Total War: Rome 2 review
The Roman senate will weep for Crassipes. They'll talk proudly of how the great general threw himself against the walls of Massalia. They'll talk of how he burned the gates and took the central square, and how a dozen Averni javelins ended his illustrious command of Legio I Italica there. But will they talk of the fleet barely a mile away that sat still and watched the great man lemming his way into the history books? Do they realise that the patriot they adored was sent intentionally to his death? I wonder what that would do if they knew that the fate of Crassipes and all the armies and settlements of Rome were not beholden to the gods, but to one bearded games journalist moving them like pawns on a vast playing board.
What a beautiful board it is - an intricate papier mache caricature of Europe, decorated with landmarks, rivers and exaggerated topography. Total War has come a long way from the papery maps of Shogun, but its form is the same. You must guide your chosen nation to glory by managing cities, conducting diplomacy, plotting espionage and moving armies to conquer new settlements. When your armies meet resistance, you dive into a real-time battle and command the troops personally.
In contrast with the focused, shorter campaigns of Napoleon and Shogun 2, Rome 2 hauls Total War back onto the global stage for a huge and varied campaign. It's 272 BC, and nine playable nations and dozens of others, from Britannia to the northern tip of Africa, to Syria and the eastern tribes are elbowing for space. Rome sets its wardogs against Celtic berserkers in the west, Greece flexes its cultural muscle to gain support in the central territories. In the east, Egypt enslaves nations with its chariots and raging war elephants. This is grand strategy at its most ambitious, not least because Rome 2 is committed to giving the pawns you're sacrificing faces, voices and personalities of their own.
That's why I felt a twinge of guilt about poor Crassipes. Generals are vital resources in Rome 2. Previously, you could raise tiny armies of a couple of troops and a leader would be picked from their ranks. Now troops cannot move at all unless they have a general, and the number of generals you can have is limited by the size of your empire. The legions they command are also persistent entities that can gain stat-buffing 'military tradition' affixes over time. It's a significant shift that affects everything from how armies are constructed to how territories operate on the strategic map. Territories are now grouped into 'provinces' which can be boosted by production-boosting edicts if you own them entirely (useful for swift social engineering in the face of food shortage), and your cities' buildings now have province-wide effects. Construct a high-grade military training building in Rome and the troops you unlock can be recruited from anywhere within the Italia region. New units are now recruited by generals in the field, sparing them the long walk from their barracks to the battlefield.
These changes are designed to reduce the number of moving parts on the board without diluting Total War's logistical complexity. For the same reason, farms, mines and other supporting buildings now sit within city borders where formerly they were scattered across the campaign map like chickenfeed for tiny enemy warbands to peck at. The army limit and condensed targets encourage grander strategic gestures. Where in Shogun 2 I might spend time using small forces to devastate a region's resources before amassing them again to take the territory, in Rome 2 I'll build a huge army and march it up to the doors of their huge city, and then we'll have a huge fight to decide who gets to keep it.
Armies are also more flexible thanks to a variety of stances, which can let them move extremely quickly with 'forced march', create a wooden outpost at their location with 'fortify', or lay an ambush on the strategic map. The map has been designed with these stances in mind, so you can dominate large regions with clever use of choke points. Alliances are now extremely worthwhile as well. Allied and client states (who will sit quietly and pay you a tithe every turn in exchange for their lives) contribute to your settlement count for victory conditions, and you can poke your pro-active pals in the right direction with a new diplomacy option that lets you target settlements you want taken.
These are excellent changes for two reasons. Firstly, the new interface condenses all of your building work into neat boxes that let you see exactly what needs upgrading where, making building management far faster and easier that previous Total Wars. Secondly, the battles I've had in Rome 2 have been bigger and more dramatic than any I've fought in a previous Total War game - in any game, ever, in fact. When two army avatars meet, they square off on the map and you're given a choice to auto-resolve the battle, fight, or flee. If there's another army within reinforcement range, they'll join in. This is how I took forty units of Rome's finest into a contest with joint Averni and Helvetii forces at the Gallic fort of Bibracte in 190 BC. Thousands died in the drizzle. The Celts charged my lines shirtless, facing my Velites' flaming javelins with remarkable zest, faltering only when they encountered my veteran legionaries. Romans, as they were in life, are a bit OP.
Rome 2's battles are stunning. Great attention has been lavished on making troops more responsive. If a unit is under fire they'll lift up their shields, and the incoming projectiles will turn them into wooden porcupines. They'll erupt into rowdy celebration when they rout a unit, and you'll see the exhaustion of the fleeing enemies in their gait. A cinematic battle-cam puts you right into the melee, where you'll hear men yelling to each other and see differences in the way units fight. Praetorians use their huge shields to haul barbarians over and behind them to be stabbed by supporting ranks. Attack dogs, released from their handlers, tear into a fight with terrifying speed and drag down opponents with a flying bite to the arm. If you encounter an exotic unit you like, you might be able to recruit them as mercenaries for a high ongoing cost. Mercenaries are the only troops you can hire in enemy territory, but Romans can construct auxiliary barracks that will let you recruit other factions' units properly. This reflects how the Roman army historically used foreign troops and encouraging a sort of military tourism. I'm still on a quest to unite elephants and Celtic skirmishers in the same army.
Battlefields are better, too. They vary hugely depending on weather conditions and location, and are enhanced by the new line of sight system. If your troops can't see an enemy, nor can you, which means every undulation can hide an enemy unit if you don't scout a little. The resulting guessing game keeps the marching portion of the fight interesting and makes fights feel faster. The new engine also allows for proper cities. Major capitals like Rome and Carthage have their own spectacular custom-made maps, and there are variations in the wider world for land and coastal towns, which also vary completely in style and structure depending on their cultural origin. Celtic hill-forts are tiered, earthy formations contained by wooden walls. Romans prefer sheets of white stone and traditional tower fortifications. One settlement in each province will be fortified with walls and require a siege to break, which you can do with equipment like ladders and tortoises built at the siege location.