I don’t know why the Fallout trailers always bang on about war never changing, because war changes loads. War changes more than most stuff does, in fact, because people keep inventing new types of swords and bombs and such. Less so Total War. The basic concept behind the Total War games - a turn-based strategy campaign on a big map, with huge RTS battles - has never really changed, and it doesn’t really need to. Much like sharks, crocodiles, or Jason Statham, it’s one of those ideas that was a complete banger on the first draft.
Even so, the formula has been tweaked here and there, with every one of the nine and a half million Total War games released since Shogun in 2000. And though there have been missteps from time to time, it’s hard to disagree that the general trend in quality has been positive.
It’s interesting, then, that the celebrated manbattling series has at last succumbed to the wave of remasters sweeping the strategy genre, and taken a rummage in the back catalogue. The result, released today, is a remaster of 2004’s Rome: Total War called... um... Total War: Rome Remastered. I’ve definitely enjoyed a few days of Roming it up, but it's been hard to put my finger on whether this feels like a solid nostalgia piece, or a new, weirdly unambitious entry in the series. The answer I eventually arrived at, and which will take a bit of explaining, is... both?
TW:RR has been developed by Feral Interactive, best known for making Mac and Linux ports of blockbuster games. They’ve done a lot of Total Wars over the years, and even put Rome on android back in 2018, to a largely favourable reaction from players. This remaster, I suppose, was a logical next step from that, and it’s actually Feral’s first game made for Windows.
I’ll admit this coloured my expectations a little. I expected that little would have been changed about the game, except “Total War” and “Rome” switching sides of the infamous Total War colon, and the usual GLORIOUS HD which tends to headline any strategy remaster. “Surely that would be a good thing,” you pronounce, for you played Rome in 2004, and you found it to be excellent. And indeed you were right, for it was excellent.
Still, times change, and so does game design. All too often, an HD glow-up of a strategy game’s visuals only emphasises how dated the rest of it is. Just look at that other remastered Rome-’em-up, Praetorians. It was great fun when it was released, just a few months before Rome: Total War in 2003. But as I found out when I reviewed it, Praetorians has aged about as well as a plate of raw chicken left out of the fridge in summer.
Rome has avoided this fate. I won’t pretend it’s as much fun as Troy, Three Kingdoms, Total Hamwarmer 2, or any of my current go-to Total Wars, because there is, to put it bluntly, less of it. Less detail on the campaign map, less variety in the battle maps, less systems to play around with on both. This doesn’t mean that there’s not enough of it, mind. It just falls shy of the bacchanalian excess of content which the games have become known for.
If Total War had never happened, and this game had fallen into Steam from a parallel universe, I’d have been dead impressed with it. It’s a lot of fun to play. And I know that seems like a brutishly reductive thing to say about an intricate strategy game, but it’s the main thing you want to know about it, after all.
What I’m having more trouble answering, is how much it differs from the original Rome. I didn’t have a PC capable of handling a new Total War game until 2011, so I only ever saw Rome being played on a mate’s computer. My general impression was that I enjoyed all of the very small, aggressive men.
Of course, Feral have put together an FAQ which includes a list of all the new stuff in the remaster. There is all the visual business on there, of course, plus cross-platform multiplayer, a modernised battlefield camera, and a few accessibility fixes. They’ve also lumped in the Barbarian Invasion and Alexander expansions, which is pleasant.
While there are plenty of new game features listed, they mostly relate to how information is presented to the player. The UI has been overhauled entirely, and there’s a wealth of new summary screens, plus heat map overlays, tutorial functions, etcetera. You can read the full list here.
But in terms of new stuff you can actually do, and which you could not do in 2004, the list seems to be a lot slimmer. Probably the biggest change is that all the factions in the game have been unlocked, allowing you to play as chumps like Scythians and the Greek cities. There’s also a new type of agent, the Merchant, as well as a retooled Diplomacy system. But that’s about it.
Or so I thought. Because when I started my second campaign (I wanted to see how far I could get with an army made entirely of dogs), I noticed a little telltale cog in the corner of the faction select screen. This cog - so easy to miss! - led me to a fascinating little screen, in which I could customise the fundamentals of the game in seven different areas, choosing either the original “rules” or the remastered ones.
I could choose to return to vintage unit balancing, for example, or banish the AI and summon its fretful, indecisive dad from 2004 to replace it. I could annihilate the presence of the new Merchant agent, or even negate all effects of weather and time of day on the battlefield. It was at this point, seeing how many tweaks I could roll back, that I realised just how many had been made. TW:RR is a much more extensive refit of the original than it lets on, and it definitely has one foot in remake territory.
The way it does this, however - with a bank of on/off switches for everything new - is extremely smart. My biggest problem with remasters, I think, is that they’re often way too timid. They’re marketed in large part with nostalgia, and a large subset of their target audience will get unreasonably angry if they feel the perfection of the original product has been sullied in any way.
Feral have dodged this risk entirely, by letting the player define what constitutes an improvement. The rules customisation menu is a bit like a patient sommelier, offering you a selection of fine wines to accompany your meal of spears and elephant blood. She would strongly recommend nine litres of the 2021 Chateau-Battlemechanique, but if you want to go ahead and wolf down the frisbee full of corner shop scotch you’ve brought to the restaurant with you, she won’t get in your way.
"The rules customisation menu is a bit like a patient sommelier, offering you a selection of fine wines to accompany your meal of spears and elephant blood."
I suppose for me, however, the question remains: if you’re not playing this out of nostalgia, then why are you playing it? I suppose if you really love Romans and you really love Total War, but you didn’t get along with TW: Rome 2, this is probably the ideal game for you. But as I’ve already said, despite the remarkably good job Feral have done here, the end result is still drab when compared against any of the Total Wars from the last few years. That’s nobody’s fault but old daddy time’s, but alas, it is the case.
Still, there’s dogs in this one. Hundreds and thousands of massive angry dogs. They’re brilliant. Go on and have a go with the dogs.