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Total War: Rome 2 Review

13 Sep 2013  by   Peter Parrish
Game Details
Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: SEGA
Reviewed on: PC

Which just leaves the issues that have arisen from the features and changes introduced with Rome 2.

Let’s start with the new user interface, which gives the impression of being streamlined, while simultaneously managing to hide or obscure a great deal of useful information.

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I didn’t complete that mission, actually. The game just thinks I did for some reason.

It took me forever, for example, to learn what actual function basic attributes like zeal, authority and cunning had. Zeal makes you more of a battlefield badass, authority extends the general’s zone of control on the battlefield and cunning reduces special ability cool-downs, but I still have no idea where I eventually found that out. Tech trees are either squeezed into a tiny box or, in the case of a general’s ability tree, not even present at all. For that one you need to fire up the separate encyclopedia, memorise the tree, then return to the general to make your actual choice. Intuitive, it is not.

Aspects like the internal faction system are barely explained at all, which isn’t too helpful when getting it wrong brings the risk of a dangerous civil war. It’s clear enough that Republican factions need to maintain a power balance between ‘families,’ and Monarchies need to assert their dominance, but the actual mechanics of political intrigue for achieving those goals are rather muddled. Taking actions against the opposing faction costs me court nobles, which in turn reduces my influence, so … how do I benefit from doing that, again?

The family tree aspect of previous Total War titles has also been removed, which is a bit of a loss as it used to add dynastic character to your progress through the game. Minor bonuses provided by a surfeit of ‘retinue’ cards are a poor substitute, and the lack of mini-cinematics robs this edition’s agents (spies, dignitaries and champions) of much of their flavour.

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The cinematic unit camera is a gimmicky but welcome addition.

Prior to release, much was made of Total War: Rome 2‘s transparent new diplomacy system, which would show you precisely why a rival faction was prepared or unprepared to make deals with you. It’s presented in much the same way as a tooltip from Europa Universalis, with plus and minus points based on your recent actions leading to an overall “how friendly are we feeling towards you” score.

A neat idea, but unfortunately it seems to be functioning in a fairly haphazard way at present. When it works, you can cleverly negotiate a military alliance or non-aggression pact to secure a weak border while you pursue campaigns elsewhere. When it’s misbehaving, you’ll find a faction that you’ve almost obliterated attempting to broker a peace deal in which you pay them large sums of gold. Err … no thanks, chaps.

It doesn’t help that the “balance of power” bars that are supposed to give you an idea what kind of bargaining position you’re in appear to be bugged. They’ll show up correctly as you browse the faction list, but seem to default back to 50/50 as soon as you engage someone in conversation. The question is, are the bars simply displaying incorrectly or is the balance really defaulting back to its starting position? It’s impossible to say, but some of the auto-resolve “relative army strength” bars for Rome 2‘s battles seem to suffer from the same problem, displaying values that can’t possibly be correct.

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You don’t even have any settlements left! Just accept my bloody peace offer!

When Tim McDonald and I ventured into the co-op multiplayer campaign, the AI turn times went from arduous to absurd. It got so ridiculous that we were forced to alleviate our boredom by comparing the insignia of the Namnetes to the face of Arrested Development’s Tobias Funke (see for yourself) and laughing at the AI’s further attempts to extort money from us in return for trade access. Turgid turns aside, co-op functioned pretty reliably, although other people have been reporting regular ‘desyncing’ issues which lock the game up entirely.

Tactical battles offered the option for units to be ‘gifted’ to the co-op partner (regardless of whether an army of theirs was anywhere nearby,) which meant they could actually be true co-operative exercises. As the Iceni, I took the opportunity to go and set Wales on fire, while Tim’s Averni besieged … somewhere in central-ish Europe.

We also set up a quick skirmish battle to settle the ultimate question of the age: whether rampaging African war elephants or packs of savage tribal dogs would win in a fight. The result may surprise and astonish! (It’s dogs.)

Sadly, the Avatar mode that was present in Shogun 2 has been completely removed for Rome 2, so if you were a fan of that you’ll have to content yourself with basic co-op (or competitive) campaigns and one-off battles. Quite why Creative Assembly has ditched it is something of a mystery, but may be yet another example of needing to get the game out of the door in a hurry.

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Yes, moments later we were drawing dicks all over the map.

The glimmer of good news is that Total War: Rome 2 is not irreparably broken, and does still have a fair amount going for it. Like previous series entries, it’s capable of portraying the great spectacle of history-writ-large in a way few other games manage. There remains something thrilling about a pair of three thousand-strong forces clashing on the desert plains, spurred on by the motivating words of their generals. Every now and again, Rome 2 offers up just such a battle, where last minute reinforcements save the day with a late charge, after plucky garrison forces have held out against superior numbers and are moments away from crumbling.

The new system of uniting separate regions under the umbrella of a province (and applying all modifiers across that province,) actually works well. As does the supporting economic system, once you grasp that it’s best to have one center of military excellence bolstered by several other settlements doing farming and feel-good activities to balance the happiness, public order and squalor ratings. Even here though, some of the upper tier building values seem in need of tweaking (at times there appears to be no benefit to upgrading, say, a farm, as the overall food gain isn’t worth it,) and the UI likes to hide what buildings are available to you on newly activated land until after you activate it. Not ideal, as if it turns out you can’t afford the buildings on offer the new land will auto-convert to unhelpful slums (for … some reason) on the next turn.

Unit variety, at least, is the best it has been since Medieval 2, with Egyptian charioteers rubbing shoulders with woad-covered tribesmen, elephants and Greek hoplites. If Rome itself isn’t for you, there should be another faction here to catch your interest.

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Sadly, even these larger and more interesting battles tend to be over in about five minutes.

But none of this can outweigh or excuse the state Total War: Rome 2 has launched in. There seems to be something fundamentally flawed in the relationship between publisher and developer, which has led to a near-repeat of the Empire debacle. Creative Assembly is making the right noises about accepting the title’s faults and committing to a regular patching schedule (even if it does take several months,) but it’s astonishing and saddening that the developer has found itself in this position yet again.

A spectrum of technical problems, AI that ceases to function under certain campaign/battle conditions, and a UI that sometimes does its inadvertent best to conceal important information about new features of the game that may not even be working as intended are all huge flashing signs that Total War: Rome 2 was rushed to release. Anybody who purchased on (or prior) to release has every right to be appalled; especially in light of the obnoxious bragging about vastly increased budgets and record pre-order sales.

My minor role in this sorry affair is to rate the game based on the condition it’s in when I played it. So here’s your score, SEGA: you’ve earned it.

4/10
In six months time Rome 2 could be a decent game. At present, it’s in desperate need of a lengthy patching schedule to shore up the walls against a barbarian horde of troubles.
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