Wot I Think: Total War: Rome 2 – Empire Divided

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How can a historical Total War compete with dinosaurs besieging a fortress filled with wraiths and shambling corpses? Ever since the launch of Total War: Warhammer, but even more since the arrival of Warhammer 2, I’ve been wondering if Creative Assembly has backed itself into a corner. Total War’s historical games will undoubtedly continue to appeal to those craving a more grounded strategy romp, but so many of the series’ most significant improvements are inextricably linked to a fantasy premise. So where does that leave Total War: Rome 2 – Empire Divided?

Rome 2 is probably not the best showcase of the future of Total War’s historical games. It’s four years old, not even the latest historical entry, and in terms of both the presentation and the real-time battles, it’s a step backwards from Warhammer 2. It was the most popular Total War game before Creative Assembly started dabbling in fantasy, however, so the audience is quite a bit larger than, say, Attila’s, which I suspect explains why it’s seeing this resurrection.

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Empire Divided’s campaign takes place during the Crisis of the Third Century, which saw the Roman Empire almost destroyed by wars, plague and its separation into competing Roman states. It’s pretty fertile ground for a Total War game. The scope is considerably larger than previous expansions, with ten factions – including the three Roman states – and a whole host of mechanics that aren’t strictly new for the series, though they are for Rome.

Half of Empire Divided’s factions are ‘heroic’, getting their own unique victory conditions, bespoke event chains and special leaders who can’t die in battle. A bit of added flavour, a dash of roleplaying, faction-specific objectives – it all sounds a lot like Warhammer, at least on paper. And there are no better Total War games from which to take inspiration for faction design.

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In my first attempt to become Rome’s new boss, I played as the Gothi, the only heroic barbarian faction. They’re led by Cannabaudes, a veteran of countless battles and campaigns. His story is simply told via a series of narrative windows where he spends his time regaling his warriors with tales of his old adventures. Each of these vignettes allows you to pick how he tells the stories. Did he get his wolf pelt cloak by hunting the beast on his lonesome? Was boozing his one true love? Each choice gives leaders new bonuses, though it’s not remotely clear what they are when you select them. And then, abruptly, the story ends. It’s a far cry from the scripted battles, hunts for artefacts and quest chains that I’ve gotten used to during my battles across The Old World over the last couple of Total War games.

Like the rest of the heroic factions, the Gothi get some unique objectives, though they’re lamentably just a string of targets – conquer this province, occupy or sack that city – with some flavour text and very few deviations. They do, however, give Empire Divided considerably more direction than plain Rome 2. It’s still a sandbox, but it’s not quite as messy. Through the wars and invasions that they inspire, the objectives are considerably better at spinning a yarn than the narrative events, too. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Cannabaude’s campfire stories, but I can keenly recall my relentless conquest of Greece, and how I held off the Sassanids, Armenians and Parthians with only a stack of brave Germanic warriors and the stalwart walls of Nicomedia.

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As I sent Cannabaude and the rest of my generals out into the world to loot and conquer, they quickly started levelling up, revealing the new skill trees. They’re split up into recruitment, strategy, combat, maritime proficiency and governance, making it easy to create a highly-specialised general. Sure, there’s a lot of +1 zeal, +2 authority and the like, but each skill has several ranks, letting them grow with the general. In combination with agent and army skills, you can make some properly beefy fighting forces, but only if you’re willing to make some sacrifices elsewhere.

The Gothi start with only a few settlements – a pretty meager empire when compared to some of the competition – so there’s not much in the way of empire management early on, but as my borders expanded and more cities were conquered, I started to spend as much time fine-tuning my dominion as I did beating up pesky Romans. Willingly. That’s… unusual. The problem with most of the historical Total Wars is that empire management simply doesn’t offer interesting choices. Cash flow problems and limited slots necessitate prioritising the construction of specific buildings, but it’s always obvious what they should be. Empire Divided makes things less clear-cut.

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Catastrophe is just around the corner. Like Attila, Empire Divided’s campaign has the hint of an apocalypse, with great and old empires colliding and crumbling as plagues grip cities and bandits take advantage of the chaos. The world’s falling apart, and it’s only going to get worse, so ruling an empire becomes more like desperately applying more glue to keep it all together. That probably sounds awful, but it’s the source of some considerable tension and some desperate strategies that combine to make ruling over a burgeoning empire all the more engaging.

