wrong, and yet there are all of these extra options and features that end up feeling like distractions.
Jim: What’s interesting, though, is that it doesn’t seem to matter when Total War makes a misstep. It sells a tonne, hundreds of thousands play it, and they move on to the next game. Too big to fail?
Adam: Possibly so. I think this is a bigger misstep than Empire though, if only because people have wanted to go back to Rome for so long. I don’t think I was alone in thinking that this would be the one true Total War game.
Adam: The best of what they’d done before with something new.
Jim: Yes, I absolutely felt that this was the moment for triumph, especially after the Teutobourg demos, instead, well, it feels like a faltering moment, crushed under its own enormity.
Adam: What do you make of the historical/larger battles? As standalone things?
Jim: Enjoyable! I always like that aspect. I think, actually, the battlefield part felt more loved this time. I really wanted to get entangled romantically with the campaign map, but it didn’t happen. I was far more involved in the tooth and nail brawls in the rain that the battles provide. Had a couple of splendid battles where I repelled invaders trying to take towns. That seemed to work unusually well. As for the historical battles, there’s a certain element of “here is a challenge other generals have faced” to it, which I love. There’s something about that fact of history – no matter how poor the actual representation of that might compared to the reality – that grips the imagination.
Adam: The battles are also the part of the game that shows off the world’s girth more effectively. The landscapes give a great sense of place and the extra variety in unit types actually makes discovering new places and new people rewarding, even if they are unleashing the actual dogs of war onto my face.
Jim: Yes, that’s true, although it did have some truly dull maps generate for me in Northern England, perhaps that’s accurate?
Adam: Absolutely. I think I even saw a Greggs pasty next to some drizzle and a sodden bus stop at one point.
Jim: I think the thing about Total War games is that they always hit the imagination pretty hard – that context and scale, and the ability to put generals through hell and survive. There’s something deeply compelling which explains the ongoing success of the series.
Adam: I love the generals’ pre-battle speeches. I turn the volume right up and clench my fists. Stirring moments in the Smith household.
Jim: The TW games don’t have that tight ruleset of other strategies, but are instead giant messy colouring pads for expansionist fantasies.
Adam: Yes. And even though they’re entirely different as experiences, that’s precisely what they have in common with Paradox fare. Both are ridiculous time machines. Windows on to other worlds. The historical truth of them doesn’t matter so much as their ability to make you believe. And too much of Rome II’s particular messiness is detrimental to its own credibility. It breaks the illusion and so much of what they’re offering is illusion.

Jim: Do you think they’ll ever attempt something different? We’ll see Warhammer Total War, of course. But I wonder if they will ever tread the path that so many want from them: The 20th Century.
Adam: When I spoke to them they said the one thing they didn’t wnat to do was anything with a three in it. I can see an American Civil: Total War working. I’m sure that used to be the only wargame setting around. Back in the day.
Jim: You’re probably right. Are you recommending people play Rome II? Right now I feel like I can’t recommend it, exactly, but can more warn people what they are getting themselves into.
Adam: I think the flames of excitement need to be quenched. I’ve seen lots of comments about modding already – it’ll be worth buying because mods will make it great etc. That’s a dangerous road. Perhaps wait until the mods exist. If that is what you crave.
Jim: That always seems like a dangerous thing to say. It’s probably true in the case of Skyrim and so on, but it’s unproven until it actually happens. Which means you should wait and then study the results of the modding experimentalists and explorers. I do feel, actually, that CA need to make an extra special effort to create a Total War game which is radically open to modding. Then they’ll end up with the strategy equivalent of DayZ. Can you imagine? I baffles me that companies don’t look at that phenomenon and think: “that has to be worth a roll of the dice”. Someone out there would make the space colony Total War conversion that would blow everyone’s minds. That WW1 conversion recently was quite the thing, wasn’t it. Didn’t lift off in popularity, no, but what if you make your RTS so moddable that it spawns the next spin off genre, like DOTA. WHAT THEN.
Adam: It’s astonishing. I wonder where and when those conversations take place. Because there surely must be conversations. Could it simply be the difficulty of making tools in some cases?
Jim: Well yes, it’s a combined fear of opening the game up to exploitation, and the feeling that releasing the tools means polishing them for end users. I am not sure that’s always the case, but Arma 2′s great power was the scenario editor and scripting, which allowed all kinds of antics I can’t think of a strategy game that provides that sort of access, and I am not certain there is one.
Adam: Somebody will tell us in the comments.And I gather you are proposing something more along the lines of a strategy game built to be moddable from the very beginning? I can’t think of it.

Jim: Ah yes. Access to the great unblinking eye of Sauron that is the internet. Anyway, we should sum up. Rome II, then, is like a huge tome of fine history that is engrossing, but poorly edited. Some of the pages are discoloured through age, but the sheer fact of it remains. Like a monument in the desert. Or perhaps an old friend, who talks a good talk, but has become portly and eccentrically attired. You have heard his stories many times, and the embellishments over time make their more lurid, even if the basic story remains the same. God, I love metaphors. Being a writer is awesome.
Adam: I feel that Total War should be a coiled armadillo rather than Rome IIs jellyfish. The strategy map would be better served as an ancillary to combat rather than an attempt to Civilize the series. Supply routes, ambushes – short-term solutions to problems of war. A series of spectacular snapshots of moments rather than a historical epic.
Jim: You may be right. It is not so.

Rome II is out now.

