Creating an epic strategy game, like running a sprawling empire, is no easy task. There’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, and in both cases when things get too big to handle a level of collapse is almost inevitable. It’s ironic, then, that as The Creative Assembly makes its second stab at Roman history, it makes its own first stumble.
Rome II, sadly, is just not as good as we might have hoped.
The Glory of [your faction here]!
On paper, Rome II has a lot going for it. It’s without doubt one of the biggest Total Wars to date (outdone only by the similarly maligned Empire, which I happened to love), delivering not only the most detailed Europe we’ve yet seen, but also more factions – both playable and AI. There are more units types, including three different kinds of agents, there’s more detail in the way you manage the internals of your faction, and there are more diplomatic options than ever before.
The playable factions are the typically larger cultural affiliations, such as the bigger Celtic tribes and of course easy-mode monsters like Rome. Within each faction are smaller familial or political groupings, too, so there’s a fair bit of variety in starting choice, and each comes with its own inherent difficulty level. Rome, for instance, is well-placed for a good strong start, but Carthage begins on the back foot. Then you’ve got the Celts in Britain, island-bound and far from the economic powerhouse of the Mediterranean.
The choices are rich enough that I was quite paralysed by who to go with – normally, Rome would be a no-brainer, and while I did end up playing Rome, it was by no means the normal foregone conclusion.
But that’s when the game gets... odd.
Total War games are a slow, deliberate affair, or at least they have been up to now. Creative Assembly seems to have turned the dial up to 11 for Rome II – everything’s just that little bit faster. You can march further, units move quicker on the tactical map, and when two armies actually clash the whole thing can be over in minutes. It’s relatively easy to start building up to maximum size forces, too; and that still seems an ability that the game’s AI distinctly lacks.
The game’s key draw, the tactical battles that simulate thousands of soldiers stabbing each other in the face, still look amazing, and the detail in map design is impressive. It’s hard not to feel a bit of awe when you see a horde of plebs rushing through a town market, knocking over stands and small buildings as they panic after a cavalry charge, but catching those moments of epic combat are almost impossible, thanks to the fast pace. Units tend to show up – the new true line of sight is good, but badly utilised – form up, then charge, with little pre-amble, and either you break or they do, and that’s it.
One of the true pleasures of previous games was fighting the perfect defensive battle, by picking the best ground and then holding on for dear life, in battles that could go on for an hour. But fights just don’t last long enough in Rome II.
I come to slow down Caesar, not to bury him
On the other hand, strategic turns can take an age. This has always been a bit of an issue for Total War games, especially if you want to track the movements of empires and neighbours around you, but Rome II takes the cake. The fast tactical combat and massive move distances make for quick player turns. Even worse, the greater detail and control you get with pure AI controlled battles, and the AI’s habit of attacking piecemeal, means you can mostly avoid proper tactical fights. You might have only a handful of proper battles in a hundred turns.
So, those turns go fast, and the AI turns drag on forever. Each tiny, one-province faction makes the process last way too long, in some cases five times longer than your actual player turns. Total War has always been a game of waiting, but this really is ridiculous.
When you are in control, and not off making a cup of coffee or hand-grinding ice for another scotch, you have to contend with some terrible pathfinding. One of the very welcome new things the game offers is that land units supply their own transports to cross seas and oceans. That’s great, but if you just assume you can click on a destination and your army will know what to do, you’ll be sadly disappointed. In one instance I wanted an army to cross from an island off the coast to the African mainland, and it decided to instead cross the Mediterranean in the other direction, and march all around the Med to get to Africa – via Gibraltar, no less.
It’s easy enough to stop, but I’ve just not seen pathfinding that dim in any Total War game before.
There are other issues, like muddy and awkward faction politics, but these flaws are even more apparent because the game can be good – it just keeps pulling the rug out from under you. But CA has promised a series of weekly patches to get the game up to speed. That being the case, the best advice for Total War fans is to wait, or get into some of the excellent mods on offer.
Out of the box Rome 2 is just disappointing.