Rome Total War

Rome: Total War Review – 2004

Secundus Julii sat upon his mount, surveying the distant army with some trepidation.  It was not a pleasant situation for the young man to be in at just 19 years of age.  He was not entirely without battle experience since he had fought alongside his father, Gaius Julii when besieging the town of Ravenna only 12 months previously.  But Gaius and his huge military command had left the town recently to seek out fresh areas ripe for conquest, leaving Secundus in charge of defending and overseeing the development of Roman tradition in Ravenna.  The problem was that Gaius had little expected any trouble to befall such a small and unimportant town, and had left a paltry guard of 14 mounted cavalry to accompany Secundus.  Now the situation was looking increasingly grave as barbarians had just laid siege to the town, boasting an equal number of cavalry, but with an additional battalion of light infantry.

The future and security of Ravenna and its Rome Total Warinhabitants lay solely in the hands of Secundus, and he shifted uncomfortably in his saddle as he reflected upon this, unaccustomed to such responsibility.  He tried hard to recall all the academic military training he had received in Rome during his rebellious teenage years, wishing desperately he had listened more closely to the old battle-hardened commander who had taught him.  Though relatively inexperienced, he was aware that his loyal men looked to him for guidance, and would obey his commands, whether to victory or death.  He had to be strong, show courage, give off the air of a confident commander, even though inside he was trembling uncontrollably.

The aggressors stood their ground, waiting in ominous silence for Secundus to make the first move.  The young man uttered a small, fervent prayer to Jupiter through clenched teeth, and then turned to his men, who were looking at him expectantly.  “Men of Rome!!”, he roared, in a strong and assured voice that surprised even himself.  The stirring oration that followed spoke proudly of Rome, the might of the Roman army, and the worthiness of their cause.  The words seemed not to originate with himself, but as though some mighty warrior was channelling a speech through him.  But the men soaked up every word of it.  They responded unanimously with an almighty war cry and clashed their swords on their shields, their lust for battle re-ignited by the rousing and inspiring words of their leader.  Secundus smiled grimly to himself.  Morale was high; the time to act was now.

He proudly turned and set a steady canter toward the imposing army, cutting a striking figure against the setting sun, his men following closely behind.  The barbarian army waited even now, holding ground at the order of their general.  Then, with a sudden motion from the opposing commander, the infantry division charged towards Secundus and his men, their bestial screams sending a chill through his veins.  Secundus wavered, his confidence dramatically lowered as the gravity of his situation struck home.  His actions over the next few minutes could mean life or death to every man under his control.  As suddenly as it had melted, his resolve returned, even more powerful than before, as a stroke of pure genius flashed through his racing mind.

“Charge!!”, he roared fiercely, a steel glint in his eye, and he spurred his horse into a furious gallop towards the advancing infantry.  As the two armies of charging warriors were about to collide, Secundus veered off to the side, leading his men right around the scurrying mob.  The enemy infantry turned in bewilderment, only to see the young Roman general charging towards their leader and his remaining cavalry division.  Secundus’ adversary faltered, unhinged by the unorthodox actions of this determined young man.  Before he could stutter out a command, the Roman cavalry had dashed into his, the momentum of their rush taking a heavy toll against his men.

Within seconds, Secundus himself had slain the barbarian leader, and his men battled easily against the enemy cavalry who were still taken aback by the shock and speed of the attack.  As comprehension filtered back into the infantry, they rushed back to try and counter-attack, but they were too late.  Before they had even crossed half the distance, every one of their cavalry regiment had been slaughtered by Secundus and his eager men.  Now Secundus charged the disorderly infantry who were not nearly so confident now their leader and cavalry had been slain, and he took advantage of their disunity to trample them down beneath the hooves of his men.  The remaining survivors sensed their imminent defeat and panicked, fleeing in all directions.  They were easy prey for the Secundus’ horse-mounted soldiers though, and every last attacker was finally pitched into the mud.

Secundus surveyed the battlefield proudly.  His strategic finesse had granted him victory against an army over twice his number, and yet with only two casualties from his band of 14 men.  Rome would be abuzz with the news of his glorious triumph, and he could just imagine the relief and awe of his father and family.  Not only that, but he had rewarded the trust shown by his men, earning their respect and admiration, which was a vital ingredient to success as his father had often told him.  Secundus led his men slowly back into the town, allowing his relief to turn into a heady elation as a cheering crowd applauded his heroic return.

An early lesson you learn while playing Rome: Total War is that victory comes at a price.  A major battle that leaves you with even half your men intact is viewed as a great success.  But you will always know it was your decisions that furnished the outcome, and the fantastic freedom and virtually limitless battle strategies really let you fashion your own fate rather than accepting that the strongest army will necessarily win.  Grasping, and even forming your own battle tactics is profoundly satisfying, and can lead to the kind of conflict mentioned above, where military prowess outclasses weight of numbers quite pointedly.

The most obvious influencing factor in determining the result of a battle is ostensibly the size of the armies.  But a true veteran will realise that numbers weigh in with far less importance than the multitude of other factors involved.  It is perfectly possible for an effectively led army to decimate an army of double the strength or more, but only under the right leadership.  If you indiscriminately chuck everything at your enemy with abandon, you’re going to create a lot of widows.

