Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rome: Total War

Tech Info:

Publisher: Activision
Developer: Creative Assembly
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy - Real time battle
Release Date: Sep 22, 2004
ESRB Descriptors: Violence

System requirements:

English version of Microsoft® Windows® 98SE/ME/2000/XP
DirectX® 9.0b (included)
Processor: 2GHz Pentium IV or equivalent
RAM: 512MB
Video Memory: 128MB
Hard Drive Space: 3.4GB

The year is 270 B.C. The republic of Rome has reached a critical stage in its development as a new political and military power in the Mediterranean. To the north the Gauls and Germans assemble their barbaric warriors to prey on the republic's provinces, to the south west the wealthy Carthage is readying its war machine to expand even further, and to the south east the Greek states try to recover from their fall and achieve their former greatness. The Senate relies on the three great roman families, the Julii, the Brutii and the Scipii to protect the roman lands and bring law and order to the uncivilized world. The Roman law and order.

How difficult can it be to build an empire? How do you divide your army between conquering, defending and occupying a territory? Your coffers are limited and professional troops are expensive. How do you maintain alliances and trade rights when your purpose of expanding is all too clear? You certainly can't fight the whole world at once. How do you prevent unrest in newly conquered lands while imposing your culture and taxation to the people inhabiting them? How do you answer to the Senate's call for duty when your armies are divided on countless fronts and your supply lines are stretched to the breaking point? The Senate loves competent leaders, but the Senate's greatest fear is a too competent leader.

And how do you develop a computer game that can offer an insight in all that but also keep it simple and intuitive enough to make it fun, instead of frustrating? Well, it seems that Creative Assembly found a way to do just that. Of course, this is not their first try and the experience from the two previous Total War games obviously played an important role in achieving this goal. Rome: Total War turned out to be an almost perfect combination of historically correct turn based strategy with spectacular real time, epic scale tactical battles and role playing elements.

Like it's predecessors, Rome: Total War has two different types of gameplay. The first one is the turn based strategy which takes place on the world map, where you manage your cities, move your armies, establish diplomatic relationships, spy or assassinate your opponents, while the second one is represented by the real time tactical battles where the outcome often depends more on the decisions of the player than on the size of his army.

The single player campaign starts with a prologue that also serves as a tutorial, in which a computer advisor will familiarize you with the interface, the basics of army maneuvers, combat and empire management. The advisor is content sensitive, and can be summoned at any time to explain a certain screen or function of the game menus. Even if you haven't played Shogun or Medieval: Total War, the tutorial will get you up the learning curve in a very short period of time, considering the number and complexity of the actions that can be performed in the game.

After you have finished the tutorial you can start the main campaign as one of the roman factions. The Julii, Brutii and Scipii have the same technology tree (being all roman factions), and even though the units and buildings are the same, the gameplay styles are very different. The Julii must achieve land superiority over the barbarians in the north, relying on superior units and tactics rather than numbers, as their trading is weak and the fronts will be wide and very numerous. The Scipii must develop naval trade between Europe and Africa as Carthage is very wealthy and military advanced and has access to the most feared unit in the game: elephants. Probably the easiest task falls to the Brutii who must deal with the Greek Cities and the weak nations in the east. And while the Greeks are technological advanced and have a rather large fleet, their weakness lies in the fractioned territory and poor choice of cavalry and ranged units.

The fourth roman faction, the Roman Senate, or S.P.Q.R, is unplayable, and holds only one province: Latium, with its city, Rome, and while holding virtually no military or economic power, it is without a doubt the most powerful political faction on the world map. Basically the Senate will order around the three roman families, deciding which nation is a fried of foe of the roman people and further more which town or port must be conquered, respectively blockaded. If you carry out the Senate's missions with success, besides the material reward, your family members have and a higher chance to be elected for certain senate posts which in turn offer influence. You can choose not to engage in these missions, but if you fail to obey the Senate's orders too often they will offer threats instead of rewards to motivate you.

