The original Rome is one of the most enduringly popular games in the Total War series. It did away with sprites, rendering warfare in full 3D. It added depth and flexibility to the campaign game, coupled with one of the most varied and evocative eras in the history of human conflict. It even formed the basis of a historical TV show.
A sequel to Rome is, according to Total War lead designer James Russell, the most frequent request that Creative Assembly receive - and a few weeks ago, I visited the developer to see that sequel for myself. I was shown a ten minute battle demonstration, running live and in-engine but with pre-scripted troop movements and a planned outcome. What I saw was really exciting, but it's worth being clear about the fact that this was a first look at a game that is early in development, with a lot that the developers aren't willing to show. The impression I got was that there's much still to be nailed down behind the scenes and as such a lot of the specific detail that Total War fans will be looking far was hard to come by. They were however willing to talk about the direction and themes of Rome 2's design, and I was given exclusive interviews with the people behind the game. Here's everything there is to know so far.
The setting for the demonstration was the Roman siege of Carthage at the end of the Thrid Punic War, circa 146 - the battle that famously ended with the total destruction of the north African city by Roman forces. The opening shot was a close-up on Roman consul Scipio Aemilianus, giving orders to his men on board a warship. Total War: Rome 2 runs on a new engine that supports the largest and most detailed battles in the series' history, to the extent of supporting full, in-engine cutscenes. In place of a traditional general's speech, then, the siege of Carthage began with an actual conversation between Scipio and his men, before zooming out to take in the sight of the Roman fleet approaching the heavily-defended shoreline.
Ships and armies can now take part in the same battles when the situation demands it. As troop-carrying biremes crashed into the shore, Roman boats armed with catapults kept their distance and provided covering fire for the dismounting troops, who formed into ranks before charging up the beach towards the walls. I later asked if this 'rolling start' meant that the deployment phase was a thing of the past, but that's not the case - instead, CA are looking to be more flexible about how battles can begin, based on various circumstances. Beach landings are a confirmed feature, according to lead battle designer Jamie Ferguson, and there's room for other non-traditional openings as well.
“There's something very special about Total War in terms of the scale,” James Russell told me. “If you look at a battle you have incredible detail close up, where you can see two men fighting it out - and you zoom out and you can see thousands and thousands of them on the battlefield, and we really want to push both ends of that spectrum in Rome 2.”
The developers used a free camera to show off different aspects of the battle - Roman archers taking cover behind wooden barricades to return fire on the Carthaginian defenders, siege towers moving into place, off-shore Roman artillery causing a breach in the city's harbour walls. They were keen to stress, however, that in the final game it'll no longer be necessary to swing the camera around to keep track of the battlefield. Rome 2 will feature a tactical view that allows players to zoom the camera out to a top-down, kilometer-square overview where units are represented by simplified icons. Commanding individual cohorts effectively from this perspective won't be possible, but it should make getting your bearings easier and reduce the amount of time you spend squinting at the mini-map.
Making battles easier absorb on the macroscale belies Creative Assembly's most frequently stated aim for Rome 2, which is to add character and humanity to the scores of tiny soldiers that live or die by your command. The new closest zoom setting is an absurdly detailed close-up that allows you to hover over a individual combatant's shoulder in third-person. In the demonstration, this was shown off by leaping into Scipio Aemilianus' unit as they prepared to storm the Carthaginian walls using a siege tower. The same Romans that had just been swarming from biremes by the hundred were now fidgeting and shifting as nervous individuals, listening to the orders of a general a few feet away.
Scripted? Yes, and Creative Assembly wouldn't comment on how these mid-battle moments would play out as part of regular play. Impressive, though? Certainly, particularly when the Romans reached the walls. Shogun 2's samurai occasionally broke off into brief animated duels, but Rome 2 takes the specifics of melee combat much further - men lunge and dodge and shield-bash each other, the game taking full advantage of both Creative Assembly's meticulous research - which involves work with professional ancient warfare reenactors - and the new engine's enhanced animation capabilities.
The importance of this extra detail, according to lead battle designer Jamie Ferguson, is that it involves the player in the lives of their men. “When they give those guys an order to take the walls they can experience that themselves” he explains, “and see what those guys are going [through] and realise that they're not just a bunch of clones climbing a ladder, that there are individuals in there and they're all doing their best for you.”
The walls taken, the battle continued in the streets. Roman troops entering by another route - that breach in the harbour wall - trapped the Carthaginians at a crossroads with a flanking maneuver, forcing the defenders further back into their own city. This part of the demo closely resembled equivalent encounters in other recent Total War games, but the sheer size of cities necessitates that battles be more complex than simply capturing and holding a single central location. In Rome 2, a successful siege will be a multi-part affair, with several dynamic objectives.
For the sake of the demo, the sack of Carthage was limited to these opening minutes. To conclude, the team zoomed back into Scipio Aemilianus' unit as the consul lead the charge into the city. A collapsing tower sent a cloud of dust and smoke into the street, causing the Romans to hesitate. There was a pause, and a yelled order to hold the line. The silhouettes of charging war elephants emerged from the smoke, and, well, that was it for the world's first glimpse at Rome 2. In an epilogue, a victorious Scipio surveyed defeated Carthage and gave the order to burn the city to the ground.
