In the early autumn of 9 CE a Roman general named Publius Quinctilius Varus led an expedition deep into the German interior. He was investigating reports of unrest among the local tribes, and marched despite warnings that one of his advisors – a German named Arminius – planned to betray him. Arminius had been raised by the Romans, and Varus trusted him.
History has not been kind to the general, in light of what happened next.
He got it spectacularly wrong. Arminius was planning to betray him: working in secret with the German tribes he had set a trap for the Roman commander deep in the Teutoburg forest. The problem for the Roman Empire was that Varus wasn't marching into this trap by himself. More than fifteen thousand men were marching with him.
This isn't just the story of how a few bad decisions can lead to military catastrophe: this is the story of how it's possible to lose three full legions of the most renowned fighting force of its age. This is the story of how it's possible to beat the Romans.
I'm watching Rome II's take on the battle of the Teutoburg forest being played by Creative Assembly communications manager Al Bickham. Like the battle of Carthage sequence, Teutoburg will be a historical battle in the final game – a standalone challenge with certain distinct rules. Unlike the pre-scripted Carthage demo, however, the battle of Teutoburg is being played live – tactical blunders and all.
I immediately get a clearer sense of how Rome II's cinematic aspirations will be realised. The mission begins with a framing vignette: the corpses of dozens of Roman soldiers lie on the leaf-scattered floor of a misty forest rendered in cool blues and greys. The voice of the Emperor Augustus screams the words attributed to him in the aftermath of the disaster – “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
Cut to three weeks earlier.
The Romans are marching in a line through the forest, hemmed in on both sides by tall embankments, their vision obscured by trees. Elsewhere, Arminius addresses his own troops, renouncing his upbringing and vowing to lay waste to the imperial invaders. As the attack begins, flaming balls of pitch tumble from the treeline and crash into the unready Romans, their screams of surprise drowned out by the roar of Germanic warriors emerging from the woods. At the moment of impact – as Varus wheels around in response to the chaos – control is handed over to the player.
Rome II alters the traditional Total War interface in a number of ways. The unit cards along the bottom of the screen are now larger and heavily stylised, the designs varying from culture to culture. Mediterranean factions are represented by pictograms inspired by Greco-Roman pottery: angular figures rendered in black and red against a clean white marble background.
These cards can be minimised and will shrink as armies grow. The idea, as explained to me by lead battle designer Jamie Ferguson, is that as the player's level of knowledge rises they'll become more familiar with their units and therefore won't need as much information on the fly as they did when they started out.
The traditional UI elements are present but there's been an evident effort to reduce clutter and communicate more information within the battle simulation itself. Men respond to their environment as individuals – whether by glancing at a new enemy that has appeared from the forest, or dynamically raising their shields to protect themselves from incoming fire. Barks and other incidental voiceover elements are much more pronounced than in Shogun 2. I hear a Roman captain shouting at his men to abandon the wounded as the legionaries attempt to break free of the ambush. In one instance, the writing is missionspecific. “Where is Arminius?” Varus yells, panicked, in a moment of irony. “We need his auxiliaries!”
The notion is that the game can be controlled without having to take your eye off what your men are doing to look at a number ticking down on a unit card. This feeds directly into the more reactive style of play that Rome II promotes – even though the controls, as far as setting formations and giving movement orders go, haven't changed. The objectives of the various battle types are now more varied: while a field skirmish might revolve around control of baggage trains, a siege will have entirely different parameters for success.
The aim is to reduce the sense that each Total War battle is necessarily a straight-on clash between massive armies, to provide more room for surprise, and to make it more interesting to be outnumbered.
“You get a lot more variety in the way that combat falls out,” Jamie Ferguson tells me. “As a defender, you can't be quite so sure of yourself.”
The Roman objective in Teutoburg, however, is simple: get out of the forest. Defeating the Germanic forces is a means to an end, in that regard, but sticking around to fight is suicidal. The barbarian army is supported by archers and war dogs, and as the Romans get bogged down in swampy ground they are beset on all sides. As I watch, the decisions being made are less about winning skirmishes and more about mitigating damage to the army's core: the three legionary eagle standards, revered symbols of Roman power whose loss, historically, was a source of national shame. On the hardest setting, the player will be required to extract all three eagles – in the version I'm seeing, however, simply not screwing up as badly as Varus did is all that's asked.
A cohort of infantry is left behind to cover the retreat as the Romans break the first wave of attackers. Later, another unit is sent into the forest to chase off a group of archers attacking the main group from a ridgeline – Bickham tells them to attack and then directs his attention elsewhere, spending the unit like currency to relieve the pressure on the rest of his forces. The road leading through the forest opens onto a wide, wet area of marshland, and for the first time it looks as if the Romans will have some space to breathe, to spread out and fight this like the open field battles they're good at. That's when the bulk of Arminius's army reveals itself: a horde of berserkers, breaking from the undergrowth and running fulltilt at the Romans.
For the first time in a Total War game, there's now height variance between individual men – even within a single unit of men. This fact becomes brutally relevant as a wall of half-naked, six-foot-tall barbarians crash into the Roman line. Another few cohorts are sacrificed as the rest of the army flees. Eventually, only two Roman units are left – far enough from the body of the Germanic army to escape, but blocked by a line of infantry. Bickham moves them into attack position then hammers the order to push through the German line, panic-clicking on an area just beyond the enemy troops. Also for the first time in a Total War game, this kind of urgent key-battering will actually work, troops interpreting repeated move orders as a sign that no, you really want them to disengage – albeit at the risk of increased casualties.