New technology trees and building chains have been thrown into the mix to make it possible to avert disaster, or at least slow it down, but concessions have to be made. Food stores, public order and sanitation all need to be maintained, but building something that generates more food often reduces sanitation. The lower the sanitation level of a settlement, the more likely it is to be hit by a plague, stopping it from growing, reducing public order and tanking its income. Worse, plagues can spread to neighbouring settlements via trade and armies.

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Every province also has a banditry level, which changes depending on buildings, events, armies and generals. The higher it is, the more food levels plummet — an even bigger problem if you’ve not constructed many food buildings because you’ve been worried about sanitation. Bandits get even more eager as empires grow, so even if you’ve managed to scare all the bandits out of your land, they won’t be gone forever. And it’s the same for the other obstacles: they never completely go away, and they only get harder to manage.

Then there’s the double-edged sword of mystery religions. These enigmatic cults were historically imported by the Romans, drawing in people from all walks of life who wanted to ensure that they had a good afterlife waiting for them. Though they had secret rituals and mystical roots, they were like social clubs. Conservative Romans were sometimes less than enthusiastic about them, fearing the strange influence of foreign mysticism. In Empire Divided, mystery cults can be established for free, giving settlements a set of buffs, depending on the cult. However! Just like the conservative Romans feared, they spread foreign culture, potentially lowering public order. They can’t just be torn down when the costs become too high, either, as a special fee has to be paid before the buildings can be destroyed, which increases with every upgrade.

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While some of these wrinkles are present in other Total War games, there have never been so many together. It’s a new level of complexity for the management layer, and while I think that Warhammer’s corruption mechanic might be a bit more elegant, these potential crises present a more rousing challenge. I wasn’t immediately convinced, however, as the impact of things like banditry and sanitation aren’t nearly as apparent with a small empire.

Unfortunately, a lot of this good is undone by some inconsistent enemy AI. As the Gothi, I barely had any competition until I purposely bit off more than I thought I could chew by declaring war on the entire East. Very, very occasionally I’d see an army doing something mildly clever, but most of them time they failed to lay ambushes, block chokeholds on the campaign map, attack cities that had anything but a small garrison or work together. It wasn’t until the late game that my foes stopped being lazy, but by then it was too late for them.

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Increasing the difficulty and playing as the Aurelian Roman faction, beset on all sides by enemies, proved to be a bit more challenging. Aurelian’s Rome starts off with a fairly large, established empire in Greece and North Africa, with allies and client states all over the place, which effectively allows you to skip a lot of the slow early game. But a large empire also means a much larger list of problems and disasters just waiting to kick off. Within 20 turns, I’d lost a big chunk of North Africa and three settlements up the eastern Adriatic coast. My first objective was to take Rome, but I was far too busy putting out fires all over the map. After a sleepy Gothi campaign, it was exhilarating.

The Aurelian faction was a good opportunity to put the new and improved politics system to good use. With the Gothi, it felt a little thin, but the Romans start off with more internal factions stabbing each other in the back. Large empires tend to have more aggressive political parties, so placating them or destroying them becomes a priority early on. These parties now come with a varying amount of loyalty, which can be influenced by using them in battle and through political events. While they’re loyal, they can be put to work on political actions, new and returning, like establishing some order in an unruly province, but disloyal political rivals can spark civil war.

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In Rome 2, civil wars normally kick off when you had too few characters in your party. Immediately, everyone not in your party switches to the civil war faction. It’s a nightmare. With the new system, political parties are attached to specific provinces, the number of which is based on their influence level. If they rebel, everyone doesn’t automatically join them, and the only provinces that succeed are the ones under their control. Not only is it less severe and arbitrary, it’s a lot clearer when problems are brewing, making it more likely that you’ll be able to stave off a civil war.

Look, we all know that Creative Assembly should pinch some ideas from Paradox when it comes to creating a compelling politics and intrigue system, or better yet, collaborate on something, but since that’s probably never going to happen, Empire Divided provides a solid, if simple, alternative. And it’s not broken this time. It’s worth noting that the Power and Politics update is a free and separate patch that you won’t need any expansions to play.

