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.
Bigger, more detailed battles
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.