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Archive for November 29th, 2013

Buying Rome Total War II never quite seemed inevitable. I had followed its development with interest, but in truth, my brother was far more pumped about it than I was. When I told him I was off to Greece on the 12th of September this year, he replied; “Bro, the only important date in September is the third – the release of Rome Total War 2.”

Considering how much I’d enjoyed the first instalment of this game, released almost ten years ago in 2004, it was likely only a matter of time before I got hold of its long-awaited successor. There was, however, one significant hurdle to get over – the need to upgrade. For, Rome Total War II promised not only to be an amazing feat of game engineering, mechanical, tactical, strategic and graphical magic, but also to demand a nigh impossible amount from processors. I thought I might get away with my 3.33 gig E8600 dual core processor, having recently upgraded my graphics card to a GTX670. Yet when my brother and I first fired up the game a few days after its release, it was very soon apparent that a whole new rig was required to run this baby.

Sure, the graphics are difficult enough to render – after all, the “Extreme” settings really are quite extreme – but rather the problem lies with the sheer number of simultaneous calculations that the processor is expected to make. Upgrading your video card is unlikely to help, unless you already sport a top-shelf processor. So, sure enough, when I returned from overseas in October, I splurged and built a new computer from scratch, hopefully future-proofing myself for at least another couple of years by using top-shelf kit.

The good news is, it was worth the effort. When running at the highest settings, Rome Total War 2 looks stunning. The campaign map is captivatingly exotic across the many different regions of Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. The clouds and birds of prey which fly across the lush grasslands, snowy peaks, river deltas, dry deserts and rippling seas, give life to this world in a box.

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The various other maps – diplomatic, strategic, economic, etc, are all tastefully rendered in a mix of the charmingly decorative and simply pragmatic.

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The unit icons borrow from Athenian black-figure ware, and the small pop-up illustrations that accompany news and events are evocatively reminiscent of the best card-game art out there.

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The factional icons are wonderfully done – colourful and curious, their rapid cycling at the top of the screen between turns can be quite mesmerising.

Yet it is at the ground level that the game’s appearance truly excels. The quality of the individual figures in each unit is not merely due to the high grade textures and meshes, along with, at times, perfectly fluid and natural movement, it is in their genuine individuality. Each soldier is, in fact, an individual – generated from a wide set of randomised features – face-shape, hair, facial hair etc. In some cases, for example, Greek phalanxes, the soldiers carry a wide variety of shield designs – sporting decorative emblems randomised from a large pool.

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The landscapes are also magnificent; with highly detailed vegetation and attractive and immersive weather effects and lighting. The old option of of waiting for the weather to change when attacking is still present, yet when attacked, the aggressor gets to choose the timing of the battle. Despite its negative effects on the range of missiles, fatigue and cavalry movement speed, fighting in rain is quite glorious to behold, yet the most beautiful conditions I’ve yet witnessed is immediately after a storm. The game captures that peculiar, electrically-charged storm light perfectly.

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The water looks great in the campaign map, yet it enters a whole new realm of beauty in the battle-maps. This, combined with the attention to detail given to the ships, makes naval manoeuvres beautiful to behold.  Rome Total War II also allows for battles combining naval and land units, and any coastal town is vulnerable to attack from the sea. When attacking a town solely with a fleet, it is necessary to beach the ships and have the units disembark. Clicking on the unit camera icon allows one to ride with the ships towards the shore, something well worth doing at least once or twice for the sake of immersion. From hereon, the units are used in exactly the same way as land-units, yet cannot return to their ships during the battle. Naval units are typically half the size of land units, though special assault ships can be recruited which contain full-sized units. When defending a town with a fleet, or using a naval garrison, the units begin on the ships and can then either be used as ships – to attack any enemy ships – or the ships can be beached and the unit used as a land unit to defend the town.

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It is not only dedicated naval units that can make assaults in this fashion. Any army can turn itself into a fleet – effectively boarding transports – simply by moving onto the water. These ships will, however, be dangerously exposed unless protected by another fleet or used in an area where no enemy fleets are present. When attacking a coastal city in such a manner, the ships simply need to be beached in order to get the troops ashore. All in all, the co-ordination of land and sea forces in this manner is one of the greatest aspects of the game. It not only adds immensely to gameplay variety, but also to immersiveness.

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Immersiveness is one of the game’s great attractions. It operates on two levels – the intense desire to keep playing the strategic game – known all too well to Civilization addicts as “just one more move syndrome” – and the ability to get right in amongst it with the troops. The different perspectives one can explore by selecting different units around the battlefield, the views and angles this offers, makes the game experience extremely cinematic. There’s nothing I love more than, at the end of a battle, taking the time to line up my remaining troops for a victory celebration, then ride past in first person mode, watching them cheer. If you let yourself go with this game, it can be very rewarding.