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I’ve yet to touch on battles because, frankly, there’s not a lot to say. I confess that I started auto-resolving all but the most challenging fights by the time I started my second campaign. It’s the exact same unit roster from Rome 2, aside from a handful of units that only the Roman factions get, and it’s really hard to get excited about facing the same Germanic axemen and auxiliary soldiers again.

So the Romans fair a little better, but ultimately not enough to tempt me into manually controlling more battles. And it’s not just because I miss flying units and crazy magical spells – though I absolutely do miss all of them – it’s because battles largely boil down to the same types of units getting into the same types of fights over and over. Mostly sieges. It rarely feels like it makes a difference if I take control or not. And by choosing not to, I also get to avoid shouting at my units as they fail to even walk around a corner without getting confused. I spent one siege without two sets of ladders and their accompanying warriors because they spent the entire time standing in the same spot, unable to figure out how to get to a wall right in front of them. Nothing I did made a difference, so I gave up. We won anyway.

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The campaign does so much right, takes so many steps to make Empire Divided seem like more than just another Rome 2 expansion, that it’s jarring to switch to the mostly unchanged RTS battles. The huge leap the battles made between Rome 2 and Warhammer 2 wasn’t just cosmetic, it was the diversity within and between the various faction rosters that had the most dramatic impact. It would have been hard for an expansion to really match that, but it doesn’t feel like this is even trying.

In another universe, Creative Assembly released Empire Divided in 2014 and it was a huge improvement. Maybe even enough to make everyone forget about the fairly disastrous Rome 2 launch. Three years later, it just seems like it’s playing catch up. If you’re in desperate need of a historical strategy romp, you could do a lot worse than Empire Divided, and it’s the best piece of Rome DLC by quite a large margin, but barely a turn went by without me wishing I was bullying Elves or fighting the hordes of Chaos instead.

Total War: Rome 2 – Empire Divided is out on November 30 on Steam for £10.79/$15.29/€15.79.

40 Comments

  1. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    You mention Warhammer a lot, but for me it was actually Attila that Rome 2 always fell down in comparison to (although I think it did poorly because a lot of people burned by Rome 2’s launch kept away). Doesn’t sound like this is compelling enough to drag me away from Attila when I want my historical fix, especially as I found the new civil war mechanic pretty tiresome when trying the beta patch of the free update. Oh, and the limited rosters remaining is a big disappointment too.

    Ah well. Thanks for the review, gave me the info I needed to make a purchasing decision and all that good stuff.

    • BobbyDylan says:

      This. Spend about 25 hours TRYING to like Rome 2. Ended up just frustrating myself to the point where I almost hate the game. Got Atilla in a sale ans spend about 3 hours trying to like that, before I uninstalled and never went back. TotalWar games used to be a guaranteed purchase for me. Now I read articles on them and reminisce about how good they used to be.

  2. Will Tomas says:

    So what you’re saying here, Fraser, is that it’s a 7?

  3. Blastaz says:

    Who actually does play more than half the battles after turn twenty anyway?

    • King_Mandu says:

      In the TW: Warhammer games I do just to hear my beloved horde of Beastmen scream, “CLOVEN ONES!”

      That and the battles are actually fun compared to the historical games imo.

  4. Zenicetus says:

    “…battles largely boil down to the same types of units getting into the same types of fights over and over. Mostly sieges.”

    Mostly sieges sounds worrying. It was one of the larger problems with Rome 2, that there weren’t enough open field battles.

    I think it had something to do with the map design, which doesn’t sound changed here. Settlements were too close together, or maybe the movement speed per turn was too fast. Either way, armies just didn’t encounter each other for open field battles often enough. The AI would just run to the nearest settlement when it felt overmatched.

    So I guess I’ll pass on this one, even though I’m more a fan of historical settings than the Warhammer fantasy stuff.

    • Lord of Beer says:

      Part of the problem is the new reinforcement system. Whilst it reduces micromanagement, being able to just magically replenish your dead troops in the middle of nowhere, instead of constantly sending small reinforcing armies from your homelands, just means there are fewer armies wandering around.

