Part of the fun of Total War is the freedom of heading back to a well-realised period in history and rewriting the hell out of it: having the Gauls control the entirety of Italy, for instance, or turning Britain into the northern tip of the far-reaching Carthaginian Empire. It’s a slight shame, then, that we have to stick to the historical script while playing Rome II’s prologue campaign. This involved tutorial chronicles the rise of a domestic power in Italy: Rome has to quash the rival city state of Samnium before starting its campaigns throughout the rest of the globe. While the narrative shackles slightly chafe – especially when we’re introduced to the sprawling, but boundary-encircled campaign map – the prologue campaign tries to atone for this with the injection of more character drama than you can find in the game, courtesy of a Mark Strong-voiced protagonist. It also functions as a fine (though, we expect, probably not entirely reliable) history lesson while efficiently introducing some of Rome II’s more significant upgrades.
Chief among these is a much more naturalistic treatment of sightlines. You’ve always had a godlike view of the battlefield, of course – this a realtime strategy game, after all – but now you’ll find yourself less omniscient, only able to see enemy units if one of your own clusters of soldiers has a direct view of them. Anything can break a sightline – a hill, a forest, a city street – and this means that scouting and environmental awareness have become a much more crucial part of the game. In one battle, we have to move a unit to the top of a hill before we can see the gigantic Samnite army coming. In another, we use a forested ridge to hide our soldiers in a village before descending upon an undefended piece of Samnite siege equipment. This subtle, but potentially far-reaching tweak can be felt most keenly when attacking cities – battles throughout the streets are more claustrophobic and more tactical now, as you can be ambushed by the city’s defenders while also using their own buildings and walls to sneak auxilliary forces past them.
Elsewhere, however, the game plays according to the familiar rhythms of Total War. The prologue campaign ignores the delicate political intricacies of statecraft. There’s no diplomacy nor any of the internal power battles that will define the Roman factions in the main game, focusing instead on the practicalities of waging war. We learn how to train new units, for instance, a streamlined process in comparison to previous games. The unit types available for recruitment within a region hinge on the buildings and structures you’ve established in that region’s city. Once you’ve built the requisite building (stables, say, for cavalry) you can generate the new unit within the legion itself, rather than recruiting it and then marching it over to the bulk of your forces. This is part of a focus on legions as singular powerhouses, rather than smaller groups of soldiers, that will see you adding traits to armies as they gain experience, potentially allowing specfic legions to specialise in certain forms of warfare.
It’s hard to get a firm grasp of the nuances of combat during the prologue missions, stuck as we are following the tutorial’s relatively strict instruction, but the overall impression is of, well, Total War. Since the first Rome, Creative Assembly has been iterating upon such a solid foundation in its combat mechanics that tweaks and new additions (which in Rome II’s case include improved simulation of weight and impact as well as combined naval and land battles) can’t help but feel iterative. And since we’re engaging in semi-scripted warfare – placing cavalry where we’re told, achieving specific objectives – it’s also impossible to judge the extent to which Creative Assembly has improved its traditional limiting factor: underperforming AI.
Beyond the teasing boundaries of the prologue campaign lies a world map rich in variety – the perfect contrast to Shogun 2’s relative cultural uniformity. There’s something ideal about this period of history for Total War – the cultures of the time were distinct enough in tactics and technology the period feels prebuilt (with a few balancing tweaks) for a strategy game. Rome II’s factions can be subdivided into three groups: the Greco-Roman factions, the Eastern ones, and the Barbarians. As well as very different unit types, the three types will play a very different campaign game. Barbarians can form confederacies with other tribes – joining forces to become a kind of giant meta-faction – whereas Greco-Roman and Eastern forces will be limited to the more traditional ally-or-subjugate options when dealing with other states.
Presentationally, Rome II provides precisely the kind of minute detail you want to find when zooming in on a campaign or battlefield map. Total War’s campaign map, which has evolved from its rudimentary origins to richly complex 4X game of its own, looks more dynamic this time around. Much of this is entirely cosmetic – birds flying over Vesuvius make only for pretty screenshot material – but some changes have more strategic impact. You can literally see cities expand, their walls encroaching upon the surrounding countryside, as you invest in them, a subtle tweak that should make it more immediately readable which cities are a faction’s most valuable holdings.
As the prologue campaign draws to a close it finally opens out, letting us formulate our own plan for wiping out the remaining Samnite cities before eventually destroying Samnium. It’s a small taste of the tactical freedom that the main game looks set to offer, though when the full game’s released we’ll probably skip a second playthrough and head straight to Total War.