There’s no getting around it – Creative Assembly’s Total War games are intimidating. The combination of epic real-time battles, where the slightest mistake can lead to instant death, and open-ended empire management, where the slightest mistake can lead to death in several hours, is a lot for even seasoned strategy gamers to manage. It’s no surprise then that more casual gamers are hesitant to jump in and climb the game’s steep learning curve.
The developers have made some concessions over the years to make the series friendlier to newcomers, but has Total War Rome II done enough to break through?
While other Total War games have offered up general tutorials and a helpful in-game advice system, Rome II also adds a short mini-campaign that helps orient players towards some of the decisions they’ll need to be making in the game. It’s not just “Here’s what this button does,” so much as it is “Here’s why what this button does is important.” The mini-campaign also serves as a sort of prologue to the main campaign. Accordingly, players will end the mini-campaign with a clearer understanding of the first-turn priorities in the main campaign. They’ll understand immediately where the threats are coming from and be better prepared to confront them. At least, that’s the hope.
For the ultimate in hand-holding, there’s also a co-operative campaign available for players who feel like Rome might have had a better time of it if it had just teamed up with the Carthaginians instead of killing them.
Just as Mark Burnett only holds Survivor in places where bikinis are essentially mandatory, Creative Assembly’s followed a few basic rules for picking settings in Total War. First, the time and place has to present a large number of factions of relatively equal power who are all competing for dominance. Second, there has to be an opportunity for profound technological advancement. Finally, it has to have lots of cool stuff like samurais, catapults, and frigates.
Rome II arguably delivers more of that stuff than any of the franchise’s other entries. Starting in 272BC, the game sees Rome of the verge of massive expansion, Eastern and North African powers dominating maritime trade, Greek city states working to develop new technologies for war and peace, and German tribes looking to leverage their battlefield prowess into a greater sense of security in the north. Each of the factions delivers a unique approach, both in terms of abilities and challenges.
The game’s called Total War for a reason, but, taking a cue from games like Civilization, Rome II also offers some outlets for gamers who don’t necessarily want to stab their way to dominance. There are now cultural and economic victory conditions to pursue. While fighting’s the main appeal, and considerably more developed than these other objectives, having a chance to flex your strategic muscles in other directions should help give the series a bit more appeal.
Naturally, there a substantial dynastic game to be played here as well, one that requires players to manage their own retinues and jockey for approval within the factions that rule Rome. The dynastic game isn’t quite developed enough to satisfy fans of Downton Abbey, but there’s still a fun family element that adds to the overall experience.
The Shogun versions of Total War have done a better job of keeping the unit rosters manageable, and the Medieval versions have delivered unit names that are much more familiar to most gamers. Rome II has a harder sell in both of these areas. With over 700 units, it can be hard for newcomers to know their Hastati from their Triarii from their Velites. While the unit icons are a big help, part of the appeal of the series is having a wide range of unique, historically appropriate units. Given time, players won’t be confusing the Testudo with that creepy motorcycle kid from Akira, but it can take some getting used to.
In terms of tactical opportunities, there’s more sophistication here than in previous games, which could be a barrier for entry for newcomers, but there’s also a more friendly alternate RTS camera, that would help make the game a bit more approachable. Even with that, there’s still the same option for the cinematic camera that has made the series so compelling.
Rome Wasn’t Micromanaged in a Day
One of the bigger problems with the Total War games has been the burden of micromanagement, particularly in the late game. Other entries have tried to streamline the various interactions, but it can still take five or ten minutes to get through a regular turn. Rome II simplifies things a bit by moving to a provincial administration system, whereby players can manage multiple regions as a single entity, ordering construction, recruiting units, and addressing tax and morale issues all at once. When you’re managing a late game empire than can encompass dozens of these provinces, it can still be a bit of a slog but every bit of help is appreciated.
To make things even more manageable, there’s a cap on the number of armies any faction can control at one time. Rather than just leading and fighting dozens and dozens of small armies around the map, you’ll only have to manage a handful in the early stages of the game and will slowly grow into the larger armies needed to manage the later stages of the game.
Rome Wasn’t Micromanaged in a Day
The Total War series nicely dodges the story continuity problems that typically prompt this question, so the main question for new players is whether the subject matter is engaging enough to put up with the complexity that the setting and design requires. Over the course of seven core releases and just as many expansions, Creative Assembly has learned a lot of lessons about how to better present the content of these deep war games.