      I think they should separate troops into sick/wounded and killed, and not allow killed ones to be replaced at all, requiring you to manually recombine your stacks.

  5. Werthead says:

    On the other hand, for those Total War fans who found the Warhammers far too gimmicky (and limited after pulling out proper sieges and naval battles), this does sound like it has some appeal. Or it would if it was going to do something more fundamental to Rome II, like shrink the size of the insane map (too big, too long to get anywhere, but then too many provinces with cities right next to each other meaning 90% of battles were sieges which broke the AI), put in proper family trees and make the game just a bit more characterful. The biggest problem I had with Rome II was that as I was playing it I always had the nagging feeling that Rome I was still the better game.

    Sounds like I’ll probably skip this then and wait for Lords of Britannia next year.

  6. hobotango says:

    “How can a historical Total War compete with dinosaurs besieging a fortress filled with wraiths and shambling corpses”

    How can it compete ? Easy, Historical DOES NOT have Dinosaurs and wraiths.

    I own both Total War Warhammer and probably will get the third one. But Historical Total war is where its at. Warhammer gets boring to play after a session of one hour.

    I never found myself bored playing for more than one hour at a time with Historical.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      You’re planning on owning a trilogy that bores you after an hour? We obviously play games for very different reasons!

  7. TracksuitGuy says:

    Great review, im excited to try it myself. If only they could improve the AI overall.
    I still dont understand all of the love for the warhammer gameplay. I get why people are excited to play with dinos and orcs and such but what they did to siege battles in warhammer alone makes it one of the worst total wars in terms of gameplay.

  8. tangtren says:

    Battle A.I. still PG 12?

  9. Snake726 says:

    A step back? It actually has more features in real-time battles than Warhammer. Warhammer did away with troop density (ie. loose formation for skirmishers, or anyone under artillery fire). They also did away with formations like shield walls, cavalry wedges, phalanxes, or any activated abilities for that matter [edit – there are some, but none to do with formations] – even arrow types. Ostensibly they did this to simplify the game in the face of introducing heroes with their own abilities in order to reduce ability micro – but given this, Warhammer is a step back in the name of accommodating the license.

    It’s fine, but it’s a fact that I would rather like that Warhammer add these features that Rome 2 had, rather than suggest that somehow Rome 2 is less advanced…

    As for history versus fantasy, my Steam library overfloweth with fantasy themes – what I’m actually starved for are historical games.

    I am very, very happy about their decision to put out packs like this.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      The continued absence of formations in Warhammer is disappointing, but having formations doesn’t make Rome 2’s battles good. Hero units, abilities, spells, greater diversity between faction rosters and better AI (and that’s not even all of the additions) all contribute towards making Warhammer’s battles better, and it adds far more than what is missing.

      • Snake726 says:

        I think it’s a matter of taste – while I enjoy Warhammer, most of the time I’d actively rather avoid dragons and wizards if I can. I get more enjoyment out of the historical setting than I do the mechanical differentiation.

        And on the smaller scale, being able to time a forming-up into a phalanx, or advance in skirmish order, is more interesting a choice to me than whether my dragon shoots a fireball or swings its tail.

        Actually, now that I think of it, I feel that the traditional Rome 2 infantry feel rather different than say elvish swordsmen and human pikemen. If those pikemen could actually form into a shield wall, or if riflemen could rank fire, that would be far more interesting. As it is, a lot of Warhammer’s infantry actually feel the same, even if their roles and baked-in stats are quite different.

      • Universal Quitter says:

        “Hero units, abilities, spells, greater diversity between faction rosters and better AI (and that’s not even all of the additions) all contribute towards making Warhammer’s battles better, and it adds far more than what is missing.”

        Ugh.

        • MrEvilGuy says:

          Historical Total War game battles, even with formations, are pretty pathetic simulations compared to most war games out there. So I’m not buying any argument that historical battles, by virtue of being historical, are better than fantasy battles in Total War. They’re all fairly fantastical.

          That being said, I did find myself missing Shogun 2 seiges while playing Warhammer 2.

