Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: CDV Software
Release Date: October 15, 2007
Games that claim to be historically accurate and I have a problem. Being a history buff, I have issues with titles claiming to actually depict events when they are often just inaccurate interpretations (i.e., the Medal of Honor series). So you can imagine my sweaty-palmed historical eagerness to try a game endorsed by The History Channel, Great Battles of Rome. Unfortunately, this is about as far removed from the actual workings of a battle in Roman times as you can get without introducing aliens.
The basic concept seems to be a botched clone of the Total War series, and this is where the issues begin, since Rome Total War set the benchmark for pretty much all RTS games over the last few years. Copying and improving upon this idea takes a lot of courage and excellent design. When held up to the light, the cracks in GBoR's veneer become apparent.
Essentially, you guide a general through some poignant battles in Roman history, from the tribal stages of ancient Italy to the unification of the empire. There are a number of units to choose from, and they all look like actual soldiers from Roman times, with the small exception that as your army grows, the armor and weapons for old units do not change, whereas new units are unlocked and look different as time moves on and Rome grows.
There is some variation in the armies you can use, with the Gauls and Latin tribes being playable factions. However, when held up to the many different armies and units available in the Total War series, this is a pretty severe limitation to the longevity of gameplay. You can customize your army with different colors of armor that is designed to differentiate your troops, but in practice, it feels more like playing with toy soldiers.
You can also upgrade your squad's abilities and statistics, and this is where GBoR becomes a bit schizophrenic. One minute, you're buying new units and balancing your forces, and the next thing you know, the game ambles into RPG territory and confuses everything. It's a nice touch and adds a bit of variety to the Rome Total War formula, but it feels like unnecessary padding of an otherwise shallow, short game. By the time I had unlocked some of the later status upgrades, I wouldn't have been too surprised if my foot soldiers started casting magical spells.
The battles themselves are poor copies of the Total War engine; they're clunky and lack the same dynamic action or scale of its spiritual forefather. You choose where to place your units at the start of every round, but instead of a close-up view of each unit and the ability to mold each unit's formation to suit a finely tuned battle strategy, you get to loosely place single representations of units around the starting grid. You then have to plan out your battle strategy by telling your units how to move before the battle starts, but since you can already see what formation and units your adversary is using, this is usually incredibly easy. When the battle actually commences, the units play out whatever strategies you've set for them, but just holding your units back is often enough to win a battle by drawing your enemy away from their defenses.
You are also given a commander unit that you can use to issue orders to your army, but each order drains mana, or "order points," and so only a limited number of orders can be given to your army at any one time before it can recharge. Being able to direct troops instantly and shift formations to keep up with your opponents has been one of the staples of RTS games for as long as I can remember, so this feels like a significant step back and ultimately makes the battles move at a snail's pace. I'm not sure how historically accurate it is for one unit of soldiers to be standing there playing with their swords while their companions mere meters away are being maimed by incoming cavalry just because you don't have enough "order points" to tell them to get off their backsides and help.
The RPG elements make an unwelcome return in the combat stage as well in the form of Final Fantasy-style numbers that appear above people's heads when they get damaged. When the troops number in the hundreds, the plethora of numbers can become quite overwhelming.
In addition to tacking on needless RPG functions, GBoR also removes a few expected and essential real-time strategy elements. There is no city management, which is a little bewildering since you're meant to be "building Rome." Ironically, the experience is much shorter, too, so you can quite literally build Rome in a day. As well as doing away with the ability to command armies on the ground, you cannot change their formation, and all the battles look and feel far smaller than the Total War experience. You cannot even engage in little skirmishes against the computer, which is the mainstay of any RTS' replayability, and as such, it is a one-time only affair.
Even the weak online play is glitchy, and you'll be lucky to find anybody with whom to play. The control system has none of the ease of use of the standard PC RTS, and it feels like it has been dumbed down several levels for those who buy console RTS titles.
Graphically, GBoR takes a flying leap back a few generations to the bad old days of the PS2 and simply does not look like it has kept up with the times. The character models are blocky and jagged, and they move as if they're being blown along by the wind. The textures are bland and repetitive, and you can only tell sides apart by peering really closely or if you outfit all of your troops in fluorescent orange. The lack of detail in the levels is a stark contrast to Rome Total War, and GBoR's insistence on drawing comparisons between the two games only makes these faults more noticeable. This is an outdated-looking game; if it had predated Rome Total War, then the faults could perhaps be overlooked. The FMVs between campaigns use footage from The History Channel to tell the story of Rome, but it comes across as yet another botched attempt at fusing education and entertainment.
The audio is slightly better, with deep bass and fast-paced music when the battle might actually reach jogging speed to add some atmosphere to the occasion. The commentary by the narrator during films is also nicely done, although he sounds a little too much like the movie trailer guy at times. Somehow, it makes the limited historical jargon seem more believable and easy to swallow. Where the audio fails is the lack of background noises; there are no footsteps as the soldiers walk, no birds singing in the air and for some inexplicable reason, all of the soldiers speak Latin. This may be some belated attempt to inject historical realism into the title, but it comes across as confusing and altogether useless to the gamer. When you issue an order and they respond, it would be nice to know what they're saying. With the historical inaccuracies in the title, I don't think it would have killed the developers to have the speech be in a modern language.
The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome isn't a particularly good game, and it isn't particularly educational, either; its value lies more in the hope that there are historically minded RTS gamers out there who have yet to hear of Rome Total War. The gameplay is poorly ported from a console to the PC, which seems like the wrong way to do things. The decision of Slitherine to include RPG elements on a game of this scale is perplexing. Games like StarCraft can integrate it well into their systems because they're less about amassing huge armies, but in a pitched battle, it just doesn't work. The only demographic for which Great Battles of Rome could be a good fit is people who have an appreciation for the time period but need a slow introduction to the RTS genre.
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