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Having come to this game pretty much directly from Rome Total War I, with a detour via Medieval II, this was my first experience of the new Total War system for maintaining armies, significantly different from the first iteration. Rather than raising troops in cities and moving them about at will, units can now only be raised by generals. They can, however, be raised anywhere inside friendly territory, provided some kind of military building exists in that province to allow units to be recruited. This makes raising units a lot more convenient in some regards, though it can be a problem if an army is needed and no general is in the vicinity. Another great new innovation is the system of troop replenishment. Rather than having to move units into cities capable of producing a particular unit variety to restock the unit, once built, units of any kind will simply replenish their numbers when inside friendly territory, including the territory of military allies, client states and satrapies. This takes a lot of irritating fiddliness out of managing armies.

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One major change is that number of armies and fleets that can be raised is now limited. This begins at 3 and increases incrementally as your faction’s Imperium increases. A recent patch changed the rate at which new armies become available, but the restrictions do make it more difficult to manage large empires. In my current campaign, in which for the first time I’m actually playing the Romans, I control a total of 42 regions, yet am only allowed to field 8 armies. This can make managing a large empire rather complex, especially when there are several frontiers that require defence or attack.

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This limitation on the number of armies is compensated for by the garrison system. Each region now automatically provides a garrison determined by the size and type of town or city, and the other buildings present in that region. Smaller towns with fewer buildings provide smaller garrisons, often consisting of pretty low rent troops – mobs, javelin-men, etc, whilst the larger cities, especially the provincial capitals, can often have quite considerable garrisons, strengthened by better quality units. In the case of coastal towns, naval garrisons are also provided.

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The garrisons are rarely sufficient to defend against a large invasion force, though this is made much easier in provincial capitals, all of which have city walls. The absence of walls in smaller towns has been roundly criticised and certainly makes defending those towns much more difficult, yet at times these garrisons can prove adequate if used well against a smaller foe. The regional garrison will also enter the field as reinforcements when an army is attacked in that region, and in such instances they can provide much needed assistance, sometimes with as many as 14 extra units – I’ve not yet seen larger.

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As mentioned above, the campaign map itself is absolutely huge and beautiful to behold. It stretches from Bactria (Afghanistan) to Lusitania (Portugal) and from Caledonia (Scotland) to Garamantia (in the Sahara). It is divided into 173 regions, grouped into 57 provinces, each of which contains up to four regions, though some have as little as two. The regions can be conquered and controlled separately, but controlling an entire province confers the advantage of being able to pass edicts – providing bonuses such as increased happiness, growth, military recruitment, economic output etc.

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The number of buildings that can be constructed is limited in most cases to four, with regional capitals having as many as six building slots available to them. These slots are not immediately available to a town, but more become available as growth in the province accumulates, providing an added incentive to sustain a good rate of growth. The benefits gained from each building are effective throughout the province and public order is determined on a province-wide basis, not on the basis of individual towns.

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The amount of food available is also calculated on a province-wide basis, though the total food surplus accrues across one’s entire empire. This allows some provinces to maintain negative food production figures, with the overall surplus picking up the shortfall. If, however, total food surplus falls below zero, then those provinces which have negative food production will suffer first – both through civil disorder and military attrition. In other words, soldiers in armies and garrisons will begin deserting – a penalty also incurred by lack of funds.

As in all Total War games, successfully managing the economy is absolutely essential. My experience thus far has been that, alongside initial military and tactical challenges, the most important first step is to ensure that one’s regions are producing sufficient money and food to sustain development and expansion, as well as maintain existing forces and infrastructure.

Rome Total War II offers a mesmerising number of factions to encounter during play. In total, there are 117 different factions, each with their own unit roster and agenda. The initial game release offered eight playable factions, since which time six others have been made available for players.

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The factions are divided into different cultural groups – Hellenistic, Roman, Barbarian and Eastern. These are then further subdivided into, for example, Germanic, Gallic and Britannic. The cultural status of a faction in part determines its relation to other factions. Though this is not necessarily a barrier to co-operation across cultural divides, it does often result in these groups acting as a bloc, when they aren’t busy fighting among themselves.

