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Rome 2: Total War, the latest in a long line of excellent strategy games was released a few weeks ago. I’ve been taking my time playing through a 200 turn campaign as my beloved Elephant loving, Rome hating Carthage. Here is what I think of the game, having conquered the world (well mostly!).

The original Rome: Total War was actually purchased on a whim, without me knowing all that much about it. As it turns out Rome was an excellent strategy game, while there were a few minor niggles, it was highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best efforts Creative Assembly have ever made.

Rome 2 starts off looking very crisp and clean, the user interface (despite some complainers) I found to be a vast improvement over the Empire and Shogun 2 changes. I can actually tell which unit cards are selected again! Some of the campaign information screens have been rearranged and the information is now spread over more windows, personally I didn’t mind this but again some people dislike it. Mouse over tool tips and right-click in-game information windows continue from Shogun 2, providing the player with plenty of information. There are still some holes which remain mysteriously vague when trying to understand your empire management though.

Disappointingly the need to manage food supply and squalor seems wrong in its implementation, seemingly every building increases squalor and you’re stuck either building an excess of the same buildings in every territory, simply to sustain your population happiness or garrison an entire army to kill the rebel uprising every few turns. This means you can’t choose the combination of buildings so much as you’re forced to choose whatever provides the most food vs squalor vs happiness effects

I don’t so much mind managing it as I mind feeling like upgrading my buildings is more hassle than it’s worth, it makes no sense how much of a leap you get from tier 3-4 building penalties. Why temples, sewer systems and the like consume more food than a dedicated cattle farm can produce, why military barracks cause squalor unyet having a manual military presence quells unrest. It feels forced and poorly considered, like they just threw numbers on upgrades without any real understandable justification for it.

Equally disappointing is the AI, I really can’t understand how a sequel has a dumber AI on the battlefield. All fights result in the enemy charging at you, regardless of who has the advantage, they fail to ever build siege equipment too, instead relying a horrid crutch of “burning torches” which apparently any fool unit can use to cancel our your wall defenses by always attacking the gates.

It means you never defend your walls, it means you never see any siege engines such as battering rams or ladders, it means even if the enemy would be better off holding a siege for a few turns and building such units, it goes straight for the attack, losing most of its forces in a mad mosh pit under withering tower fire and boiling oil defenses.

The same old siege defense trick of putting spear men at the broken gate and waiting  works wonders, you can defend a city attacked by 5-1 odds with just a few units of spear men and missile troops, providing you have a gate they have to come through. The AI always chooses the same approach to a city, always chooses the same strategy upon attack and is so predictable you never feel interested in doing it, unyet you have to, because the auto-calc result doesn’t factor in AI stupidity, it just counts bodies.

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There have been five patches improving stability and fixing issues since release and the game needed all of them, they have fixed many performance issues and crashes, but some still remain. Graphically the game has improved, although for many the forced downgrading of graphics for performance means you may not notice the game looking much better than the original. As always too much effort has been put into making it look pretty, presuming strategy and function are of secondary importance.

The time controls are… broken, the standard battle speed is more akin to starcraft than an actual battle between ancient human armies. Infantry move like they’re all on rocket boots and even with the patch to slow them down, battles are over in minutes. The moral is mixed up too, sometimes enemies are ready to break and run so quickly you wonder how they even plucked up the courage to show up. Asking the game to speed up shows very little noticeable difference, I don’t understand why past games could speed the battles up but now suddenly it’s too hard?

The province management system also feels wrong, having client states within your province doesn’t count as part of your faction, so you get a negative multiplier to your province management. The AI relies heavily on agent spam, somehow managing to conjure up several agents who all attempt to do the same thing in different ways. The age-old issue in all Total War games still exists, that a percentage chance of success doesn’t feel like the number it shows. A 75% or greater chance of success should not fail ten attempts in a row, but somehow it does. Why we need three different kinds of agent who all do the same things with different words, seems a pointless waste of development time to me.

Most of the cinematics during campaign events are gone too, the ones that do remain are meaningless and repetitive. It’s not a major issue but you do have to wonder where they spent so much time on the game if it has less of everything. The house faction management within your own empire is also confusing, I don’t understand why the opposing factions consistently raise their influence, while often doing nothing and why even if I bother to manage their influence, I end up in civil war at some point anyway.

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Naval battles are so dull and over so quickly they are actually dangerous to play, you can lose a battle that you could win easily if you auto-calc the result. Often troop transports provide such a huge advantage vs an actual navy that building naval vessels is a pointless expense. Ships handle simply and lose much of the flavor of an ocean-going craft, you just point and off they go, nevermind about wind direction, current etc. Your biggest challenge is avoiding being boarded when you don’t want to, then trying to connect with the enemy so you can board when you do.

The campaign map is bigger and there are more factions inhabiting it, this is nice, although the fact they keep dying off because they can’t manage their own populace and food production is bothersome. It’s good that it can happen, it shows the AI isn’t overly perfect or simply cheating all the time, the fact that it happens so commonly is damaging to the experience.

There is an overly heavy reliance on missile troops too, between 50-60% of an AI army is missile based in any typical battle. When they fire so fast, are so accurate and you face so many of them, it often feels like your melee infantry are just there to be shot at. You can also adopt this army composition, often outmatching the Ai with superior use of siege engines and flaming ammunition, but beating the AI at its own already broken method of combat is not fixing anything.

I remember in the original game having epic melee engagements because the missile infantry simply didn’t have the numbers or firepower to destroy entire armies alone. I remember actually using missile units to soften the enemy rather than dominate them, when you had to rotate melee infantry during a siege attack/defense because they were getting tired and depleted from prolonged fighting. That’s all gone now, you can actually win some battles without ever clashing swords with your foot soldiers.

At the heart of Rome 2 is the core of what made Rome great, but I feel somehow, they managed to lose sight of the ability to translate that into its sequel. I am truly disappointed that a game made almost a decade ago is better in almost every way, I would say this is mostly style over substance, but that’s not true, despite being so annoyed with so much of this game, I still find myself playing it. I just wonder if I’d have more fun and less frustration, re-installing the original Rome instead. Rome wasn’t perfect, but it is a damn sight more strategic and thoughtful than this is, don’t be fooled by how it looks, this is the worst Total War game to date.

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