Total War: Rome 2 preview - Camels beat horses, elephants crush everything in their path

Don't let the history books fool you about the sacking of Alexandria and its famous library. Those warmongering bookworms had it coming.

It turns out that Julius Caesar made the Egyptians a very reasonable offer when they got all uppity about him marching an army through 'their' land. Not only did he graciously ignore their belligerence and re-establish the longstanding trade agreement the Egyptians had foolishly tossed out (along with all their toys), but the Creative Assembly dev playing Caesar gave Egypt the opportunity to become a client state of Rome as well. A great offer, I think, but the Egyptian ambassador rejected it. I guess this means Total War.

Open the diplomacy tab in Rome 2 and you'll see something called the Relations Pane: this contains a list of your actions throughout the history of the game, complete with the relevant faction's response. It makes the often inscrutable nature of Total War's AI more transparent, and helps put faction behaviour into wider sociopolitical context.

You can now see, for instance, that breaking off trade agreements with allies of Egypt won't go down too well in Pharaohland, but Egypt seems to love it when you commit wartime atrocities against the Macedonians. Making AI responses more readable runs the risk of making them appear nakedly robotic, but it also opens the scope for more nuanced diplomatic strategies.

Diplomacy doesn't work for Creative Assembly's Caesar in this case, so the developers let me fight my first battle in Rome 2. Although CA first showed me the conflict from a Roman perspective, they now have me playing as the Egyptians. I'm not sure if I'll be able to adjust until I delightedly spot my ranks of troops mounted on camels.

"Ramming is one of the key weapons for these ancient ships."

The reason I'm playing Egypt is that Rome will face on uphill struggle – literally – to win the Battle of the Nile. My larger army is mounted on top of some raised ground, while the reinforcements Caesar desperately needs are all aboard ships that must wrestle with my superior navy before they can land.

Rome II's naval and land battles are now controlled on the same battlefield, and the boaty bit is my first priority: naval warfare feels closer to Shogun than Empire: you can still fight at range, but a volley of arrow fire is really just a polite way of introducing yourself before the prow of your ship slams into your enemy's starboard side.

“Ramming is one of the key weapons for these ancient ships,” community communications manager Al Bickham explains. “You'll see they all have these big metal prows.” There's no need to be subtle here: my navy outnumbers Caesar's so I send my ships to entangle his before they can get to shore, pausing to zoom in as my crew leaps on board his vessels and murders everyone.

In the meantime, Caesar has sent a mounted unit up the hill to test my defences. Unfortunately, horses are easily spooked by camels – their obvious superiors. I send out a unit of camelry (yes, that is the correct word) to meet the attackers, and the Romans quickly scatter. Caesar then marches the rest of his army up the hill to meet me head-on.

"Caesar marches the rest of his army up the hill"

A standard Total War rout follows, and the obvious superiority of my forces means I don't need to rely on clever tactics. I do get to try out some new defensive weapons, though – flaming boulders that can be pushed down a hill as attackers draw near – while my elephant units spectacularly demonstrate their superior mass as they plough head-on into Roman infantry.

The heavy-footed pachyderms scatter troops across the battlefield... and, um, head straight into a bunch of archers that I really should have moved out of the way. It's all a bit easy, in fact, so Creative Assembly offer to let me try the battle from the Roman side.

I'm almost crushed. First I rush my navy to the shore, since I learned the fun way that the Roman forces are no match for the Egyptian fleet. Once there, however, a unit of mounted elephants comes charging out of a nearby forest and tears straight through my freshly disembarked forces.

In the meantime, I try to outflank the main body of the Egyptian army but the steep gradient makes manoeuvring hard work, and the Egyptians rush down to annihilate me, shamelessly copying my previous tactics. Once the elephant- mangled bodies are counted, I find that I managed to snatch a win – by successfully holding down a capture point at the summit of the hill – but it was Pyrrhic at best, and I suspect it won't be this easy in the finished game.

Caesar's battle against the Egyptian forces felt like classic Total War, with the extra nuances to the simulation adding tactical subtleties without requiring new approaches. With the polished RTS elements embedded in a similarly overhauled campaign map, Rome II offers players plenty of reasons to cross the Rubicon once more.