Rome: Total War Review

Lets head to Rome for Total War!

Review by Dave Shaw
Published 15th March 2005

Rome: Total War

  • Developer: The Creative Assembly
  • Publisher: Activision
  • Release Date: 7th October 2004

This game may well be the end of men dressing up and pretending to fight each other in fields, as we know it. Why bother to recreate ancient warfare in what the uninformed call ‘the great outdoors’, returning with the experiences of just one soldier, when you can step into the shoes of a Roman General, command thousands of men with the authority of your right index finger and become familiar with the nature of international relations and the structure of civilisation in the year 250BC, all in the comfort of your own bedroom? Why bother, too, with all that nonsense if the more comfortable experience is as utterly intuitive as Rome: Total War?

This is a game that bends over backwards to make newcomers and skilled veterans most welcome. In that respect, the game’s epic manual is misleading. By the end of the opening tutorial battle you will be fully aware of not only the control basics, but a number of fundamental tactical principles of warfare, thanks to your Centurion guide. Unlike some strategy titles, Rome: Total War does not seek to drown its player in a wealth of unnecessary knowledge; hints are delivered at exactly the point they are needed. Being drip-fed information in this way proves not only incredibly useful (and an aid to memory), but also helps to draw you into the experience as a whole, as the barrier between ‘playing’ and ‘learning’ is cleverly blurred. After slaying your first opponent, it is time to move on...

The alternate half of the game plays itself out on a map of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and is turn-based. Again, though, a wise guide is on hand to take you through the ins-and-out of civilisation management. Happily, after being supplied with the most commonplace functions (which bear a useful resemblance to those used on the battlefield) you are left largely to your own devices; there is no grating repetition. Though the turn-based element may take an hour or so to fully reveal itself, the experience is an enjoyable one. Soon enough, you’ll long for the challenge of the Imperial Campaign.

As may already be obvious, in purchasing Rome: Total War, you actually acquire two separate games – the turn-based challenge on offer would stand pretty successfully as a simulation of ancient civilisation management even if battles were automatically resolved. The (slightly) greater part of your time will be spent in this mode. Here, you must choose between three factions within Roman society, and start capturing your enemies’ land, with a view to eventually marching into Rome and staking your claim for the position of Imperator of the Roman Empire. Initially, you are allied with the other two Roman factions, occasionally your allies join you in battle, however civil war will ensure that in the end only one faction remains.

The element that carries the gameplay forward is the Roman Senate, that will constantly set your particular faction missions, to be completed within a certain number of turns, an example would be to blockade a port with your ships, or to capture a certain settlement. Blockading a port is a simple matter of selecting one of your fleet then right-clicking on the dock but taking a settlement, well, that’s where the resource management side comes in.

There exists a hierarchical table of buildings that can be constructed within any of your settlements, each improved level of building bringing a better calibre of soldier, of various types, that can be trained within it. At the beginning, you can only train local peasants, who have a sizeable yellow streak running through them. Later on more specialised units can be recruited, such as cavalry units, which appear after the construction of stables (after spending a few turns, and Denarii, to train them up, of course). When you have assembled your army thusly, simply selecting their icons at the bottom of the screen and dragging them onto the map will move them out of the settlement. Right-clicking again will see your newly-formed army besieging your target settlement (that will be able to hold out for a certain number of turns based upon how much food it has stored in its walls). Of course, when the settlement falls you have the choice of enslaving the populace, occupying the city, or having a good old-fashioned massacre, each of which have their financial consequences. You can then, of course, tax the settlement to keep the coffers flowing. An alternative to all this nasty bloodshed is to train diplomats, who are also unlocked by certain kinds of construction, to travel to your rival civilisations and broker deals with them. Furthermore, training spies to enter target settlements raises the possibility of them opening up the gates for you upon arrival. Or you can just pick a fight with an army just for the fun of it. In other words, there’s always something to do, whether it’s a senate mission, defending your territory or improving your popularity rating amongst your people by installing mod-cons such as sewers and baths.

Just to emphasise the point, Rome: Total War’s uniformity of control system design is particularly helpful. Any sort of attack, whilst on the gloriously-depicted three-dimensional battlefield, or on the map screen, is performed by highlighting a unit, then right-clicking the target. Such simplicity is very refreshing.

There are just a few, small problems with the turn-taking element to the game, and they run thusly: why can you not rearrange the icons that represent units into any other order than that in which they were created? Also, the maximum number of units in an army (though huge) seems pretty arbitrary (or perhaps based upon the load the graphics engine could handle). If I am the commander of the mighty Roman army, I want tens of thousands of soldiers to die in my noble cause! These complaints don’t really affect the balance of play, however. Indeed, my second complaint would probably result in a ridiculous imbalance, so more fool me.

Moving on to the battles themselves, the first thing you notice is their incredibly grand scale. The Creative Assembly have really excelled themselves in creating such a massive, detailed play area with no graphical errors whatsoever. In the face of such awe, the control system might be presumed overwhelming, but this is not true at all. The game can be paused at any time, and units can be selected using the same shortcuts you might select multiple files with in Windows. Alternatively, they can be selected by dragging a box out then, again, right-clicking to attack and target an enemy unit. As you encounter each new battle scenario (for example the first time you encounter an enemy defending a hill) your guide will pop up to detail possible tactical approaches. Thus the game never makes you feel lost, either from a control or tactical perspective; the player is never overwhelmed, even though I’ve barely scratched the surface of how deep this game is.

Rome: Total War flies in the face of some other strategy titles insofar as every battle seems to be decided with a realistic level of luck. For example, if one of your soldiers is lucky enough to spear one of your opponents through the chest, the game doesn’t simply remove 50 health points from their score. Surprise surprise, they die. Of course, most spears miss, as would naturally occur, allowing some of the blighters to wriggle free. Little touches such as this contrast with the grand scale on which you normally survey proceedings in order to make you feel as if every kill is the result of a similarly realistic calculation.

Of course, there are a number of cool extra functions to certain weapons. For example, arrows can be set on fire to cause more damage, with the drawback of them being less accurate. Crucially, such added extras are selected from an intuitive area of the bar that remains resident at the base of the screen.

I suppose the most telling thing about this game is the way that it draws you in, making you ponder every turn-based move, knowing it will affect the outcome of each battle with each enemy army that takes offence to you. Layers stack upon layers that stack upon layers. You find yourself starting play, then realising three hours have flown by in a joyous ecstasy of ancient international relations. And yes, I have been waiting all my life to use that sentence.

A final telling factor in my glowing review of this title breaks the ultimate barrier, as I suggest that it will convert even those who detest the genre to which it belongs. I should know - I used to be one of those people.

Review Score: 9.6/10

Please note, this review was scored using our old system. For more information please see our review policy.

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