Rome: Total War

Review

posted 10/12/2004 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
The strategy gods are smiling down upon us. If you’re unfamiliar with the Total War series then you’re making a serious mistake to wait any longer. Rome: Total War is a brilliant blend of turn-based city building and real-time strategy ground wars. All presented, of course, in one of strategy gamers’ most beloved time periods.

As such, the glorious Roman Empire is nothing new as far as subject matter, but you’ve never experienced it with this much intensity before. The Total War series are the only games that pit you at eye-level with thousands (!) of animated fighting units on the battlefield. The armies you assemble are bigger than Anna Nicole Smith before her TrimSpa diet. And they’re more beautiful.

Choose from one of three Italian families: the Julii, Brutii, or Scipii (sorry, the Sopranos won’t show up until the expansion pack.) Each begins the game with a separate claim over the Italian peninsula, each family has a separate history and separate gods they worship, but each produces the same military units. The overarching difference is in the direction you take the campaign.

The Roman Senate, a crucial NPC throughout, will provide direction to an otherwise insurmountable undertaking. Rather than conquering the entire Known World single-handedly, the three Roman families set off in separate directions from the Italian peninsula. The Scipii will be sent to conquer Africa and the uncharacteristically weak Carthaginians. The Brutii take on the incomparable Greeks, and the Julii face the Germanic hordes to the north. Of course, plotting your own route is an option, but the Senate is faithful in rewarding obedience.

Your family members are all appointed to act as governors and generals. Surprisingly, they develop more personality traits than an average RPG character. All of these traits are relevant to their particular management and command style. The list of behaviors seems bottomless, but they may be depicted as “loyal”, or “judgmental.” Perhaps they are “careful with money” or may even be regarded as a “local hero.” Each trait will grant bonuses or penalties to a pertinent arena of management, such as having a +10% bonus to trade income or a -2 adjustment to their military command ability. Over the years they will gain more traits and their existing ones may evolve.

Despite any modernist views we hold regarding servitude, the Roman Empire thrived on the sweat of slaves. As your generals conquer cities across the Known World, you’ll have the option of ruling over the existing populace, wholesale slaughtering them, or enslaving them. Placing half the population under a slave yoke provides too many benefits for the empire, so don’t allow petty morality to be your guide. Victoria, your haughty yet prudent civil advisor, would concede to this strategy. And, honestly, it’s an impressive feat for a game to perfectly capture this spirit of Rome. I don’t want to feel ashamed for putting a city in chains, and here I don’t have to!

The empire-building aspect possesses enough depth to please even Civilization lovers. You can soar through your cities all the way down to street level in fully rendered three-dimensional goodness. Your populace strolls stoically about (even if they’re on the brink of revolution)--but here is neither the time nor the place for such nitpicking. Just glimpsing the splendor of your cities inspires a grand sense of accomplishment. No, scratch that: it makes you feel damn near god-like.

Zooming out, the campaign map will make you forget what all the fuss was about regarding Risk-style gameboards. Expanding and holding the empire isn’t as easy as conquering the next puzzle-shaped piece on the map. Units can now move freely across the passable landscape, provided politics and military blockades don’t impede your progress….


Which brings an impressive level of political intrigue into play. Forget about the Bush/Kerry debates: it’s time to get serious. Assassinate rival leaders, bribe away armies, bribe away entire cities, send war-threatening ultimatums, blockade ports. Destroy them all.

Implementing RTS naval battles would have pushed this title over the top. As it stands, your fleets are at the whim of the auto-resolve gods. The sea battle results are handed over without any tactical input from you. This feature exists optionally for land battles too, but you are unworthy of purchasing this game if you intend to use it. Utter blasphemy! Besides, casualties tend to be much higher if you do not oversee the battle yourself.

While you deserve every ounce of criticism for auto-resolving battles, “automanaging” your cities may help preserve your sanity as your empire grows larger and more unwieldy. Type A micromanagers will cringe at the prospect, but automanaging cities frees up a lot of time for more important activities. Like putting the Holy Roman hurt on your enemies. And, in the endgame, everyone (everyone!) is your enemy: the two rival Roman families, the Senate, not to mention the foreign sons and fathers of those you’ve buried along the way.

A constantly impressive element is the rousing speech your general hollers before a battle. While never waxing too philosophic, the general gets medieval, er, Roman, on their ass. The troops rally and cheer as your general enunciates the enemies’ weaknesses and denounces their strengths. Your legions answer back with resounding warcries, banging sword and spear against shield, until you’re practically ready to toss your keyboard aside and join them in the ranks. Such inspirational voice acting is pretty good throughout. In most cases. I understand that The Creative Assembly operates out of the UK, but does every Mediterranean nation from first and second century BC have to speak with an English accent?

The soundtrack, frankly, is awesome. Flowing orchestral themes course through the campaign map, and adrenaline pounding drums stomp their way across the battle map with your cohorts. Even the Roman wardogs, Carthaginian elephants, and various cavalry units add to the deafening cacophony. The sounds of battle are Doomsday in proportion--and it’s music to the ears.

Of course, what strategy game is complete without an online multiplayer component? It’s well known that human players are infinitely more ruthless than computer-bred AI. And, honestly, the AI here is occasionally lacking. For one, the enemy does nothing to counter your naval blockades. Secondly, your military advisor will warn against poor battlefield strategies, such as sending cavalry charging into a phalanx of pikemen, but will do it anyway.

Otherwise, the enemy puts up an impressive fight for novice players. They utilize terrain for a height advantage, tall grass and trees for cover, or even recognize a hopeless cause--and flee! You also need to watch your flanks and rear around the enemy, since toe-to-toe is the preferred way to engage the enemy in ancient warfare.

Rome: Total War has to be seen to be believed. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough on a multitude of fronts to receive our Gaming Nexus Editor’s Choice Award. Don’t sleep on this instant classic. Strength and honor!





A-
In-depth city management. A touch of RPG character development. And the most incredible 3-D land battles to hit the PC screen. Ever.