The mass of units is now calculated individually, so the likelihood of your units being able to escape will depend on type. In this case, the heavily armoured Romans are able to press the advantage and get away – a victory, of a sort. One of the escaping units was an eagle cohort, but its standard bearer fell in the field. All three eagles are gone. Still, Bickham has done better than Varus did.
With the camera set low over the Roman army there's a claustrophobic aspect to the battle I've not previously encountered in a Total War game. Part of this is the environment: Teutoburg's trees are five times bigger than Shogun 2's tallest, and it is possible to zoom the camera right down over the shoulder of an individual legionary and observe the way the low sun obscures vision as it casts long angular shadows over the forest floor. There's a sense that enemies could emerge from anywhere, and this is preserved even when the camera is zoomed all the way out to the new tactical view, where light is flattened, time slowed, and units are represented by translucent rectangles. This is thanks to a subtle but major change to the Total War formula: every unit now has dynamic, terrain-based line of sight, and no enemy unit is visible by default. No more steering your men towards a general magically marked out by a star on the battlefield.
“Each individual man is actually looking around him,” Ferguson explains. “He can see only what he can see. As a result of that you get a much more claustrophobic effect when you're in a forest situation – and much less time to react.”
The battle of the Teutoburg forest shows off this feature in its most obvious context: an ambush that relies specifically on surprise as a weapon. It has an impact on the entire game, however – even openfield battles.
“With the new system, a lot of existing maps have ambush opportunities in them,” lead unit designer Jack Lusted tells me. “It doesn't take a lot of re-engineering.” In Shogun 2, the average infantry unit moves at the speed of a marathon runner in order to reduce the time that armies spend closing the gap between one another – for Rome II, line of sight solves the same problem.
“The first thing that you discover is that a 30-meter hill – that's pretty good for hiding 15 units behind,” Ferguson says. Armies can surprise one another on the battlefield in ways that simply weren't possible under the old system.
The battle of Teutoburg is a standalone scenario, but ambushes will be a part of the main campaign. It's now possible to set an army's stance to defensive, aggressive, or ambush. In the latter, you'll have the option to force a battle upon a passing enemy. They won't have a chance to deploy, and you'll have an opportunity to wipe them out before they can flee. Battlefield terrain, once generated, will now be persistent within an area on the campaign map – so if you've found a rocky mountain pass that you like to use for ambushes, you can keep returning to use it for as long as enemies are willing to walk into your clutches. Combined with the line-of-sight system, this has the potential to make the non-Roman factions genuinely more interesting to play: the Germans might not have the same technology and discipline, but familiarity with their environment could win them some decisive victories. As in life.
Ambushes are also a great way for allies to announce that they're no longer interested in being friends with you – something that Rome II's campaign designers anticipate will happen frequently.
“Sometimes we've had people internally say that alliance behaviour is broken – 'my ally attacked me!'” lead designer James Russell says. “Sometimes, though, that's because the AI has decided that friendship doesn't fit with its plans.”
I've still not seen the revamped campaign map, but talking to its lead designers reveals some of the thinking behind the changes in store. In particular, Creative Assembly are looking to address problems with the clean-up phase that can bog down the endgame of a Total War campaign. Shogun 2's realm-divide mechanic – where the other factions turned on the player when their empire reached a certain critical mass – was, appropriately enough, divisive. In Rome II, it's still likely that the player will face increased opposition as they grow in power, but it'll happen gradually, and you'll have a chance to anticipate it.
“The new system remembers facts,” is how lead campaign designer Janos Gaspar explains it to me. “Deeds will be remembered, and the hatred towards the player will build. As you're bumping into new powers, the friends of your enemies are getting hostile. A power vacuum can form around you, new empires can appear.”
This is linked to the other major change: political dynasties. In addition to choosing your faction, you also pick which family, tribe or power base you represent within it. The first Rome game split the Republic into three separate factions: Rome II presents the same idea in a much more subtle way, and expands it across every culture.
“We didn't want the player to feel like they weren't controlling Rome,” campaign designer Dom Starr says. “They are Rome – just part of a political dynasty.”
You'll have internal rivals to contend with, and your relationship with these – based on a substantially expanded version of Shogun 2's loyalty system – will have a major influence on your decision-making. Over a long enough stretch of time, betrayal and civil war is inevitable. Or, to put it another way: someone is going to cross the Rubicon.
“[Rivals] will still try to achieve their goals, but if everything goes right, you won't fight them,” Gaspar says. “It's more like personal differences. Later on, it could lead to a break or a rupture.”
This, then, is the final way in which the precedents set by the Teutoburg scenario feed into the campaign as a whole. When betrayal is nigh-inevitable, the freedom to make choices – where to fight, who to trust – is essential. As well as representing Varus's actions literally, Creative Assembly want to give the player freedom to dig a similar hole for themselves. “The more reversible a decision is, the less of a decision it was,” is how Russell puts it. “If a decision has no consequence, it wasn't really a decision.”