Sometimes you just have to stab a Gaul with a short sword before he gets the point. Sometimes Carthage gets a little too uppity and needs to be reasoned with, preferably using a stabbing motion. And sometimes you just want to visit the great outdoors and massacre some barbarians. Rome made quite the career out of fighting (and winning). At first the fighting was to establish Rome as a viable power. Turns out the Romans liked fighting so much they made it a full-time feature of their society. The Republic fell, the Empire expanded, and the economy came to rely on constant war as a stimulus. Eventually the Roman Empire fell, the victim of a lopsided economy, internal corruption, and a compromised military. The important thing here is to not draw any parallels to current events.
The arc of Rome’s development might make for an interesting game in itself. This is not that game. The name of the game is “Great Battles of Rome” and the emphasis is on preparing your soldiers for, and leading them in, combat.
To this end, gameplay settles into a comfortable rhythm early on. There are really only two screens – the army camp and the battlefield. Every once in a while a well-produced cut scene (thanks to the History Channel, which published the game) will show up and explain what is happening in the outside world.
The army camp is where you’ll recruit new soldiers and equip them. Being in command of a small Roman force is a lot like running a small mercenary band. You are responsible for recruiting soldiers, training them, leading them on the battlefield, and replacing casualties. Your tools are denarii (gold) and fame. Each battle is worth a certain number of denarii and a base number of fame points. Extra fame points may be awarded if the battle goes well (for example, if you can manage a kill ratio of 5-1).
Denarii are spent on new units or unit equipment. New units can be either more of the same, or genuinely new unit types. For example, after the Carthage missions the elephant becomes available for recruitment. As the game goes on the new unit types tend to be more powerful than the types that were previously available. Equipment includes things like helmets, armor, and other items that provide bonuses to the troops wearing them.
Fame points are used to replace casualties after every battle. It is very possible to win a battle but have to spend so many fame points replacing casualties that it would have been better had the battle been lost. Fame is also the primary means of keeping score.
As an added bonus, troops gain experience in battle. When a unit gains enough experience it levels up, thereby gaining a user-selectable bonus (e.g. better to-hit, more damage). This means that older units, although composed of a basically inferior troop type, are still valuable later in the game due to the experience they have gained.
The battle screen is pretty standard. You are given a flyover of the battleground, so there is little surprise concerning the enemy’s composition or disposition (although the enemy can hide in wooded areas making them effectively invisible to the flyover). The bottom right corner of the screen contains a translucent 2D overhead view full of red and blue dots that provides a primitive overview of the battle.
Units can be given some simple formations (defensive, offensive, balanced) and orders (hold, charge, flank) before the battle starts. These initial orders are the most important due to the order system. In ancient times orders were communicated through yelling real loud, or sending a fast guy to run to the object of the order. This took time and the game reflects the delay. Your general will only be able to issues command so quickly and they will take time to arrive and be acted on. More-experienced troops are easier to command, but this will never be Command and Conquer.
So, what’s the game like when played? It’s a slow-paced RTS without resource gathering. The army screen adds an element of RPG-style advancement. The battles themselves are not very interesting. Just just lining up your guys and yelling charge can win most. This is just as well as there is little room for strategy given the command system. The graphics are primitive – all individuals in a unit are identical and they all move in a highly stilted, unnatural way. After a while the battlegrounds start to repeat in different battles.
Unlike Total War, there is no strategic dimension to the map. It’s all just a linear series of tactical battles one after the other. They’re not even particularly great battles, either, as the engine is only capable of supporting a severely limited number of units at a time. Despite the cut scenes the level of immersion is low.
On the bright side, the battles are short (a plus for the time-pressed gamer); the controls are simple and non-twitchy (good as an introduction to the genre); system requirements are extremely modest; and it only costs $20.
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