Rome: Total War

Review

posted 10/12/2004 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
One Page Platforms: PC
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….
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