Total War: Rome II Review
7.5our score

What a terrible game. Just awful. Clunking, over-hyped garbage, riddled with bugs.

The Fall of Rome

Carthage! When my eyes first saw this screenshot, months ahead of the game, they salivated anatomically impossible saliva.

Carthage! When my eyes first saw this screenshot, months ahead of the game, they salivated anatomically impossible saliva.

Presumably there is some gameplay in here, but I spent all but ten of my 430 Steam-logged hours staring at loading screens. Of the other ten hours, nine were trying to care which of my mayfly-lifespanned generals needed upgrading again.

The last hour was in battles, seeing an enemy army consisting entirely of Celtic Oathsworn turn my supposedly elite legionaires into so much expensively canned meat.

...and this is what the game delivered.  Okay, mild exaggeration, but certainly not what they promised us.

…and this is what the game delivered.
Okay, mild exaggeration, but certainly not what they promised us.

Or watching three units of rebel scum jog slowly towards an impregnable citadel.

Or sitting waiting for resolution when my spearmen refused to get off a boat and actually fight anything. Battles lasted around three minutes, with five minute loading brackets.

For a game that had been screaming the word EPIC at me for over twelve months before release, I just don’t have the lungpower to scream FAIL back loudly enough. Deadly dull, slow, poorly programmed tat. If I were a badly-constipated monkey, in desperate need of shit to sling at another monkey invading my territory, I’d rather allow him and his mates to sleep with my harem and chew my face off than touch this game.

Here ends my review…

We're on a road to nowhere. Much like everyone else in this campaign.

We’re on a road to nowhere. Much like everyone else in this campaign.

Juvenile Satires

…Of the initially released version! Phew! Bet the devs must be really relieved now. You can untie those nooses, step down from the stools, boys, I’m just kidding about! Total War games are always high on my list. They’re excellent, intelligent, detailed and beautiful games, thoughfully designed and great value for money.

For those who don’t know them, the Total War series takes a pivotal epoch of history and allows you to take the reins of a nation at that time. Here, it’s Classical Europe. Select a faction, such as Egypt, The Seleucids, or the titular Romans, and try and steer them to victory on a two-tiered playing field. On one level, a Risk-like strategy map awaits your orders as you build cities, conduct diplomacy and march your armies to glory. On the lower, more detailed level, you command your armies as they fight in fantastic real-time war.

I found it hard to believe the wonderful original could be improved on. But I bought the promises.

Caveat Emptor, as they say.

This is a graphic representation of my expectations of the game. There's me, coming in through the gates all over-excited and underclad, and there's the bugs with their spears and armour.

This is a graphic representation of my expectations of the game. There’s me, coming in through the gates all over-excited and underclad, and there’s the bugs with their spears and armour.

The relentless PR, the video diaries of balding geeks enthusing about pixels per square inch on a Grecian helmet, the giant jpegs of the Teutoberg Forest – it all convinced me somehow. Not a waste of Creative Assembly’s time or money, all that, seeing as that initial release was a very startlingly dropped ball.

Six months down the line (or whatever it is now, I can’t be bothered to check), it’s been patched more than an Amish quilt. And it’s now good, no question. Just still not as good as advertised.

Playing as Romans, I was struck at just how long a campaign took. Perseverance under duress is my middle name, and in the early days, I certainly struggled. Around about patch four or five, I found the game opened up and became the thing I expected and longed for. It was still cumbersome, mind you. In making the entirety of the Ancient World come to life, Creative Assembly just bit off more than they could chew.

Provinces, for one. They used to have a single city in them. Capture that, you hold the province. A gross simplification of real life, but a simple and pragmatic bit of gaming. Now, provinces have three or four (rarely two) lesser sectors, one of which holds the capital city. To claim the whole lot, you need to capture them all. Fine, you’re probably going to do that anyway as you need about half the 183 territories in order to reach any of the Victory conditions. But there’s so much terrain, so much detail separating them all, that it takes forever to get anywhere.