Many of the as-yet non-playable factions have been unlocked by modders, yet in such a form these lack the development and variety of the officially playable factions. The Romans offer an altogether different level of sophistication on account of their Auxiliary unit system. In a nutshell, the construction of an auxiliary barracks in a region can open up certain unique unit types specific only to that region: Auxiliary Persian archers, Balaeric slingers, Numidian skirmishers etc. This makes playing the Romans a great deal more fun as it allows the player to experience using a far wider variety of units – many of which are, in effect, the units available to the original faction whose land the Romans have occupied.

Unfortunately, however, the game is not without problems. The release of Rome Total War II immediately kicked-up a shit-storm of debate and protest about its relative merits and flaws. A quick look at the results on metacritic reveals as much about the mentality of gamers as it reflects the nature of the game. The reviewers’ metascore current sits at 76 out of 100, whilst the users’ metascore currently sits on 3.9 out of 10.

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Gamers tend to take pretty extreme positions and punish any perceived deviation from perfection. Here’s a sample of some of the comments, accompanied by scores:

On the day of release, and the week or so after this game was released. It was utterly broken. And while that is not acceptable. I am rating the game for how it stands right now as I type this. The game is now a title truly worthy of the Total War name. – 9

Horrible. Gameplay is extremely dumbed down, lack of family tree in campaign is obvious mistake and the greatest disapointment is the lack of online modes. Also, removing walls from cities is a horrible idea – 5

Just terrible. To purchase a full price game, pre-ordered I may add, and it’s clearly a beta test that other’s will benefit from our testing by buying it at half price 6 months away. The AI is bad. The FPS issues and graphics incompatibility issues (With a high end pc and gpu) are just ridiculous. The worst game release of the decade. Still not fixed! – 1

Really, I ask? Worst game release of the decade? That’s very harsh and not a reasonable reflection of its quality. As a teacher who regularly marks some pretty crappy homework, I can assure you that this game does not deserve 1 out of 10, or zero for that matter. Like an essay with some excellent paragraphs and evidence of strong analysis and interpretation, marred by a flawed overall structure, this deserves roughly 8 / 10 and would definitely score higher were it not for obvious issues with the campaign AI and the political faction system.

As to the official reviews, the reception has generally been favourable, but with reservations. PC Gamer gave the game 85%, praising the cinematic scale of the battles and attention to detail, calling them “stunning” and “the most marvellous moments of the fifty plus hours I’ve played so far”.

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They were, however, critical of the apparent glitches on its initial release, including issues with the AI. Edge similarly praised the visuals and battles whilst criticising the bugs present on its release; “even as it topples, it’s glorious to look at, and to live through.” Daniel Starkey of GameSpot praised the variety of units and what it called “spectacular sound design and great attention to visual detail”. So far as the campaign was concerned, Game Revolution called the campaign map “a treat to look at” whilst praising the game’s  new features and depth, yet they were critical of the wait times between player and AI turns. Steve Butts of IGN complained that: “a single turn can take as much as 10 minutes… those little inconveniences add up. Don’t get me wrong; Rome II is a game worth savouring, but it also asks you to tolerate difficulties that don’t need to exist.”

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There are other, perhaps more troubling issues with the game, most notably, the political system, which seems to bear little relationship to the rest of the game, besides offering an interface for keeping track of generals, admirals and statesmen and managing their retinues. Whilst one might pay close attention to the development and “levelling-up” of generals and dignitaries, there seems to be very little reason to focus on the degree of influence one’s faction currently maintains as it bears no impact on gameplay for the vast majority of the game. The only time it becomes relevant is when a civil war happens – something which seems to happen both spontaneously and rather randomly.

Indeed, there seems to be no way to avoid a civil war at some point during the campaign. Where the civil war happens in your empire is dictated by your level of influence on the faction list, yet gamers have noted that there is no mechanism by which to prevent it happening altogether. What essentially seems to happen is that one city will become an enemy faction and spawn a number of fleets and armies – all of 12 strength it seems – equivalent to the number controlled by the player. These will immediately fan out across the map and try to conquer as many cities as possible. The only real option is to crush them as quickly as possible – something made easier by the AIs apparent lack of common sense. When the civil war happened in one game, the AI immediately disbanded most of the units in most of its armies – perhaps some overcautious attempt to avoid bankruptcy in subsequent turns – rather than, for example, using them to attack the vulnerable nearby regions. It was a disappointing performance from what looked like being the most formidable challenge yet.

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After a civil war has been crushed, the political system remains broken – in effect, it plays no further role. The game designers have made excuses about this – being forced to finish the game for an inflexible release date. Yet, the upshot of all this is that without some way in which to tie the player’s factional influence more closely to game-play, the whole political system seems irrelevant.

