Total War: Rome 2 review
In remembering the battles, and the most marvellous moments of the fifty plus hours I've played so far, it can be easy to forget Rome 2's frustrating elements, which is where the boats come in. Naval warfare is entertaining. Where once it was sluggish and imprecise, it is now merely imprecise, but in a comical close-range fashion. They've been designed to play more like land battles, and they do thanks to assault ships that must ram enemies to death or board them to defeat them in melee. There are also support ships, which instead must float very close to enemy boats to throw javelins at them. Sea battles tend to result in massive wooden boat-mobs and a lot of shouting.
However, chances are you'll rarely fight at sea. The AI does transport armies across the ocean, and does so effectively, but it never seems to raid trade routes or build especially large fleets. I've often encountered towns surrounded by four or five tiny one or two-boat navies doing nothing. There are also problems with coastal defence fights. For the first time in the series, land and sea battles can take place on the same map. Boats that survive the sea battle can run ashore and deploy troops directly into the land fight in scenes that would be extraordinary if the troops didn't sometimes fail to disembark, or simply stand still on the beach unmoving forever. I've had three major coastal siege battles in which I've had to sit back, fast-forward the battle and let the 60 minute timer tick down to gain an automatic siege-defence victory against a frozen AI opponent. The severity of the problem seems to vary greatly depending on the map you’re fighting on. Disappointing, yes, but three incidents in 50 hours is far from game-breaking.
Worse is the AI's tendency to constantly suicidally throw tiny forces against cities. This tends to happen when you defeat a faction, and all their homeless mini-armies are left wandering the map mindlessly attacking things. All the busywork that's been saved by moving resources into cities is undone by this relentless phenomenon, which grows worse the bigger your empire gets. Towards the end I was auto-resolving four or five useless assaults per turn, and because auto-resolve often doesn't kill tiny units outright, they keep coming back. Along with the extremely long end-turn loading times (which lasted more than two minutes each on my half-decent home PC), this slows down progress enormously.
This is only part of why Rome 2 feels glacial even compared to Empire. You won’t complete a campaign on a Sunday afternoon, or over a weekend. Expanding across such a huge map takes time, and the balance between keeping public order in just-conquered territory and starting new invasions is a constant concern that stopped me from running slipshod over the map. Managing the correct balance of buildings sometimes felt more like admin work than empire building when juggling multiple territories, though I did find that I had more money than I could spend once I’d amassed enough settlements. That’s useful for greasing the palms of would-be allies.
Sadly, the promising but opaque domestic politics system falters as well. Before you take charge of a republic you must affiliate with a domestic party. Of the three available Roman options, I took charge of the House of Julia. Every general you install belongs to one of Rome's houses, and their might, reflected in two stats – gravitas and ambition - contributes to their house's influence over the senate. For monarchies or tribal societies the setup is reversed – your house starts with huge influence and the other houses will attack when they think you're growing weak. This created a fascinating tension, initially. I was watching my generals with suspicion, and promoting and offing contenders accordingly, plotting like a true Roman. That's why I sent Crassipes to Massalia to die. His many victories earned him Batman levels of gravitas and I'd started to worry about his aspirations.
I needn't have. Your house's influence is measured in senate support, and mine crept up throughout the game at a steady pace by itself. At an apparently random point (83% support, for me) civil war broke out, and the leading generals of the other houses took their armies, took a settlement and marched for Rome. The civil war was an interesting challenge and after I'd crushed all senate sympathisers I could choose whether to remain a republic or go full-despot as an empire, but the domestic politics that triggered it doesn't seem to require player input. I tried to speed up Rome's turn from republic to empire by taking action against the other houses, but assassinating their members reduced my senate influence, seemingly staving off the transition. After many, many turns, the way ambition, gravitas and influence interact remains unclear.
Fortunately, you can ignore the system and carry on regardless, which means you're free to enjoy a rather good Total War game. I should mention though that you'll need a good PC to run it properly. Mine is well above the published minimum specs, and the campaign map was running at around 20 FPS on low settings. Conversely, my high-powered office machine ran it faultlessly, and it was a faster and more enjoyable experience as a result. There are a few other considerations that can't be factored into the score that are still worth mentioning - we can only review what a game is, not what it could be, after all. It would be blinkered to ignore the power of the Total War community, who have been producing spectacular mods for the series since Rome 1. If you use mods, then Rome 2 doubles as a platform for greater things, and you'll likely get a lot more bang for your denarii in the coming years as a result. Creative Assembly's pro-active history with patches may well fix some of the problems mentioned as well, and we'll address those in future articles should that happen.
Right now, Rome 2 has its flaws, but is still a sumptuous, slow-burn strategy game with some of the best land battles in the series. Aesthetically, it's a triumph. Empire management, alliances, the UI and battlefields have all improved, which makes it doubly frustrating to encounter the floppy AI that will be extremely familiar to Total War fans by now. Still, nothing out there does what Total War does with this degree of scope and detail. I'd still recommend it to armchair generals anywhere.
Fight past the niggles and you'll find a truly epic grand strategy game with a tremendous sense of spectacle. Go, see, conquer.