Rome: Total War Review

The Total War series began in Feudal Japan, passed through Medieval Europe, and has now arrived in Ancient Rome. The gameplay has always been solid, but with every iteration the series has improved upon itself and in Rome: Total War (RTW) it is firing on all cylinders. If you’re a strategy gamer you’ll love the game’s blend of strategic empire building and real-time tactical battles featuring thousands of troops. There’s a lot of depth to this game and you’ll enjoy spending hours exploring it all.

RTW puts you at the head of one of Rome’s most powerful families at the time when the Roman Senate was all-powerful and the Caesars had yet to take power. Your overriding goal is to become a Caesar yourself by marching into Rome over the dead bodies of your rival faction’s armies and to help Rome achieve her destiny as ruler of the Ancient world. Your path to glory begins on the game’s strategic map which provides an overview of the Ancient World. In prior Total War games this map resembled a game board, but in RTW it is a gorgeous 3D relief map filled with terrain and landscape features, rivers, and cities. You can even see caravans traveling along trade routes. And it is more than just for show – mountain ranges can hide approaching armies and armies can lie in wait in forests to waylay passing enemies. The strategic map also has an effect on the tactical map when armies clash. Cross a river from the west to attack an army in woodland terrain and the tactical map will contain woodland terrain and you’ll begin on the west side of the map with a river between you and the enemy.

The strategic map is far more than a place to maneuver armies – RTW’s strategic component is as deep as those in most turn-based empire building games. You must manage the guns and butter equation as you decide whether to build up your cities to grow your treasury or to concentrate on military structures and expanding your army. You can set the tax rate for each city that you control, build public buildings to keep your citizens happy (or a large town watch to keep them in line), and create road networks to speed your troop movements and expand your trade. There is also a diplomatic component to the strategic game in which you can negotiate military alliances and trade agreements as well as spy on and subvert your neighbors.

Your faction in RTW is a powerful family, and one of you greatest asset are the members of that family. Your family’s patriarch serves as both general and governor. On the field of battle, his leadership skills keep troop morale high and bolster their fighting skills. When in a city, he allows you to specify the build order of troops and buildings, something that is otherwise out of your hands. In addition, he also can inspire loyalty in the population, reducing the likelihood of turmoil and providing a power base in your push for Rome. As the game progresses, births in your faction’s family will provide you with new leaders as older ones age and die. Each leader will progress through a career as a Roman leader, gaining skill and renown with each victory on the battlefield and appointment to a Senatorial position. He will also gain a retinue of philosophers, administrators, and more whose presence will provide him with bonuses in various areas of leadership. The leaders are individuals, each with their own unique portrait, strengths, and weaknesses, so part of the strategy in the game is playing your leaders for their strengths. This is really a pretty interesting feature of the game, and you’ll find yourself growing attached to certain individuals as you watch their careers unfold.

 

In addition to the other families of Rome, the Roman Republic itself is a faction as well and is the military and diplomatic arm of the Republican Senate. The Senate is a powerful force in Ancient Rome and you best not challenge its authority until you have the might to back it up. In the mean time, it is a good idea to work your relationship with the Senate to your advantage. The Senate will assign you missions to help carry out its will such as capturing a city or taking on a foreign faction and the reward for succeeding can be great in terms of riches and influence.

Sooner or later (but almost always sooner) you’ll find yourself squaring off against another army in battle. If you’re a pure strategic thinker, you can allow the game to auto-resolve battles, but you’d really be missing out as the real-time battles are the highlight of the game. The game includes just about every type of unit found in the Ancient World, from peasants with sharpened sticks to crack Legionnaires. All of the Ancient powers are represented, from the barbarian Germans and Gauls to the highly civilized Egyptians and Carthaginians. Each power’s units reflect the units and tactics they employed in Ancient times, so you’ll have to face Greek phalanxes, Egyptian chariots, and Carthaginian elephants, and execute effective tactics for dealing with each. Although battles can involve thousands of troops battling it out in real-time, the game’s interface makes it easy to manage your forces. Your army is divided by unit type into groups of fifty or fewer units. You issue orders to these groups and the men making up the group will carry out the command. You can also pause the game and issue orders while the game is paused to give you a chance to size up the state of the battle before committing to your next big move. Proper tactics are everything here – you need to attack the right unit at the right time or face dire consequences. Sending a cavalry unit into a frontal attack on spearmen is suicide, but flanking those same spearmen with Legionaries will crush them.

The battles simply look fantastic, from the maps with their varied topography and topology, to the individually animated units. The battles look so good in fact that the History Channel uses the game to recreate ancient battles for one of its series. You can watch individual arrows arc through the sky and into enemy formations or zoom in closely to see pairs of warriors locked in deadly melee duels. And it is all very smooth; from the map scrolling to the unit animations everything is fluid and natural. Siege battles are particularly exciting as you’ll see men fight from the walls of the city, wheel up war engines in an attempt to breach the walls, and then watch as street to street fighting rages as the city begins to burn around the combatants.

The battles are so well-implemented and tuned that it is hard to find much fault with the game. The only things worth mentioning are that when an AI-controlled ally is on the battlefield with you there is no real way to coordinate your actions. Perhaps this is an intentional design decision meant to reflect the command and control issues of the day, but I think that is really just a limitation you have to live with. Also, the game includes navies and naval combat, but the AI control of navies seems a bit suspect and your only option is to let the computer auto-resolve naval battles.