One of the biggest complaints about the game is that it has no family tree. I would like to add my voice to this complaint, as I did indeed love the family tree of Rome Total War I. The developers hastily pointed out to those complainants that all the other recent Total War products, like Shogun II and Napoleon, lacked a family tree. But many people appear to have transitioned straight from Rome Total War I, as I have done, and hence feel the absence more greatly.

What was wonderful about the family tree was how attached one could get to certain generals. In my longest and greatest campaign ever, I had a long line of succession, through six generations, of faction leaders coming from one branch of the family. This included what I always thought of as the “miracle child.” About three generations along, the only male heir in the line of succession not only developed the trait “impotent”, which greatly reduced his chances of having children, but married a woman ten years older than him and already in her late 30s. It wasnt until she was 48 years old that they finally had their first child – a son. The joy that it brought me at the time is embarrassing to admit, yet such it was. He went on to sire further generations.

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The current system for managing one’s own faction lacks the same pleasure of continuity, though there is a new type of continuity to be found in the battle history of each army. As all armies must now be lead by generals and each army has its own name, the record sheet displays the history of that army’s campaigns – its commanders, their years of service and win / loss record. Beneath this it lists every battle that army fought and the outcome.

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There are also significant problems with the AI, something most apparent on the campaign map. The decisions made by non-player factions are often bafflingly stupid and seemingly lack any sense of self-preservation. Often their armies and fleets flit about the board like chickens with their heads cut off, dashing this way and that on seemingly pointless ventures, and all the while, leaving their cities undefended or in a state of dire civil disorder. At times the AI nails it and mounts a challenging assault. At other times, one faction will clear out its orbital path, so to speak, knocking over a host of local rivals and building up an impressive empire, yet after the initial phase of expansion, they almost invariably fall into ruin through poor economic and military decisions, and then collapse altogether before another aggressor.

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In every game I’ve played so far – when not playing as the Romans, both Rome and Carthage have capitulated early. Carthage have it tough as their empire is spread across north Africa, Southern Spain, Sicily and Sardinia, yet whereas this is perfectly manageable for a player, the AI gets it wrong every time. In the case of the Romans, having now played them and experienced how good their infantry is, I suspect the reason they always fail is that their cities do not produce a great deal of revenue early on, which makes funding expansion and maintaining territories more challenging than in some other factions.

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Unfortunately, once past the initial phase of the game, whilst things might get hot on one frontier for a while, most enemies are relatively easily dealt with on account of their inability to maintain both forward attack and home defence.

Many have also complained about the battle AI, yet I find that in this regard the game is pretty sound. Troops are used far more wisely than in the past – missile units defended against cavalry with spearmen; when fighting more than one army, they often wait until they have joined before advancing – sensible decisions which make the battles more challenging and interesting. There are still some shockers, such as when a whole army sits in a town being peppered by missiles and doesn’t take any action in response, but much of the time, the AI uses its units relatively well.

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Another area which the AI does get right is its use of agents. A faction may recruit a certain number of agents depending on their imperium – spies, dignitaries and champions. These can be used in various ways – to increase happiness and taxation, to carry out acts of sabotage or assassination, to cause military disruption, or to manipulate other agents. In this latter case it is possible to control more agents than one’s imperium would allow by way of recruitment. Getting enemy agents to defect is a useful and important way not only to increase your own capacity, but to decrease theirs.

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 The diplomacy element of the game is certainly improved, yet many also have issues with this, largely on account of the way in which attitudes are calculated. Basically, attitudes are affected by cultural affiliation and past and present actions. Thus a war against one faction will cause a reduction in the level of friendliness of that enemy faction’s friends or allies, whilst simultaneously increasing your popularity with other enemies of your enemy. This is very incremental and increases or decreases with each action against or in favour of that faction. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the diplomacy screen and welcome the fact that, as in Civilization, once you have encountered another faction, they can be contacted at any time via the interface. My biggest gripe is that there is no option to request one faction to make peace with another – or am I missing something?

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Despite all these ups and downs, many of which will, hopefully, be ironed out eventually in what seems already an endless succession of patches, this is an absolutely cracking game. Ignore those extreme reports of a game that is totally broken and focus on the fact that what they have essentially done is put the entire ancient Mediterranean world and its surrounds in a box. The complexity of the achievement is staggering, even if at times the complexity of the game-play seems underdone. Don’t expect it to be without some frustrations, but take the time to enjoy its attractions and become immersed. It’s easy after a while to become blasé about the battles and ignore them in favour of auto-resolve, yet my advice is to duck in there every so often and enjoy what really is the most fun part of the game. Rome Total War II is an epic game which creates its own epic narrative – a compelling story which emerges from this huge simulation.

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