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Wot I Think: Total War – Rome II

No place like Rome

I’ve been waiting for Total War: Rome II for a long time. My fondest memories of the series are still tied up in the original Rome, despite all that has happened since, and now that the sequel is finally here, I’ve immersed myself in its world. Was it love at second sight or the end of an era? Here’s wot I think. It’s complicated.

To understand Rome II’s place in the tiers of Total War, it’s useful to look at three previous titles: the original Rome, Shogun 2 and Empire. Aside from the occasional bout of voice acting that sounds more suited to a Master of Orion sequel than the classical era, Rome II captures the essence of its period as well as any of the Total War games ever have. It is, as ever, an idea of history, as opposed to a recreation. As Creative Assembly studio director Michael Simpson told us last month on the topic of historical accuracy, “we tend toward the Hollywood end of the scale…hopefully we’re somewhere between the two though.”

The Hollywood tendency is clear, but it’s one of the game’s strengths. Roman generals lead their men into battle raging against the otherness of their enemies, their words as savage as swords. They are the clear model of the later imperial forces that they inspired – the boulevard of inspiration and allusion weaves long, and in both directions. I was simultaneously battle-hyped and repulsed when my oldest general, a grizzled stack of scar tissue wrapped in his lorica squamata, merrily ordered his men to slaughter their Celtic opponents, describing them as upright pigs rather than men. They’re a terrifying prospect, the Romans, and are the natural starting point for a first campaign, being centrally positioned and easy to handle.

All of that is to say that Rome II does good Romans, which is a fine starting point. Aesthetically, it’s as pleasing as a pitcher of punch. The music reaches out from an imagined past, tranquil at times and with a melancholy centre that is in keeping with both the toll of war and the knowledge that whatever empire is forged will inevitably decline and fall. The individual narratives, of legions and of leaders, are the fine stitching that finishes the tapestry, but it’s here that the imperfections start to appear.

Viewed from afar, Rome II is delightful. Its individual parts appear to form a cohesive, beautiful and rewarding whole. It’s a formula we know – Total War’s usual mix of advanced Risk-like strategic shuffling twinned with large scale real-time combat – and Shogun 2 was, in many ways, the best example of that formula. To an extent, the choice of era and place informed the structure. A streamlined approach for a more secluded setting.

For the return to Japan, the scale of Empire was abandoned, but much of the scrappiness was jettisoned along with it. Shogun did less but almost every aspect that carried over was improved. Where Empire scattered its shot far and wide, creating something of a mess, Shogun 2 was focused, which made for a stronger game and conveniently left space for Fall of the Samurai, which was an excellent expansion. Sadly, Rome II has taken on board some of Empire’s vices and, while it is in many ways an exceptionally well-crafted game, it is a misstep of sorts. Engage the Irony Alarm – Rome II is a game that reaches too far and wide, creaking under its own weight.

It’s an enormous game and a far more open experience than the original Rome, with several factions to choose from even without magical preorder DLC. Starting in different parts of the world does offer much changed experiences. The most obvious challenge is understanding the ways that diplomacy and the power rankings of neighbours, and their neighbours in turn, influences the geography of your particular faction’s surroundings. Rome is capable of bullying most other factions and begins the game at war with its northern neighbour. It’s a war that is extremely difficult to lose, allowing immediate consolidation of territory.

Expansion is handled elegantly. A faction’s overall strength, fame and influence in the world determines how many armies, armadas and agents it can field at any one time. Rather than being solely tied to the number of regions owned, power is now concentrated in provinces, which are made up of a bundle of regions. They’re a little like continents in Risk, the grouping effect creating new strategic decisions. It can be worth chipping one region from an enemy’s province and to then defend the settlement there rather than advancing, knowing that breaking up the provincial claim weakens and frustrates.

The province system also allows for more interesting decision-making in regards to construction. Each region contains a settlement, which can support a number of buildings or developmental areas, such as farms or training grounds. I develop Rome as a military centre of excellence, always sending my legions there to recruit new members and maintaining it as a sort of Death Fortress par excellence. This does mean that the province’s food and cash reserves mostly come from elsewhere, so the coastal cities are essentially fish factories. They’re great scaly unpleasantries where everybody is unhappy because of the stench and the high probability of slipping on fish guts while walking down the street.

I find it useful to have a centralised military production centre but, playing as the Iceni, I experimented with different strategies, making each settlement a more balanced model rather than a specialised unit. It’s a viable tactic and means that any loss has a lesser impact. The risk with my Roman model is that any invaders knocking out a single region could cause a ripple effect, severely disrupting the capital by cutting off its supply of food or labour. Cities can essentially be respecced, by demolishing the contents of an area and replacing them, but it’s an expensive and time-consuming habit.