Family members are very important in Rome: Total War, as they, and only they, serve as generals and governors. A certain family member is practically described by four attributes: command, management, influence and age. Command is very important for a general, raising the morale of the troops he leads in combat and if you ever choose to resolve a battle automatically the outcome will largely depend on his command rating. Management is, obviously, the main attribute of a city governor, influencing the growth rate of the populace, as well as the city's income from trading, farming, resources, and taxation. Influence is the trade of the politician, having an impact on diplomatic relationships and city order, and the most influential family member is generally the faction leader. Age is always a concern, and while youth offers strength and quick advancement in skills, as your characters get old this will have a negative impact on their attributes, not to mention the fact that they will eventually die.

The character's attributes are influenced by traits, which can be good or bad, and which are given from birth and through life experiences. For example a general who runs away in battle will have a coward trait, and men fighting under his command will have a morale penalty. Opposed to this, a general who has won some battles against the odds will gain the trait of legendary commander. There are numerous traits, ranging from the passion for alcohol to bloodiness in combat or fear of city walls. Besides traits, family members have retinues composed of advisors, bodyguards, geographers, mathematicians, hunting pets and more. These retinues always have a benefic effect in certain situations, providing better military command, lessen the chance of an assassin to eliminate the character, enlarging the viewing range on the world map, giving bonuses to the taxation and so on. Unlike traits, you can exchange retinues between family members, so that when an older character dies, he won’t take everything he has accumulated in his life to the grave with him.

Making a long story short, you will always be short of good generals and governors and while you can still manually command your troops in combat without the presence of a general, the lack of morale bonus and the ability to rally routing units can be decisive in tight situations. You can't fully control your cities without a governor, as you can only change the policy of the automanager to military, population growth, cultural development, etc. Also, in the late game, when you must hold a lot of newly conquered provinces far from your capital, it will be almost impossible to stop them from rebelling without a good governor. If you want to skip all the micromanagement you can turn automanage on all provinces, but this will only be ok on the easy difficulty.

You only get new family members through birth, marriage and adoption. A male character will have more descendents if he takes a lot of trips on the world map, so a general will have more successors than a governor. This is very important as birth is the only way you can get 16 year old new family members, which will inherit some of his father's abilities. Unlike family members, you can recruit as many diplomats, spies and assassins you can afford. These types of units play a very important role in building your empire, depending on the path you choose to achieve your goals. Diplomats are a must for any style of gameplay, and you depend on their influence rating to forge alliances, trade rights, ask for regular tribute, etc. Spies and assassins depend on their subterfuge rating to carry out their missions, and if they should fail they get captured and killed. Spies in particularly are very useful for seeing exactly what units and how many there are in a certain army or enemy town, if they can infiltrate that city they will open the gates for you from the inside if you choose to attack, and they act as a secret militia in your own towns, maintaining the public order far better than a large garrison. But just like family members, diplomats, spies, and assassins grow old, losing their abilities and eventually dieing, so they're not a “place and forget” type of unit.

The single player campaign will get the player through all the stages of the Roman republic, from its struggle to survive to its undisputed supremacy and finally the transition to an empire. Unlike any other game, Rome: Total War will keep you in constant difficulty, even when you control more than half of the world map. The struggle to keep a huge empire from collapsing is even harder than surviving your larger neighbors in the early game. And if at the start of the game the other roman factions will be your best friends, the Senate will eventually start to fear your expansion policy and military power. When your public support will be high enough to take on Rome and become imperator, the Senate will declare you an enemy of the true roman ways, and the other two families will turn on you. This is the hardest part of the campaign, as you will no longer face technology challenged enemies, and you will get a taste of your own medicine in the form of disciplined roman troops and extremely wealthy opponents. After you complete the Roman campaign, you can start a new game with any of the playable factions, which include Britannia, Carthage, the Gauls, the Greeks, Egypt and so on.

A nice change from the previous Total War games is that the world map is now 3D, easier to read and more fun to watch. Trade is depicted by caravans who travel along roads between the cities and ships on the naval trade routes. For example, it’s now easy to notice that in the case of a siege or port blockade, the city's land respectively naval trade will cease, making it an effective tactic to weaken your opponents' financial power before you engage in combat, because war is more about money than anything else. The terrain features on the world map are not only decorative, since they serve precise strategy roles. For example, you can hide your armies in forests to ambush nearby passing troops, build forts at natural choke points such as bridges and mountain passes, etc. It is also important to attack an enemy position from a certain direction, as it is preferred to hold the upper ground, or to approach an army with a lot of ranged units from a forest. Also, if you are largely outnumbered you should consider a bridge or any other map that contains a choke point as your best aid in obtaining victory. Guerilla tactics are unfortunately not an option, since the battles are limited in time, and if the attacking faction doesn't destroy all the defenders in that period of time the outcome is considered defeat, and this will have a negative effect on your general's stats.

