When empires grow too large, they creak. They groan. They bend, and they threaten to fall. For all its spectacle, so too does Rome II. But even as it topples, it’s glorious to look at, and to live through.
The Creative Assembly’s historical epic sprawls itself across a map of a-few-hundred BC Europe, tasking player generals with spreading provincial control through a turn-based, top-down game of army and navy manoeuvres, and spill blood on realtime fields as those armies clash under direct control.
The result is vast, striking, and exciting in motion. The turn-based campaign map’s vision of Europe is pretty and otherworldly, familiar geographical shapes given odd, historically-accurate names: Camulodunum, Bagacum, Arse. Armies and navies appear as small figurines, boats and men ready to be pushed into battles against miniature enemy vessels and armies. There’s an advancement from previous Total Wars here, making geographical positioning a proper part of the tactical game.The map is old, and wild – routes are fringed by forests and not easily traversed. The quickest route to your destination may well wander through a neighbour’s lands, and you’ll have a hard time trouncing a Roman force through a barbarian garden without incurring wrath. Armies can only field 20 units per general, but generals in the same small area can reinforce each other. A clever assault in Rome II is felt out bit by bit, rewarding the general that probes the terrain.
The majority of Rome II takes place on the turn-based campaign map, but you’ll fight the war for the realtime battles. They’re savage and immediately rewarding, and can turn on the tide of a single charge. A small bar in the bottom left tracks the balance of power in a fight, and it’s consistently thrilling to see it swing your way as your cavalry bursts out of a treeline to smash through an enemy’s missile line, or as one of your giant ballista bolts knocks the enemy general’s horse out from under him. These fights are best conducted from way above, zoomed out to take in as much of the battlefield as possible – less than in previous Total Wars, as you can only see what your men can thanks to a line of sight system – but you’ll find yourself pausing time during the thrust of your attack, scooting the camera down to hoof-level, and revelling in the sound and fury of war.
Armies can be bolstered with agents. These come in three varieties, and their many individual uses are easily divined. You embed Warlords with an army to increase their experience gain, or leave them in a province to drum up public support for a war effort. Diplomats will change a conquered region’s culture to your own over time, or increase tax rates. All three can try to coerce or assassinate enemy agents, but we had most luck attempting this with scouts – spies and poisoners who can sow dissent in an area before ground forces move in. Agents are pleasingly transparent in their application – remedying a problem in previous Total War games – and their talents can turn the tide of a battle. Armies, too, are simpler to manage, maintaining their skills with the army tradition system: assaulting a settlement using an army that boasts the “siege experts” tradition is a much quicker process than using an unblooded force.
Rome II rewards both tenacious fighters and careful strategic thinkers. Across a vast landmass, this it the largest Total War to date. But that scale brings problems. Sometimes the machine jams, the march halts, and Rome II looks set to collapse in on itself.
Conquering new land upsets the local populace. That upset is measured in public order: when it drops too low, growth slows, taxes dry up, and rebel forces spring from the countryside. Public order – plus hard limits on numbers of armies, agents, and fleets – are mechanisms to halt rapid expansion across the continent, but they make Rome II a slow game. Campaigns can’t be completed in one sitting without threat of deep vein thrombosis, and default victory conditions are staggering: little short of conquering the known world.
But Rome II’s mechanics artificially slow that process, forcing armies to sit in cities sharpening their spears until people are happy enough for them to leave. Many turns ask the player for 30 seconds of micro-management – manually increasing an agent’s skillset, or moving an army a little closer to a far-off city – before hitting the end turn button. That button then leads to an inexorable crawl as Rome II’s AI moves every other faction, major and minor, on the game board. On a beefy, brand new i5 4670k processor, turns never took less than 40 seconds to process. Busier turns went up to 90. On an older machine, players will be trading a minute of game time for two minutes of thumb-twiddling. A long, complex, and wide-ranging strategy game can boast 50-hour campaigns, but in Rome II’s current state, ten of those hours are spent waiting for the computer to take its turn.
When it finally does, its judgment is suspect. Homeless forces, ousted from their city by your own troops, will throw themselves against barricades, Rome II’s brutal version of spring cleaning to remove a faction from a map. Trade routes, the game’s advisor informs you, are open to attack, but we maintained 20-plus passages skirting right past enemy boatyards without danger. In realtime battles, seabound troops will sometimes beach their vessels, stop, and stand on deck, impervious to missile fire and unwilling to give up their silent protest. The only solution is to speed up the clock and wait for the battle to end.
These problems are emblematic of a host of minor issues gnawing away at Rome II. Like the Roman empire it has at its centrepiece, Rome II reaches far and wide in its attempts to conquer all. It’s big and beautiful, but it’s also too swollen, too slow, and too buggy to sustain its lofty ambition.