There’s also the possibility of slums appearing if a province is mismanaged. They occupy a slot, preventing the construction of anything more useful, and there’s a penalty for demolishing them. On the whole, the regional management aspect of the game has probably seen the most improvement since Shogun 2. It effectively asks the player to think intelligently, to plan long-term and to provide their growing empire with character and guile. It’s also fairly easy to grasp, although the game does have a tendency to present features without explaining them. There are the usual guides, nattering away and tutoring as screens are opened for the first time, but at several points I realised I understood what the information on the screen represented, but not the intricacies of each individual number or icon. The tool tips are your friend in these situations.

That’s the best of Rome then. Oh, and the spectacle of the battles, I suppose. But it’s the military side, the Total Wars as it were, that disappoints. I’ll stress again here – in many ways, Rome II is a splendid piece of work and I’ll spend many more hours with it. Perhaps it never could live up to the expectation: it’s the perfect period for this game and it really is an incredibly attractive, occasionally awe-inspiring, take on that period. The battles though, and the management of armies and generals, don’t quite live up to their own sense of scale, and of time and place.

Part of that is the AI. It’s a rod that the series has been poked and prodded with since Rodney Rogers invention of the rod. It rarely offers a challenge and most of my losses were due to my own errors or a futile assault on an easily defensible position. The main problem is that the computer’s armies generally react to the player’s decisions rather than acting on their own. Eventually, those reactions become predictable and even though there’s a fantastically generous offering of unit types, their presence on the field rarely causes a surprise or innovation. There are exceptions – chiefly the elephants which are every bit as rage-filled and entertaining as I’d hoped – but my tactics haven’t changed much since the original Rome, which may well suggest that the AI hasn’t either.

Combined land and naval assaults are the best use for ships, with ordinary naval combat a glorious spectacle that requires no real intellectual investment. At first, my fleets always seemed to lose, even when I was fighting weaker opposition, but as soon as I recognised the importance of boarding actions and the actual unit types ON the ships, I turned the tide in my favour. Even though watching ships break into bits is excellent entertainment, I tend to autoresolve ship-to-ship combat now.

When there are ships approaching the harbour of a besieged town just as the final assault begins, their lack of versatility is less of a problem. Crushing enemies between two attacking forces is extremely satisfying, although it’s telling that the actual cleverness of such a movement occurs on the strategic map rather than during the combat itself.

It’s unfortunate that the chances to carry out such movements is rare. The map is huge but limited, presented as a series of corridors between forests and mountains rather than an open place. There’s an obvious benefit – it’s much easier for the developers, and indeed players, to control the flow of armies, making blockades, ambushes and tactical retreats far more common than they might be otherwise. The world does feel more cramped than I would have liked though. All roads may eventually lead to Rome, but there are only a couple leading out of it.

There is a clever innovation regarding army movement. The addition of stances allows troops to gain extra speed, or set themselves up for a Teutoburg-type ambush-massacre. There are pros and cons to each stance, of course, and the way that they alter the opening of combat on the tactical map is impressive.

Sadly, the development of armies and generals, as characters and historic fighting units, isn’t as deep as early signs had promised. The choices of upgrade, as both the unit and its leader level up independently, are simple, a choice between better swords or better armour for example. They don’t make a great deal of sense as period flavour, which the game otherwise handles superbly, nor do they significantly add to the complexity of player strategy. The general’s retinue is also problematic. It manifests as an accompanying character or item, adding bonuses, but after a few turns there are often so many spares to select from that they feel like a hassle rather than a rare reward.

I loaded up the game just now and toyed with a saved game. Currently, I’m trying to build a Celtic empire, preparing to take on the rapidly expanding AI Rome. The AI is effective and exciting to engage with on the strategic level, creating odd and unlikely scenarios as factions often do the unexpected, leading to strange alliances. The world is wonderfully changeable, although in the later game the wait between turns increases as the complexity of the political situation develops.

When I’m playing, provided no bugs are on show (a large patch over the weekend fixed the two major issues I’d personally encountered but I’ve heard talk of more, including crashes), I find myself falling back in love very quickly. It’s afterwards, when I’m no longer gazing into its eyes, that I question that love. The battles are exquisite, with enough flash to inspire a panegyric, and there’s enough variety in the mid- and late-game to make the repetitive opening moves worth enduring. But the opening stages are repetitive and the battles are, despite the pleasure of them, eventually lacking in variety and substance.

If Rome II were a gladiator, it would enter the arena as pyrotechnics flared and trumpets blared. Clad in the most beautiful armour in creation, it is the promised one, destined for greatness. Later in the day, having overcome many opponents, it would finally fall, its final opponent holding a sword to its throat. Watching on, only a very cruel emperor would point his thumb murder-wards. It deserves its victories but it’s hard not to think that if the armour it wore were less ornate, lighter and more flexible, then it may never have fallen at all.

Total War: Rome II is out tomorrow. Multiplayer was functional during the review period but if we do test it fully, it'll be when the game is released so as to see how it works in the wild.

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.