Obviously, these bookending cutscenes are too specific and too neat to apply to every campaign - as ever in an open-ended Total War game, Carthage is just as likely to be sacked by rampaging Gauls as it is by the Roman Republic - and Creative Assembly say that the siege of Carthage is more likely to end up as a standalone historical battle. It's a striking statement of Rome 2's cinematic intent, though, and my impression from the demo was that this new level of detail has the potential to enhance the drama of the whole game.
"What we're trying to do is create a game where warfare more meaningful,” Jamie Ferguson told me. “We're placing much more importance on battles, that when an army turns up it is an army. You may find that the campaign game doesn't look like it might have in previous games."
Despite the tease, CA aren't willing to show off anything of Rome 2's campaign map at this stage. The impression I got however was that they're taking a serious and critical look at the structure of the turn-based part of the game, again with an eye to making the player care more about the individual soldiers, cohorts and armies at their command.
"We're ... trying to focus attention on a much smaller number of armies and a smaller number of more significant battles” James Russell explains. “We're trying to reduce the management you've got to do [with] assembling armies, and that kind of thing.”
One example of this kind of refinement will be the ability to govern whole provinces made up of a number of individual regions. Rather than delving into the micromanagement of each individual territory, it sounds like it'll be possible to set policies for an entire region - but when it comes to warfare, each one of those areas will need to be conquered separately. “We still have that strategic depth where a province is made of up several regions which you can conquer”, Russell says. “And what that means is that you can have the benefit of scale but you don't have the management detail.”
Discussing the occurrence of actual historical events during the campaign, Jamie Ferguson stresses that player freedom is still paramount. “We're not putting the player on rails” he explains. “[Events] will be triggered depending on what the player is doing how how the player is behaving... it's really our core goal to integrate the player's interaction with the rich tapestry of the ancient world.”
That integration is key to Total War, he argues. "The point of Total War games isn't just to recreate history. What we're trying to do is get a counterfactual history going. We start from a historical point of view - this is how things were at, lets pick a date at random, 325 BC - and from that point onwards, it's about player action and interaction, with the AI and their environment. That determines how the game develops."
This will apply to everything from political systems to army composition. Using the example of the crown offered to Julius Caesar, Ferguson says that there's no reason that the Roman Republic necessarily needs to become an Empire - it could have historically gone back to a kingship, and if the player chooses to make that decision then that's something Creative Assembly want to support. Likewise, there's nothing - geography and resources aside - stopping a sufficiently well-managed coalition of Germanic tribes from becoming the dominant force of their time.
Giving the player the power to pick the loadout of individual units of troops is something else that Creative Assembly are exploring. “There's no reason that we can't allow the player, maybe, to change the way those units are equipped” Ferguson says. “For example there's the cavalry sword - the spatha. In reality that didn't really become part of standard Roman equipment until very late, in the [Imperial] period - but there's no reason that some general at some point might not have decided, 'well lets do that earlier on'." The idea of history as a sandbox is still at the forefront of Total War's identity.
It's also worth mentioning that Rome 2 looks stunning, and that's as much thanks to its art direction as it is to the new engine. Shogun 2 was rightly praised for having a comprehensive visual identity of its own, and Rome 2 continues that trend - which is even more impressive given how familiar Roman warfare is to a western audience. There's a strong attention to colour and lighting in particular, with Carthage rendered in orange, brown and olive green against the white of its defenders and deep red of the invading Romans. Smoke from fires throughout the city changes the nature of the lighting - in real time, I'm told - diffusing glaring sunlight into a gathering gloom. It's effective, dramatic, believable stuff.
Soldiers' weapons and armour is chipped and looks used, and the walls of cities are adorned with ancient graffiti. This “lived-in” sense is one of the key things that makes Rome 2's design stand out. Despite the prevalence of Rome in film and TV, the team have gone back to original archaeological sources, rebuilt them, and then beaten them up. If Carthage looks this good, I cannot wait to see the Eternal City itself.
Multiplayer is confirmed, but aside from the fact that Creative Assembly are “planning to do something really big”, no details are available yet. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect something along the lines of Shogun 2's matchmaking and online campaign systems.
Whether or not Rome 2 will include the content creation tools recently rolled out to Shogun 2 is less clear. “We do our best” James Russell told me. “It has become harder, in the old days we worked with very simple text files that were very easy to mod, now we have a proper authenticated database. We don't necessarily have all the editor tools that the players out there think we do.”
Total War: Rome 2 is due in 2013. If Creative Assembly can successfully balance revitalising the campaign game with chasing a new, cinematic depth to individual battles then there's every reason to be very excited. More on Rome 2 is available in PCG UK issue 242, out July 4th, and PCG US issue 230, out July 17th. You can also check out our video interviews with the game's lead designers .