Units gain experience from battles and the bonuses are well worth the effort of trying not to send them to be butchered. You can retrain your troops in cities, and you can also refit them with new armor and weapons if you have built an upgrade to the armory. Be aware though, if too many unit members have fallen in combat and you replace them with new recruits this can have a negative effect on the unit’s experience level. The thing is that soldiers never age or die, so you can preserve the same conquering force through almost the whole length of the campaign, making it easy to prey on the enemy city garrisons who are mostly composed of "green" troops.

Now on to the other gameplay style: the new 3D real time battles. Here the transition from 2D sprites from the previous two Total War games to fully 3D units and map make the battles nothing short of spectacular. Thousands of units can battle it out on life and death, and while the engine can render you a birds eye view on the general situation, you can get close enough to see which way the balance will incline in a certain regions, and further more, see each individual unit hacking, slashing or thrusting its weapon at its enemies. The variety of animations is truly impressive if we consider the epic scale of the battles. It is pure visual treat to watch your cavalry charge the enemy lines, lifting clouds of dust into the air, knocking down the infantry, or falling from their saddle when they encounter compact Greek phalanx or roman testudo formations. The horse man will try to jump over the units that happen to be in their way to get to their targets. An onager projectile will smash several units, and throw them meters away from the point of impact. The archer's volley is impressive not only in looks, but also in terms of sound, as you can hear the bows' cords being released, the arrows in mid flight, and the sound of the impact on different materials. Also, the volleys of flaming arrows will sound differently from regular ones, but the effect of units dying engulfed in flames is somehow simple and unrealistic.

The sounds are very good and veridical and you can differentiate between weapons that are being used, the sound of cavalry or infantry marching and so on. The general will also hold a speech before combat, depending on his reputation, the balance of numbers, the standing of the nation you are attacking, etc, even making jokes about the barbarian's excessive hairiness, and the troops always respond after the speech with war cries and by clashing their weapons. The music both on the world map and in combat is very good and complements the visuals, making the game more immersive. Without a doubt the care for details is impressive, and the whole experience is no less than mind blowing. It is easy to understand why Rome's engine was chosen by the History Channel to depict some historical battles on their "Decisive Battles" program.

The new 3D engine also plays an important role in the gameplay style. You must place your archers with care, not to fire at your own troops, approximate the trajectory of missiles to get them over city walls and certain map features. Also, it's easy to recognize that charging downhill is more effective than ordering your troops to run up a steep slope. The compact wall of spears of the Greek phalanx will make you think twice before attacking it from the front, and the roman testudo will almost completely ignore missiles, while it will tire you infantry who have to hold up a heavy shield.

The sieges tend to be more fun and challenging that the open land battles where cavalry is mostly the only thing you’ll need. But in the case of a siege, the game turns becomes almost chess like, as the attacker searches for vulnerabilities in the city defenses. At the beggining range units fight for supremacy over the city walls, and if the attacker manages to create a breach, infantry will get through it much faster than cavalry, which is obviously not comfortable on narrow city streets, not to mention it can't get up on the walls or siege towers. However cavalry does have its role in city sieges, mainly using its superior speed to cut the retreat of the defeated to maximize its loses or getting fast around the city walls to get behind the attacker while he is trapped in the narrow entry points. It would be impossible for me to write here about all the different tactics and military maneuvers available to a skilled general on the battlefield, but most of them are very intuitive and the military advisor will brief you on the details if you choose that in the options menu of the game.

Rome: Total War is the most advanced, complete and realistic strategy game out there. No matter if you are looking for a great single player campaign which can fill weeks or even months with continuous challenges and new experiences, or you just want realistic cinematic multiplayer skirmishes of epic scale, this game delivers true value for money which isn't something too common these days.

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