Most of the internet knew the nature of the Creative Assembly's next Total War game as of last week, but as a man of honour I have ignored the leaks and waited to mention it until I could tell you about it properly. Onwards then, and to battle...
'Big' would be the obvious word. "Enormous" is probably a slightly better one. "Bugger me, what an awful lot of soldiers and boats and increasingly demolished buildings that is" would be a more accurate summary of my thoughts at the time of seeing Rome: Total War II. "My deepest sympathies to anyone else currently working on a historical real-time strategy game" would be my thoughts now.
Admittedly, my first look at Rome: Total War II did come via a very big screen and some rather loud posh speakers, but I'm reasonably confident that the enormous scale of the Creative Assembly's return to arguably its most enduring game would have dragged my jaw inexorably floorwards even had I been watching it on an eye-telephone.
This demo is all about scale, and what the latest iteration of CA's proprietary strategy engine can do with it. The battle of Carthage is the setting for a seamless assault by sea and land. A vast force of Roman ships pile from the black ocean into a sweeping coastline, expelling hundreds of legionaries onto a beach overlooking the towering fortress-city of Carthage as arrows and rocks rain down on them. It's Saving Private Ryan in sandals, and a dramatic statement that navies and armies are no longer separate, compartmentalised entities for Total War.
As soldiers swarm towards siege equipment left on the beach by their forerunners' failed attempts to fell Carthage, Roman artillery boats sail coolly down inlets towards the city's flanks and proceed to unleash hell at its defenders. As catapults and siege towers join the fray, apocalyptic music swells and smoke, fire and rubble mount. Carthage has held out for two long years of the Punic Wars, but today Scipio Aemilianus and his legions will bring about its fall.
As Romans clamber up siege towers, the shields on their backs lending them the appearance of aggressive cockroaches, Rome II's new unit-lock camera shows the battle from an over-the-shoulder perspective. Rows and rows of differing faces shouting and waiting as the tower rolls inexorably to Carthage's walls. Zoom out again and the size of the approaching army once again startles. Zoom out again to a Supreme Commander-esque tactical overhead map (not an interactive one as such, mind) and streams of soldiers are swarming the city from all angles as artillery boats creep around the sides. It seems impossible that one player could control all this, but a developer assures me that a broad move up from squads to legions does not mean over-complication.
The sound is something I can't ignore. It's not the sound of little pixel men moving forwards in eerie unison, it's the clatter and clamour of an army thumping towards its fearful goal. As a catapult finally brings down a wall in a shower of shattered stone, the siege engines spew their cockroaches over the top of another. Inside, Carthage shows the cost of a two-year siege. Much is already in an unhappy, semi-trashed state, while angry graffiti creeps over the walls like a viral spread of physical discontent. Carthage is nonetheless still a stronghold, and a huge one at that, filled with multiple roads, hills, towering structures and multiple capture points. The canny general can plot the most efficient/least defended/most defensible path through Rome II's cities, not simply rush for the central square - no more 'headshotting' cities, as CA put it.
Smoke pillars emerge where the city is suffering shelling from the artillery ships, while in the streets the Carthaginian defenders rush towards the Roman invaders. There's an almighty crunch as the two shield-wielding forces collide, but before too long Scipio's army has a clear edge. Then, a sharp trumpeting sound overwhelms the clatter, and something huge blots out the light. Ah yes. For what would Rome: Total War be without elephants?
So that's the drama: Total War at its biggest to date, land and sea fused together into seamless assaults, and a return to CA's most diverse and exoticism-friendly setting. What about details? Well, Total War: Rome II is the follow-up to Shogun II and its add-on Fall of the Samurai, so primarily the plan is to take the techniques that were there focused on a relatively small time and place into something much broader. You can play the campaign from the off as any of the nations on Rome II's map, that mass choice of cultures and combat styles that Rome's wannabe empire and its enemies comprised - each with their own tech trees, content and internal conflict. The campaign map will be bigger still than Rome 1's, with all I can glean of the new territories to be explored/conquered being that the game will be "going further East" in addition to containing all the countries and sates of the first the game.
The map will also be scattered with invisible, branching storyline triggers which demand consequence-laden choices and dilemmas beyond the merely military regardless of which nation/state/tribe/faction you play as. It's not quite procedural, but you won't run into the same story 'Easter eggs' every time and they're not locked to specifically Roman history and lore.
'Human drama' is a term that keeps coming up, both in terms of the intrigue and politicking on the campaign map (because, let's face it, the Roman Empire was playing the game of thrones centuries before George R.R. Martin sprouted his first beard-hair) and right down on the battlefield. The per-unit camera, the more detailed faces and glut of new animations is intended to demonstrate soldiers' state of mind and likelihood of success as much as are morale and health meters. Whether it will actually be feasible to watch much of the game from this perspective remains to be seen, but in this demo at least Rome II is more war than wargame.
"Shogun 2 was about one line of infantry hitting another and having an elegant duel on the frontline," series lead James Russell tells me (in a full interview to follow soon), "whereas this is about the Roman war machine, the impact and steamroller smashing on the frontline." For that, units need a sense of mass, stonework needs to seem to quake, and this means animation and audio escalated further than before.
It also means approaching TW's battles in a different context than previous games offered. "We want the player to be thinking like a Roman military leader. A Roman emperor was not thinking about what to do with specific units of archers, he's thinking about where the tenth legion is. We want the player to be thinking about their legions rather than a random collection of units."
In theory, this means a little less micromanagement and "fewer but more significant battles" as vast armies go to it, though I'm assured unit diversity and the essential rock, paper, scissors thinking very much remains. It also means those legions, being more enduring, generate their own history - gaining new traits and perks as they win or lose great battles, their behaviour and abilities reflecting their experiences to date.
Of the campaign map and its politicking I've seen nothing as yet, however, so I must take said promises at face value. What I can attest to is the mighty magnitude of Rome II's battles. If ever a demonstration were needed that PC is now a full technical generation on from its console kin, this is it.
Total War: Rome II is slated for release late next year. We'll have some interview features with the devs up for you over the next couple of days.