I was lucky enough to get a copy of “Rome: Total War” (“RTW”) for Christmas and, as an addict of “Medieval: Total War” (“MTW”) I was too excited even to install it for a couple of hours. (Actually, I rushed to conquer Europe in the medieval game; I knew there’d be little chance of playing it for a while once I started on Rome.) I’ve really enjoyed Time Commanders on BBC2 and now the UKTV Documentary channel and could see the obvious improvements in graphics that RTW would have over MTW. Installing the game, even on a reasonably old Athlon 2000XP with a GeForce 5200 card, and the graphics seem to have improved on the television version.
What’s really surprising, however, is the extra level of realism in the map mode. In a complete departure from MTW, armies don’t occupy provinces (think of Risk or Diplomacy in the board game world) but have physical locations on a map. When armies clash, they have to do it very locally and the battlefield is a close match to the landscape that is shown on the large-scale map.
The battles are absolutely superb. They run at a much brisker pace than MTW: troops really can charge, cavalry can charge at a very fast speed. If you’re not careful your armies can get into a lot of trouble very quickly. Attacking towns is also much more exciting as there really are streets and buildings to run through, making troops suited to an outside battle completely inappropriate to urban fighting. Siege weapons are also very impressive as you watch enemy troops being smashed across the landscape.
I’ve only made it part way through the game so far, having invaded most of Gaul (and vanquished them completely) and part of the way through Spain and Germania. The Britons have also decided to have a go, which is a BIG mistake! One of the problems with the gameplay in MTW was that once you reached a certain size of domination there were very few variations in gameplay. The battles got bigger, but that just made them longer and not necessarily harder. It was just a case of building more advanced troops and buildings and keeping the population happy as your expansion trundled on. This has obviously been thought about with Rome as you start off as one of 4 Roman factions (including the Senate) and are pretty much off conquering Europe whilst the other non-senate factions do the same in other directions, all as one big happy family. At some point, however, you get a bit too powerful and, in order to win the game, need to take on the Senate at which point it’s Roman against Roman. This is going to be very interesting indeed: in the early stages of the game you tend to have a limited number of forces but, unlike MTW, they’re pretty disciplined to start with and you can often fight off a rebel or barbarian army of twice the size, with some good generalship. Fighting against Romans, though, is going to mean some very hard battles.
There is also more of a focus on the individuals who make up your generals and governers, all shown within a family tree. These are in short supply so you need to guard them well and, during the early phases of the game, they cause some barrier to expansion (someone’s got to run the place, after all). As a result, you pay more attention to their development than in Medieval. They also pick up more complex traits, including assistants (‘Retinues’) based on their capabilities. E.g. after some success with Assassins my faction leader has picked up a reputation as something of a ruthless killer.
It would be easy to go on about what’s great about this game. So far as I have found, the parts of the gameplay that don’t seem quite perfect are a) there’s still a limit on the number of armies on the battlefield (I was hoping for a Time Commanders style 20,000 army but the limit isn’t much higher than MTW was. 16 units in MTW, 20 in Rome.) and b) there are some qualities of cities that you can’t really do anything about, especially ‘Squalor’ (to spell it properly). This seems to come about by itself despite attempts at installing sewers, public baths etc and contributes a large amount to a population’s unhappiness. It may be historically accurate, but it’s not very satisfying to not be able to run your city properly.
“Rome: Total War” is a total life-eater, and an immense achievement. I really don’t see where they’re going to go next with the franchise, so this one really needs to be bought now.