The Athenian province being a case in point, where Crete needs to be held for full control. I'm sure that's historically accurate, but really? Crete? It's a different part of the world!

The Athenian province being a case in point, where Crete needs to be held for full control. I’m sure that’s historically accurate, but really? Crete? It’s a different part of the world!

The capital has walls, the smaller towns don’t. Even if you want to upgrade them with walls, which I suspect most major cities back then generally had, you can’t. This has a good side – it helps the game not get bogged down in the slow siege battles that the AI just can’t deal with – but it makes many of your conquests very prone to being immediately lost to the recurrent problem of rebels. Plus it’s annoying not to have the option.

The March of Ideas

Lots of interesting ideas were introduced to the game. A unit camera, so you can see a battle from your troopers’ point of view. Multiple kinds of agents, all faction specific, to cater to any approach to skulduggery. Real line of sight on the battlefield, for improved ambushes. Persistent campaign map terrain. Expanded diplomacy options. Tech trees. Improved graphics and AI. More! More of everything we like! More of all the staples of Total War games throughout history! Great!

And yet even now, on patch ten (I think), it’s still a bit turgid. Of those interesting new ideas mentioned above, almost all seem cumbersome or pointless. Who uses a unit camera in the thick of action, when you need the general’s eagle eye view to command and control? I mean it’s briefly fun and all, as is taking command of a ballista to see if you can do any better than the erratic autopilots (I can’t). But it comes at the cost of losing control of a battle. Best used in comp-stomps or replays, I find.

Another good example is the eagle eye view of the battlefield. Very useful to give orders from up here, where you can clearly see everything going on. But also kind of lame and ugly compared to the spectacle below. I never used it.

Another good example is the eagle eye view of the battlefield. Very useful to give orders from up here, where you can clearly see everything going on. But also kind of lame and ugly compared to the spectacle below. Personally, I never used it. Except to get this screenshot, obviously.

Multiple agents – great. But they’re all the same, really, just with different names for their multitude of actions. My barbarian spy, warlord and assassin can all paralyse enemy armies, kill or turn other agents and harrass settlements. Yes, in slightly different ways. But something of the clarity of ‘ninjas kill, policemen stop them, priests preach’ that Shogun 2 had is lost. All the agents feel the same to me now, and I feel confused as to how to use them best.

Persistent map terrain, excellent new graphics – fine and fine. Like these. LOS on the battlefield is great against real life players, making matches interesting and realistic. But against the AI? Pointless. It’s still the Achilles heel of the Total War games. Army after army will break on your city walls, moronically battering themselves to bits without using ladders, siege equipment or common sense.

In more open fields, the AI is at least competent and can beat you with a bigger and better army. But it uses the same approach constantly – a reasonable mix of units, formed in a line, with skirmishes in front, cavalry flanking and a block of infantry to hold the centre. Sensible, I know, but relentlessly performed. Over your hundred hours of gameplay for a campaign, it gets old.

Having the ability to open your gates at will would let you beat most attacking AI siege armies very easily. They form nice neat queues under the hot oil.

Having the ability to open your gates at will would let you beat most attacking AI siege armies very easily. They form nice neat queues under the hot oil.

Naval fights still turn into incomprehensible mires of sinking boats. I am terrible at them, so the AI always does well here. I usually autoresolve, sparing myself the torture of losing to tiny navies. There’s a lot of spectacle to see in the naval fights. It’s just not a lot of fun to actually play, sadly. And the UI is cumbersome, rather less-than-intuitive in the way you access information. The Tutorial also skimps on a lot of useful detail, particularly some of the more esoteric bits of campaign management, like population management, city growth and food.

Here's what I want to see more of, roughly.

Here’s what I want to see more of, roughly.

But here's what I get - confused tangles of disobedient and frequently sinking ships.

But here’s what I get – confused tangles of disobedient and frequently sinking ships.

