With some games, it can be best to give a tumultuous launch some time to settle down before reviewing it. Total War: Rome II launched in September as a buggy mess that was plagued with significant issues. At the time, those who picked up the game would've had to wait patiently for patches. The good news is that given Creative Assembly's track record, the game will be patched to nearly everyone's expectation, but it simply isn't there yet.
Rome II follows Shogun 2 in the Total War series, and there are numerous aspects that have made the transition. The game operates in a very familiar manner, despite how seemingly every facet has been changed in some regard. In many ways, the game either addresses issues with the previous game or expands the gameplay. One big change is that stacks of units must now be led by either a general (for armies) or an admiral (for fleets), and you can only have a certain number of each. At the outset, you can only field three generals and two admirals at a time, and as your faction's influence increases, this number does as well.
This has numerous effects on the gameplay, which can be good or bad depending on your taste. On the one hand, this prevents the player from making numerous smaller stacks of armies to cover a wider swath of land, or to equally protect a number of cities along a frontline. On the other hand, this makes the positioning and maneuvering of armies much more important, as you may have to protect an entire region with one army. This then feeds into more importance on using your agents (champions, dignitaries and spies) to scout out the location of these armies For example, spies can attempt to intercept the orders of an army to reveal the location of another enemy army, wherever it is.
This also puts further emphasis on diplomacy. Waging war through the mainland areas of the world map can be essentially impossible if you're at war with every neighbor. Striking up decent talks to keep them peaceful — or temporarily at bay — can be critical so you can continue carving out swaths of Europe. The world map is much larger, covering a good chunk of Europe, the northern coastal countries of Africa, and nearly to the Indian subcontinent. The larger land mass also means there are more starting factions, and progressing is going to agitate a number of them. This adds importance to diplomacy, so you can shield your flanks from hostile actions.
One downside to the unit stack change is that they cannot split off from the general to move to another stack unless the two stacks are next to one another. If you need to send a few units back to a city to better defend it, your only option is to move the entire army there to make the swap. Additionally, units cannot stay in the city unless a general stays, so it is no longer possible to leave a token force in a city to defend it, as it was in Shogun 2.
However, this isn't really a bad thing, thanks to some other changes. In the previous game, city garrisons were a laughably ineffectual against any significant threat, whereas in Rome II, the built-in garrison of some cities can rival a full stack of units. This is mostly due to the types of buildings in a city, as many add units to the standing city garrison. Obviously, military buildings have the biggest impact on the number of garrisoned units and their overall quality, but it also depends on a building's upgrades. Smaller cities can often fend off smaller threats on their own, and the bigger cities can hold their own against armies that would cut huge swaths of territory out of the previous game's map. While your army count is significantly limited, it's not as if you need to use armies to defend your cities.
The way that land masses are broken up has also changed. While there is still one city per territory, these territories combine to form provinces, which contain two to four territories. One of the territories contains the provincial capital city, which can be larger. Basic cities have four building slots, whereas capital cities have six or eight. One of these is always used as a main building, but you can use the rest however you'd like. There are a variety of building types, but compared to the previous game, they also have more impact on the city/province. Instead of affecting wealth or happiness, many buildings also influence the city garrison, faction research rate, or give a bonus to other buildings in the city. For instance, a Cattle Pen building has synergy with a Cattle Market, increasing the wealth that the former generates in addition to the normal bonuses.
Combat hasn't seen massive changes, though there are some interesting alterations. Armies are no longer reliant upon fleets to traverse deep water on the overworld map; instead, they can simply spawn into troop ships on a coastal shore. This also allows units at sea to reinforce battles on the shore if they are close enough. Finally, the battles can be composed of a mix of land and sea units, such as troop ships that are still making their way to shore to support their comrades.
Units still gain experience in combat — assuming they survive — but the army also levels up in the same way. This allows for all units in the army to gain benefits, such as having heightened offensive or defensive ability or other perks. Generals gain experience in the same way, but their abilities are now tied directly to their stats. Every time a general gains a level, his stats can be improved, and at certain levels, a new ability is unlocked. It makes the general units more personalized than they were in the previous game.
Rome II has suffered a rocky launch, and even now, some issues remain. Many of the biggest crash issues have been addressed, as have many of the causes of multiplayer desynchronization. Other issues remain, including performance bugs that plague the game. The biggest offender is the AI, which seems about as skilled in the art of war as a brick wall. On the normal difficulty level, the AI is a pushover, and at higher difficulty levels, it becomes slightly more competent but is still prone to boneheaded mistakes.
With every patch, the game gets better, and that's good because there is a lot of game to experience. The title still features both cooperative and competitive play, which don't differ much from the previous iteration. Right now, the multiplayer is probably the best way to experience Rome II, given the issues with the AI. At the very least, playing the game cooperatively feels like you're kicking it while it's down, and playing competitively offers a far more challenging experience than the campaign mode can offer.
It's really for the best that our Total War: Rome II review was provided now as opposed to closer to the game's original release date. At that time, the title was an absolute wreck, with virtually every mode plagued with issues. Now, between the patches and the ones on the way, there is a glimmer of hope that Rome II will become what it ultimately should be. The game is far less polished than Shogun 2, and a few more patches will help, but Rome II is still a flawed game that is underwhelming when compared to previous titles in the franchise.
Reviewed on: Intel i5 2500k, 8gb RAM, nVidia GTX 660 Ti
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