Rome: Total War
15th Oct 2004 | 11:16
Mesmerising. Cerebral. Intuitive. Epic. Breathtaking. A masterpiece. Rome: Total War is all of these things. In fact, I'm almost tempted to leave it at that and simply send you skipping off to the shops to pick up a copy, safe in the knowledge that in a few days your eyes will be weeping blood from monitor glare, bladder haemorrhaging as you succumb to that all-consuming urge to play for just half an hour more. Of course, I'm not going to do that. After all I couldn't do that to you after all we've been through now could I? Course not.
But I am going to continue along similar lines, as despite a few foibles, faults and AI glitches, Rome is almost beyond reproach. In fact it's no exaggeration to say that rarely, if ever, has there been an RTS that has so redefined its genre, so comprehensively swept aside the opposition, so utterly shifted the benchmark of quality, intensity and entertainment as Rome. It isn't just an improvement over its prequel Medieval, it's a quantum leap, another giant's stride up the road of RTS domination trod by developer The Creative Assembly since it released the groundbreaking Shogun: Total War in 2000.
A mere four short years later and Shogun's concept has evolved into an all-encompassing strategy game of warfare and intrigue, political machinations and personal advancement, subtle tactics and merciless brutality, melded expertly together to create perhaps the single most comprehensive, visually impressive and immersing war game ever imagined. Rome: Total War has finally arrived and it's ready to conquer all.
Despite its multitude of advancements though, Rome's core remains unquestioningly loyal to its predecessors. Just like Shogun and Medieval before it, Rome is split into two distinct sections. One, a turn-based strategy segment in which you move your armies around the game map in order to conquer new territory (encompassing Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor) - and in which you also deal with the finer points of running your empire. And two, a tongue-lollingly realistic real-time strategy battle section, where the game's true brilliance lies.
From the moment you first fire up the game and choose to command one of three Roman factions (Julii, Scipii and Brutii), to that distant day when your flag is unfurled in every corner of the known world to the delirious glee of your loyal Roman subjects, Rome: Total War simply oozes quality from every pore. A sea of possibilities awaits you, with each faction offering an almost infinite and wildly varying number of paths for you to trample down.
Wherever I May Rome
Playing as Julii unlocks the barbarian-held, tree-matted lands of central Europe where Germans, Britons and Gauls await with their wild painted faces and massed but disorganised armies. Brutii brings you immediately into conflict with the tactically adept and organised Greeks, while Scipii offers an open route to the sprawling desert flatlands of Carthage and Egypt.
Each side brings with it its own unique approach, and once you've completed the campaign with one of the above factions, you're then free to do it all again with any of the other major empires of the time, including Carthage, Egypt, Greece and the Gauls, meaning the game's replayability is higher than a drawn cup final's.
But believe me, you're not going to be playing through the campaign as any of these other nations any time soon. Newcomers will struggle to complete the Roman campaign on even the medium difficulty setting, though the hardened vets among you (if you're shaving yourself with a machete right now, that's you) will find this level a little on the easy side. My advice? Head straight for 'Hard'.
One of Rome's most instantly noticeable upgrades from Medieval is the turn-based strategy map. Instead of the flat, featureless 2D map of old, you're now treated to a visually striking, feature-packed landscape. Hills, mountain ranges and lush forests tower majestically before your armies, cities expand as you construct or upgrade buildings, and roads ferry seemingly never-ending lines of trading carts back and forth between your ever-expanding web of towns and cities. You can also build shipping routes and even transport your armies from port to port by boat, though don't go expecting real-time naval battles as these can sadly only be auto-resolved on the strategy map.
Simply managing your empire is a game in its own right. Maintaining the happiness of your people while balancing the economic demands you make on them in order to fuel your war effort is as precarious as walking a tightrope strung with razor wire, while mastering the art of diplomacy can prove to be the difference between victory and quick, genocidal extermination.
Promoting new generals and governors, satiating the bloodlust of your citizens with sporting arenas, maintaining just the right sized garrison in every town and city without leaving it open to revolt and making headway in the Senate are just a few of the near-countless tasks and trials which await you. Yet, contrary to the lamentations of the cynics and mewling crybabies who think C&C: Generals is the height of strategic complexity, Rome still manages to remain charmingly accessible even to the wide-eyed newcomer.
Whenever you feel swamped, confused or lost you'll find an advisor just one small mouse click away who'll take you through everything step by guided step in intricate yet eminently understandable detail. And if, after all
this, you're still left gawping gormlessly at your monitor and scratching your head like a lice-ridden baboon, then you can simply choose to have all of your cities auto-managed by the computer and concentrate on the all-important pastime of killing and conquering.