Devs Love Cash

Don’t get me started on the DLC. Whatever greed merchant thought that being allowed to play as Athens requires paying extra should be subjected to authentic Greek raphanidosis. Okay, the Greek States were free if you pre-ordered, but this makes me strongly suspect they knew damn well what a mess the game was before release and were desperate to boost sales ahead of the shitstorm.

It worked on me because I’m a dope. I will not pre-order ever again. It’s become an industry standard excuse for not bothering to finish making a game. Even now, they still churn out regular plops of new content when a few persistent bugs from the early game continue. At least they’re pretty cheap, I suppose, but I haven’t seen anything that shouldn’t have been in the game in the first place.

In fairness, I haven’t played the Conquest of Gaul campaign. It didn’t appeal enough to me, so I can’t comment on that. It might be excellent. But it felt like more of the same to me, and there was more than enough of that to go round already.

Hard to take this town seriously. "Just another quiet day in Arse." But let's all take a moment to reflect on how hard it must have been for everyone who lived there.

Hard to take this town seriously. But let’s all take a moment to reflect on how hard it must have been for everyone who lived there.
“Where are you from?”
“Arse!”
“Well, screw you too, buddy!”

…and Rise of the Roman Empire

And yet, it’s still Total War. Most of these complaints come from the ludicrously high expectations I have for these games. They’re my favourite of the genre and in my top three of things I’ll play for a random hour or so on a regular basis. Despite all the grumbling, it’s still an excellent strategy title – deep, thoughtful and compelling in many ways. Excellent value, too, as there’s so much in it you’ll be able to replay for years and still find new things. Possibly in a single campaign, it benefitted a great deal from whichever patch it was that made the victory conditions slightly easier.

The game looks great. The battles are now amazing, crunching bloodbaths, all corners of Europe captured with their own feel and details. You can’t help but invest in your faction as it struggles from a tiny city-state harassed on all sides by foreign powers to a gigantic, sprawling Empire whose mere name provokes dread in your enemies and fawning in your allies. Everything that made the series famous is still in here, albeit a little diluted by the dire initial release.

The fact that I still, more than half a year after the release, feel the need to complain about it all so much does say something. But that’s gamers for you; everyone’s a critic. Until the developers find time to sit down with each of us individually and kiss our bleeding hearts better, we’ll moan.

The Winners Write History

Overall? It is an epic. Not their finest – that crown imperial is still joint held by Medieval 2 and Shogun 2 in my books. This is more like Empire, full of thoughtful design undermined by poor implementation and a very buggy release. The PR engine still runs amuck, hovering over the seething forum rage in full denial of anything ever having been amiss, and that rankles. It feels as though they’re so used to colossal success that they’re unwilling to concede they could have done better.

But for all that, it’s a game very worth playing. The longer you wait to buy it, the better value it will be as the price inevitably drops or gold collections come out. Just beware of buying from this developer again until you’ve seen reviews or played a demo of their next release, I’d say. They may deserve a reputation for excellence, but they aren’t above using it to hide some pretty rotten flaws.

Pros:

  • Excellent, detailed strategy game
  • Tons of replayability
  • Beautiful graphics and style
Cons:

  • Slow
  • DLC packs generally poor value for money
  • Littered with irritating bugs, even now

System Requirements

Minimum:
OS: XP/ Vista / Windows 7 / Windows 8
Processor:2 GHz Intel Dual Core processor / 2.6 GHz Intel Single Core processor
Memory:2GB RAM
Graphics:512 MB DirectX 9.0c compatible card (shader model 3, vertex texture fetch support).
DirectX®:9.0c
Hard Drive:35 GB HD space
Additional:Screen Resolution – 1024×768

Recommended:
OS:Windows 7 / Windows 8
Processor:2nd Generation Intel Core i5 processor (or greater)
Memory:4GB RAM
Graphics:1024 MB DirectX 11 compatible graphics card.
DirectX®:11
Hard Drive:35 GB HD space
Additional:Screen Resolution – 1920×1080

the author

Used to be a Doctor (Dr). Now is an actor (Ar), writer (Wr) and gamer (Gr), and would like to get all these abbreviations into general usage, because GrArWr is a much more interesting title to have on your bank card.