    • fearandloathing says:

      You’re missing a critical point though, formations (and anything related) did not really work in R2TW, and it seems the patch/dlc does nothing to fix that. Reasons -for it now working- are a legion: matched combat, lack of unit masses, poor pathfinding etc.

  10. zulnam says:

    Who knows, maybe 6 years from now when they release the 3rd DLC, they’ll get the AI right.

    Until then we’ll always have Medieval 2.

    • Captain Narol says:

      And Rome 1.

      • Baboonanza says:

        Shirley, you an’t be serious? The AI in Rome 1 was dismal! 20% of the time the AI would just get it’s self in some sort of loop and do nothing and when it did work it was trivial to exploit.

        • Werthead says:

          Not to mention not being able to attack or defend in sieges at all. However, that was more of a problem with the initial release. The Barbarian Invasion patch solved most of those problems (though they’d still occasionally pop up).

  11. Universal Quitter says:

    Can we get an actually useful review that examines the game through a lens besides Warhammer, for those of us who didn’t buy Warhammer, have no interest in Warhammer, aren’t particularly bitter about Warhammer, but just couldn’t care less about, or possibly relate to, Warhammer?

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      We probably can. Although, since Brendan clearly liked a lot of aspects of Total War: Warhammer, I doubt it’ll come from him.

      Also, there are other sites which feature reviews.

  12. sandineyes says:

    The thing that gives me nightmares about this is the description of the province building that is reminiscent of Attila. You can say it is interesting to have to spin a bunch of plates at once, but Attila pushed that philosophy to the point of being a giant math problem with essentially one real solution.

    In that game, it came down to either having every province adopt a radical agrarian society of nothing but religious, sanitation, and lots of agricultural buildings (with maybe one slot left for military), or deal with massive penalties to tax or public order or health. It was like Pol Pot was on the design team or something.

  13. fearandloathing says:

    Fraser has my gratitude for not glossing over AI problems, especially stubbornly broken battle AI. All them other writers, who supposedly are paragons of advancing gamer interests, but who bent over backwards to not criticize an AAA title, will be remembered as collaborators of an evil regime. I’ve got carried away, but CA has burned so many with R2TW, it only seems fair.
    I should say this though, even it seems like an improvement (haven’t played it), I am delighted that Attila has poor(er) sales. Boycott CA!

  14. King_Mandu says:

    TW: Warhammer has greatly reignited my love for TW games but it’s going to be really hard to go back to having my general on a My Little Pony versus a Black Dragon. I’m excited to check this and the saga release next year but with how poorly they’re handling the Mortal Empires campaign currently, it has me thinking same ol’ CA and I should wait for a sale.

    At least this and the next historical saga game will hopefully shut up all the ultra serious historical only crowd from continuing to whine about their lack of content and how Warhammer is ruining the series.

  15. Balance of Power says:

    Feels like the reviewer is towing the line here conscious of the fact that the Total War community has a cross-section of religious fanatics who will get upset at any possible praise of Rome II and in doing so contradicts
    the reviewer themselves, i.e., stating Rome II is the most popular historical Total War to date but later parroting the worn chestnut that its launch was disastrous. Fact: Rome II was the most successful Total War to date until Warhammer launched — yes quite “disastrous” indeed! /s

    Rome II — much like so many of the recent, manufactured outrages that flare up from month-to-month in the gaming community — was the target of an orchestrated campaign of messageboard denizens from Total War Center and 4chan as well as Youtube personalities like Angry Joe who cherry-picked the games bugs while conveniently overlooking the numerous things it achieved.

    I don’t deny that Rome II had a number of issues at launch: visual glitches, pathing issues, campaign bugs, and the most common of them all, poor performances. But the game was quite playable from beginning to end even on an aged system (like mine).

    But! if you listened to the aforementioned hardliners, blinded by nostalgia, Rome II was ‘disastrous’ because it wasn’t a reskin of Rome I with nicer graphics all because CA did away with Rome I’s shallowest feature: the family tree.

    Give me a break.

    It’s only now, years later that the misinformation campaign created by these deceitful, intellectually dishonest toadies has lifted and people have come to realize that Rome II is actually one of the better historical games since CA started making them, surpassing the shallow RISK-like game that was Rome I.