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199 Comments »

  1. mariandavid says:

    Clean forgot the one major (and so far unmentioned?) complaint I have. Where is the MANUAL? We are not superficial console players content to push buttons on command but desirous of finding out why and how and where and when and — a game is best played. And as far as I can tell there is not even one of those pricey illustrated book guides.

    • Werthead says:

      In the game itself. You hit a ‘MANUAL’ button in the top-left corner and it tells you what’s going on. SHOGUN II had the same system.

      Handy, but not convenient when you want to brush up on the offensive capabilities of triarii on the morning train ride ;)

    • Zenicetus says:

      You can access the in-game Encyclopedia outside the game in a web browser. Look for this top level page under your Steam folder:

      /Steam/steamapps/common/Total War Rome II/data/encyclopedia/en/robots.txt.html

      That method won’t load all the smaller icon graphics, but it has the text info if you just need to look up some unit stats. Some of the other large interactive graphics like the Region Map will load that way. If anyone knows a better link that loads all the icons, please post it.

  2. Werthead says:

    Something worth noting: whilst it sounds like the next patch will be a few weeks away, nVidia are apparently getting out a new driver optimised for ROME II in the next few days. Hopefully this might ease some of the graphics problems people are having.

    I also found checking the ‘ENABLE INFINITE MEMORY’ box in the graphics menu had a huge impact. Leaving this unchecked means that the game constantly scales the graphics based on your FPS. The problem is that it’s not very good at it, leaving the graphics looking like arse whilst slowing the system down. I checked it and the game promptly ran a lot more smoothly whilst looking a lot better at the same time.

  3. Misha says:

    Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks, I guess.

    Now, I haven’t even played through the prologue yet, but so far I’m loving it. Because it’s fun. FUN. I guess it’s a matter of expectations. Personally, being a huge fan of Rome I, I would have been pretty much content with a successor that just didn’t look like shite on a modern system. And a bit of AI upgrading, but that’s been the scourge of CA since they started this series. They just can’t seem to get it right, and I honestly don’t know if it’s even possible to get it “right” with today’s tech.

    Did I mention it’s fun? Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the complexity and depth of what Paradox is doing, they’re really bloody great at it, but every time I’ve gotten another of their titles I get hit with TL;DR Syndrome. The learning curve is Mt. Everest, the “tutorials” are a joke and everything you learn how to do you learn by doing. There is absolutely no explanation of how all of their wonderful, carefully crafted and very historical mechanisms tie together, so by the time I’ve learned how to truly play their games, I’ve already grown bored with it.

    Oh, and I really don’t like the absence of tactical battles in Paradox’s games. I know, they’re not promising anything else, it’s just that I like the glory and mayhem of watching my little virtual men hacking each other to pieces, I love the stirring pre-battle speeches, I enjoy the heck out of executing a good feint and then falling in the back of a numerically superior enemy’s forces to crush his decisively. I also enjoy utterly bollocksing everything up and getting my arse handed to me as a result, teaching me something for the next time. I do NOT enjoy fighting every battle on “auto-resolve”, which is what Paradox’s combat system really amounts to, even though I’m not disputing the historical accuracy thereof.

    If somebody could combine CA’s glorious tactical battles with Paradox’s clearly superior grand strategy aspects, I’d throw my money at them until they choked on it.

    But back to Rome II: That’s not what I expected. I expected a fun game with historical overtones, historical units and glorious battles and, so far, that’s what I’ve got.

    And the damn thing is only about 48 hours old.

    So if anybody thought this was going to be the first TW game to break the mold, to be just perfect out of the box, to be the ultimate TW ever made, the gold standard against which everything ever made after it would be measured, the Ultimate Game Ever, then they should probably hold off the purchase a bit.

    But if you just want some good old fashioned fun with the promise of better things to come as has been the case with every single installment in the series before this one, then you can’t go too wrong.

    That’s Wot I Think.

  4. Werthead says:

    “So if anybody thought this was going to be the first TW game to break the mold, to be just perfect out of the box, to be the ultimate TW ever made, the gold standard against which everything ever made after it would be measured, the Ultimate Game Ever, then they should probably hold off the purchase a bit.”

    I think that there was some major expectations for it because of the much higher budget – though I think in this case the higher budget of 40% extra was not sufficient for a game several times over the complexity and scale of SHOGUN 2 – and also because ROME I was the biggest paradigm shift the series has ever attempted, so the sequel was expected to be more creative. To be fair in a few areas they have been quite experimental and tried to mix things up a bit, but I don’t think ROME II was ever going to be as revolutionary because it’s still got the same engine as the last three games in the series and there’s been no major shift in how either aspect of the game operates (unlike the move to direct movement of armies on the map and 3D units in battle in ROME I).

    One criticism I’ve seen and I think I have to agree with is that the strategy game feels worse than ROME I’s. I feel like I’m getting less feedback, less control and less options than the older game, which is definitely not right for a game released a decade ago. I do like ROME II, but it just feels rather wanting compared to several of the games in the series that came before it. EMPIRE was far more buggy, but it was also far more ambitious with the team using a brand new engine and a brand new time period they’d never attempted before, so it made more sense. ROME II is an era they’ve done before in an engine they’ve used for three previous games now. It should be a lot more polished and stronger than it is.

  5. Gargantaur says:

    Perhaps the best franchise to take Total War into space is Sword of the Stars, its definitely deep enough with lore and the mechanics are very similar already. Plus after the launch failure of Sword of the Stars 2 Paradox may be willing to sell off this franchise. If they have not terminated it already.

    A quick google search of Sword of the Stars will wow u I’m sure.

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