Holy Roman Empire
Just like the Vatican in Medieval, the Senate plays a major role in Rome. Needless to say, the slave boy-flanked Senators are not your friends, and your ultimate goal is to oust these festering lard-buckets and take control of the Senate - and ultimately Rome itself. All in good time of course, as first you have to gain influence and curry favour with the politicians by completing the Senate missions assigned to you. These generally charge you with either negotiating peace with or conquering a certain settlement, and while this may sound a mite basic - especially for fans of previous Total War games - these missions do help push you ever deeper into enemy territory, rather than hiding behind your city walls and consolidating.
Moving your armies around the map is quick and easy, though it can sometimes be hard to keep track of all of your armies once your Empire begins laying down roots in exotic and far off lands, and squinting at your monitor trying to identify isolated groups of troops in vast expanses of land can be both frustrating and fiddly.
Another huge innovation dropped into the Total War mix since Medieval is the introduction of area-sensitive battle maps. Unlike Medieval, where each province had just one set battlefield - meaning you'd often repeat the same battle during the course of a campaign - Rome has an almost infinite number of potential bloodbaths.
In fact, the exact location on which your army stands on the strategic map when it attacks (or is attacked) is replicated in gloriously rendered 3D on the real-time battlefield. And if you have two armies in close proximity to each other, you get to control one while the computer takes charge of the other - though these AI generals are all too often guilty of being rather too laid back when it comes to backing you up, which can cause all sorts of problems if you're heavily outnumbered and relying on their help.
ROME Is Where The Heart Is
Right, that's the strategic map covered, which only leaves one thing. The battles. And you'll no doubt be pleased to know that we really have saved the best till last.
If you tuned in to watch BBC2's Time Commanders you'll be more than familiar with Rome's real-time battle engine. What you may not know is that the version used on telly is now getting on for two years old. Oh yes. Meaning? That the engine in the finished version of Rome is even more impressive than the one you've seen on the Beeb.
Take it from me. The first time you're transported to the battlefield you're going to feel a real rush of exhilaration. Vistas sprawl majestically to the horizon, streams meander through forests and in the middle-distance stand your enemies, countless in number, baying like animals and waving their weapons defiantly. Every soldier has an incredible level of detail, right down to the individual rings on their chainmail.
Preceding every battle is a speech from your army's general (generated on the fly from thousands of voice samples) in which he divulges important information about your enemies. These tactical nuggets can prove invaluable, often helping you to find the right strategy to outmanoeuvre your opponent.
But the true genius of these battles is the realistic tactics. Unlike the majority of RTS games where weight of numbers always prevails, Rome allows the canny general to forge victory from seemingly unwinnable situations, thanks to real-life battle dynamics and tactics. Every one of the hundreds of units on offer has a strength and weakness, a purpose and use that if utilised can turn the tide of a battle in your favour. Height advantage, flanking and use of combined arms are all essential skills to learn, while working out how to take advantage of an opposing army's weaknesses will make world domination an all-the-more realistic prospect.
Oh, The Humanity
Soldiers clash with merciless ferocity, thrusting, parrying, pushing, stabbing and jumping as they hack at their enemies. Cavalry and war elephants decimate petrified ranks of poorly defended foot soldiers, sending dozens carving through the air with their tusks. Men turn and flee in a desperate attempt to save their lives, only to be cut down by merciless horsemen as they run. And you now have even more time to enjoy these ocular delights, as the clunky control interface of Medieval has been dropped in favour of a more streamlined system that incorporates the tried and tested RTS drag-and-select mechanic.
And let's not forget the castle sieges either, which have also been revamped since Medieval. These are now titanic operations, with gates to be battered and walls to be scaled, while defenders rain down thick blankets of fire arrows (archers can line walls) and gallons of burning oil on invading armies.
With the thundering soundtrack embellishing the already feverishly high atmosphere, conflicts reach a level of immersion and brilliance never before sniffed at by an RTS, and not even the occasional AI glitch (confused troops; the odd clipping error) can mar the game's quality to any significant extent.
So there you have it, Rome is everything we'd wished for and more, an RTS so far ahead of the current competition
that it must almost feel embarrassed by its utter dominance. No doubt it'll come under fire from those with unrealistic expectations, who forget that despite its brilliance, it's still a game - not a life-altering experience - and feel aggrieved that it doesn't transport them back in time (literally), saddle them on a horse, stick a rusty scimitar in their hand and wipe their backsides with silken toilet paper as they lead a cavalry charge at quaking peasants.
It's their loss.
As a simulation of warfare and politics, tactics and economy there is no equal to Rome. It may be daunting in places and display the (very) occasional rough edge, but for the most part it's exceptional. My advice? Milk every ounce of enjoyment, every droplet of fun you can from it, because unless The Lord Of The Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth comes up trumps, we may not see another strategy game of this quality for a very, very long
time to come.