Rome II will attract new fans and impress loyalists…
Given the long-running nature of the Total War series and its tendency to attract a more hardcore audience, The Creative Assembly could be easily forgiven for ignoring mainstream gamers and those with only a passing interest in what is essentially a hybrid version of digital chess. This time around, though, Total War is seeking to attract the fickle attention of newcomers and, generally, less-hardcore gamers; albeit with the added challenge of not alienating devoted fans and watering down the overall product.
The separate prologue campaign we played stands as the first pertinent example of this, as training is offered in a meaningful way with an emphasis on historical authenticity and solid storytelling. As the game progresses, the training doesn’t end, though, as persistent guidance is offered every step of the way, while an inbuilt encyclopaedia provides gameplay insights and historical context.
For additional education, mini-tutorial movies help to refresh or enlighten on the intricacies of a game that Jamie describes as straightforward to learn, but difficult to master. On the hardcore side of things, elite players can raise the difficulty, removing the majority of information from the UI, taking away the ‘cheating’ pause option and vastly upping the cunning and aggression of opponents.
You don’t need a Crysis-slaying rig to take Rome II for a spin…
Shogun II was a veritable Crysis in terms of how it sought to humble even the beastiest of computers, but Rome II is primed to run on a PC that’s almost as ancient as the game’s epoch. Even single-core processors are listed in the minimum specs rap sheet, with only a measly 2GB of RAM and a 512MB video card required to get the game off the ground. Our demo session saw the game running – and running well – on a mid-range rig.
Meanwhile, owners of Skynet-like hardware can get even more out of the game. A high-spec machine can enjoy up to 32,000 units on the battlefield during a single real-time encounter. If you’re seeking further glory and are willing to push your PC harder than your legionaries, Jamie casually mentioned you can tweak the preference files to double that number to 64,000. There’s no better way to complement the recently released 30,000-pixel, highly detailed screenshot; granted, you should expect a stop-frame experience. But that’s not going to stop you. Is it?
There’s a strong chance you’ll like the voice acting, particularly in the prologue…
Voice acting in games, particularly in certain strategy titles, has been hit or miss, ever since the birth of the technology. Rome II has this base firmly covered, though – at least for the prologue – with the casting of renowned actor Mark Strong. You may not know his name, but you’re bound to know his ‘that guy!’ mug from films such as RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass. He even has swords-and-sandals street cred as the villainous Godfrey in the underwhelming Robin Hood film and, more appropriate to Rome II’s setting, as ex-legionary Guern in the meh-fest otherwise known as The Eagle.
His vocal prowess is instantly recognisable in his commanding role as General Gaius Fulvius Silanus who – despite his lack of enslavement, emperor defiance or phone throwing – injects a believable authority to his character, which helps to emphasise entertainment over education during the prologue. He may have died faster than Sam Worthington’s sound career choices post-Avatar in one particular mission but, by the gods, he sounded like a brute of a man in every step leading up to his untimely demise. (For the record, Jamie assured us that Silanus’ death twice over at our hands was the result of him taking more damage than he will in the final version. Official vindication is a beautiful thing.)
Slinging insults is the least of concerns for your enemies…
Technological advancements on bows have vastly increased the weapon type to the point where accuracy and, more pertinently, range have impressive results nowadays. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, when we teased Jamie about how far our Roman Slingers were tossing rocks, we were humbled to learn that the accurate 50-odd-metre takedowns by these digital units had nothing on the reality of what an expert could do with a sling back in ye olde times. According to Jamie, “Slingers were the riflemen of their time. They could easily sling rocks up to 300 metres. And accurately.”
To test the theory, The Creative Assembly put some experts to the task who were reportedly accurately pulling off headshots on dummies from 100 metres away. The slugs slingers slung were the size and shape of a human thumb, tapered on either end, and were also personally inscribed with messages such as, “Catch this!” When they ran out of signature-edition death slugs, slingers would simply collect rocks off the field to continue their barrage. This is just a single instance of Rome II’s commitment to historical authenticity but, thankfully, you won’t need to brush up on Ancient History 101 to wrap your head around the game mechanics or storyline.
Friendly AI actually understands how to be friendly…
With the friendly-fire-loving tendencies of Company of Heroes 2 mortar crews fresh in our mind, we were keen to see how many of our own troops we could conquer through blue-on-blue casualties. This is a more difficult feat than originally anticipated, as the friendly AI ranged units intelligently refuse to fire when their compatriots are in their line of sight. Clearly, The Creative Assembly didn’t buy into King Edward Longshanks’ opinion that ammunition cost money, while the dead cost nothing. This does, however, add a deeper level of tactical consideration to combat, in regards to when to commit melee troops and where to place ranged units. Refreshingly, ranged legionaries are lethally accurate, unlike Emperor Palpatine’s legion of so-called “best troops” that couldn’t best a bunch of teddy bears.
Best of all on the AI frontline, though, if you zoom in on your troops laying waste to a particular foe, you can hear them hurl insults at each other. Just don’t expect friendlies to question the fidelity of their opponents’ mothers, as this vision of Rome is closer to Disney than it is to HBO.