    But like any community composed of extremists — be they fascists, jihadis or gaming fanboys — their perceptions do not align with reality and the lies they told themselves persists to this day: up is down, down is up, Rome I was complex and Rome II was a failure.

    It was anything but and that is exactly why CA is pushing out a DLC for it four years after Rome II launched — because Rome II was a resounding success and CA went above and beyond to make it one of their best titles in the franchise.

    • fearandloathing says:

      Yeah sure, we all gather up in hidden ruins of a medieval monastery and plan how we can take CA down. It’s definitely not about CA falling behind other strategy devs (Paradox, or even Firaxis) in innovation or design. R2TW may be a good game, if you broadly define games to include stuff you see on Android playstore, and hey, they have millions of players, since obviously that’s a good benchmark. It nonetheless a substandard strategy game, especially for its budget, anyone arguing against that seriously has no idea about game-design, and would be well of playing clash of royals and whatnot.

      • Baboonanza says:

        I don’t think after Warhammer 1/2 you can say they are falling behind in innovation, those games are packed with new ideas and mostly extremely good. I think the issue is partly that the TW formula combined with historical settings is too restrictive in terms of content and mechanics.

        And the Total War games are still pretty unique in what they do. Comparing it to another strategy game that’s utterly different is a pretty pointless exercise.

    • Troubletcat says:

      Haha, what? The game sold well because it’s a franchise with a lot of fans. That doesn’t change the fact that the state of the game at launch was incredibly bad even by CA’s standards (and they’re notorious for poor launches). The community bought the game because they were always going to, and their reaction was overwhelmingly negative because the game was A: Dumbed down and simplified compared to previous games in the series, B: Missing features that fans of the franchise loved and C: Painful to play because of a huge number of bugs and performance problems, most importantly the hilariously broken AI.

      I like Rome 2 more than Shogun 2 or Warhammer, personally. CA get a lot of credit from me for fixing their game. It was awful at launch though, and the community reaction reflected that fact. To use a similar level of melodrama as you did when you called people who didn’t happen to like the launch state of a game you enjoy “intellectually dishonest toadies” and comparing them to jihadists; Your rant reads like a holocaust denialist’s spiel – historical revisionism at its finest.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The drama surrounding the launch of Rome 2 wasn’t just the usual bugs with a new TW game. There were serious design flaws baked into the system. Like the original “capture the flag” design for open field battles. Remember that? It was so terrible a design for a TW game that the devs quickly removed it in one of the early patches. Or using torches as the only way to open gates during a siege.

      It was a long list of real issues, not some campaign dreamed up on a few user web sites.

  16. Dogshevik says:

    Frankly speaking, when you see modern TW games (warhammer or historical) repeating the same strategic AI fuckups you are familiar with from TW:Rome 1, -a game from 2004- I wonder why this franchise is still a thing.

    Also Fraser:
    “Look, we all know that Creative Assembly [and Paradox] should…collaborate.”
    Take that back. Seriously. It´s not funny.

  17. jeremyalexander says:

    The way for the next full release of Total War’s historical series to take off is to leave the swords, spears, arrows and horses behind and take on modern warfare. I suspect WW2 makes the most sense, and they’ve clearly stated that it is on the list of games they will eventually do. They said it is in an era we’ve never seen before and we’ve seen era’s that cover the conquests of Alexander to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. A US Civil war game would be great, but with only 2-4 factions involved in any significant way and only two main combatants, it makes far more sense as a smaller title. WW1 wouldn’t really work as I don’t see trench warfare being a very exciting affair and I don’t think they would skip WW2 for more modern fair as WW2 is the perfect lead into things like the Korean War and a potentially hot cold war scenario. It’s time. I know many people want to see ancient China or a Mongol themed game and I think we’ll get them someday, that is a place they haven’t covered, not a time period, so it doesn’t fit into their description. I think tanks, spitfires, and great carrier battles across the globe would more than make up for the lack of dragons and orcs.

  18. StaalBurgher says:

    I won’t be buying a TW game again until Medieval III. Rome 2 was a massive disappointment and Warhammer/WW scenarios just do not interest me.

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