  • http://www.manapool.co.uk/author/lachrymosity/ Lachrymosity

    Hmm. For someone who’s never touched the Total War series (surprising for me, I know), could you recommend Rome 2 to me? Or would you say my time is better spent elsewhere, considering first impressions are rather important?

    • KrakenWakes

      I’d recommend it, as it’s a huge and accomplished game (especially now it’s patched). If you’ve never played a Total War, though, I think your time and money would both be better spent on Shogun 2, which also has a Gold edition with everything in it already. It’s a better, more streamlined game, just as beautiful as the new one, and has some rather interesting multiplayer features they sadly dropped in the new iteration.

      E-Tac, any opinion here? You’re a fan of the series, I believe?

      • http://www.manapool.co.uk/ Evil Tactician

        Yeah – I would say the following, knowing the series (plus Amber!) rather well:

        Shogun 2: You’ll like the setting, being Japan and all.

        But the setting is both a plus and the games biggest downfall, the combat or variation thereof is hugely lacking and the general atmosphere after playing it once is just lackluster. Whilst pretty / etc. I wouldn’t recommend the game. I’ve had nothing but trouble with the multiplayer of Shogun 2 either, especially the cooperative campaign and the campaign itself has one of the most dull and least inspiring objectives of any Total War game.

        I loved the new mechanics on general and agent skill trees, I didn’t like the variation of units at all and the map wasn’t very interesting strategically. I don’t know, I found it the least interesting Total War since a while, both in actual combat and the campaign.

        A pity as it brought some very interesting things to the series :(

        Rome: I haven’t played it, and will probably hold off until it’s cheap and cheerful and then play it (or attempt to play it) cooperatively. I have been burned too many times by Creative Assembly to consider buying any Total War within the first year after release ever again. They just don’t seem capable of releasing finished, polished games.

        • KrakenWakes

          Interesting!

          I’d agree to an extent on the variation issue. Because all the clans have access to the same units, it can get very samey. There was also a poor rotation of battlemaps that got tired fast.

          But there’s something appeallingly simplistic in it too, I found.

          Because of the way the tech tree and building tree works, you have to pick a few elite units to focus your army around. The rest is crap spearmen, which you can field in droves, but they aren’t much use.

          So a lot of the campaign strategy focuses on how you make the most of the tiny differences that you have. How do you make a functional army composition when you aren’t sure of your opponent’s choices? It’s tight, surprisingly intricate stuff.

          Rome has huge variation, by comparison, but then you know roughly what to expect from an enemy more. That helps you choose your armies in advance, plus you can recruit local mercenaries to plug holes.

          The Fall of the Samurai campaign was excellent, too – I’d strongly recommend that. Off-map battleship fire support? Chaingun vs samurai showdowns? Trains on the campaign map? Great stuff.

          • http://www.manapool.co.uk/ Evil Tactician

            I did like Shogun 2, I’ve got over a hundred hours clocked after all, but the campaign itself just didn’t do it for me. The sieges we’re largely speaking quite uninteresting compared to say, Medieval 2 or similar games. Even Empire in some ways was more interesting.

            The biggest problem for me was the map itself, after a while it felt more like a grind than something fun. It’s very hard to explain. I find Shogun 2 an incredibly good game in terms of mechanics but the setting and map as well as the objectives kind of ruined it. So they got the details right in that one (for once..) but it just wasn’t in the right setting for me.

          • Gary Thwaites

            I liked Shogun 2, but then again I am not as “Hardcore” than yourself on these types of games. Although my pick of Total War has and always will be the first Rome Total War. Just re-release that with a modern engine and I will be happy!