The beauty of R:TW is that virtually all the boundaries that restrict you on other similar strategy games have been removed.  You wage war as you want, not how the game would like to dictate to you.  There are no specifically right or wrong paths, just victory or defeat; the method you use to get there is up to you and you alone.

The main focus of the game is the giant campaign, which allows you to choose a faction to control and work to attain dominance throughout the mammoth campaign map, which encompasses pretty much all of Europe.  Once you have finished that, there are still plenty of historical set-pieces to play through from either side, a quick-battle generator, and also a decent multiplayer option.

The campaign is played out in a turn-based game style, very similar to that of Civ III.  You build up your armies, build up cities, conquer more cities, and so on, using the allotted movement and expenditure points for each turn.  However, there is a remarkable amount of detail concerning the management of your expanding metropolis, more than enough to keep stat fans busy and plenty to keep you occupied between battles.  Whether you build public attractions to please the populace, establish trade routes to generate income, or just train mountains of troops to fuel your army, everything can be individually controlled and maintained.

This element of the game is fun to play, but where R:TW really takes things to a new level is on the battlefield.  Upon starting a battle or siege of a town, both armies will line up on their relevant sides of the combat zone and you have carte blanche to organise your troops as you see fit, using the individual strengths and weaknesses of all your units to craft your own cunning battle plan.  Every unit available to you has obviously been meticulously researched, and with just a few clicks you can bring up a hugely detailed profile on any warrior you want.  This translates into a game of almost uncompromised battlefield realism.  Words do little justice to the breathtaking splendour of watching two converging armies becoming embroiled in a bitter massacre of epic proportions.

Every unit is powerful if used in the right way.  The cavalry are devastatingly effective at demolishing infantry and missile units, with a fierce charge usually annihilating up to half the enemy number through impact and trampling alone.  But send them to meet long spear-equipped units such as hoplites, and they will fall quicker than a lead balloon.  Use archers from afar to rain death on the enemy troops, and cause a fair bit of damage.  But if any rival units get up close and personal, then your archers will put up as much of a fight as a wet tissue.

That is why a good battlefield commander will never let his troops have their weaknesses exploited.  He will send appropriate units for every occasion, and defend the weaker warriors with more capable ones.  But even this does not really constitute tactics.  Tactics are brought into play when you make manoeuvres to entirely outwit the enemy with minor losses to yourself.

Hide some heavy cavalry in a nearby wood for instance, and then when your main forces engage the enemy, sweep down in a devastating flank attack.  Or you could send some weaker mounted units to draw the attention of a few enemy divisions, and then lead them straight into a well-laid trap.  Or even a simple dual approach, where you charge the enemy from both sides, locking them eternally within a deadly wall of warriors.  Due to the freeform nature of the game, you will be able to design and implement your own awe-inspiring tactics, and the handy replay function allows you to save your moments of genius and glory for proud presentation to your peers.

However, battles dynamically alter when the time comes to undertake the sieging of a city, and this requires a whole new set of tactics.  There are two ways to assault a city.  Firstly, you could use an onager or similar to break down the main gates, facilitating access to the enemy.  Alternatively, you could storm the walls or ramparts with siege towers and ladders, allowing your men to scramble up and over.  Or try them both together to begin a frantic but effective attack on the settlement.

And sieges aren’t the only battle variation you will come across, as there are potentially limitless battle maps to fight on.  Wherever you are on the giant campaign map, if you start a battle, you will quite literally fight on a drastically zoomed-in version of where it was initiated.  All surrounding terrain and scenery will be present, including bridges, forests and hills, all of which add additional strategic options for the perspicacious general.

Naturally, to make the battles truly impressive you need sizzling graphics, and by Jupiter this game has them in abundance.  R:TW is a huge graphical accomplishment, presenting gorgeous visuals as well as some of the best animation I have ever seen in a strategy game.  Just the way every single troop moves and acts individually, not in rhythm or synchronisation with the rest of his comrades.  The way a poor peasant will be sent flying some distance in a cavalry charge, his redundant weapon spiralling lazily after him.  Or zoom right into the action with the flexible camera, and notice the soldiers straining to pull back the levers on the siege weapons.  All is just about flawless, giving a tangibly genuine battlefield atmosphere.

One of the most commendable points of R:TW is its consummate adaptability.  Don’t fancy managing all those arduous stats, and manual army and settlement development?  Just click the auto-manage button and your silicon subordinates will gladly take on the task themselves.  Don’t fancy dirtying your royal sandals with that nasty battlefield mud?  Just clicking a button will auto-resolve any skirmish, leaving you free to focus on more pressing matters.  Whatever style takes your fancy, Rome will adapt to you.

This game is so huge I could ramble on about it all day.  But I won’t.  Instead I’ll just mention the few little points that bothered me.  Firstly, although the 3D camera allows any view from any angle, it is extremely cumbersome to wield, making navigation almost a chore.  The AI is generally pretty sound, and shows some moments of divine inspiration, particularly on the higher difficulty levels, but just on the odd occasion it does perform ridiculously cretinous deeds.  Sea battles are included, but unfortunately the outcome is always automatically determined, and you have no influence over the matter at all.  These are but miniscule pinpricks in the vast gleaming game that is Rome: Total War, and don’t degrade the overall experience to a point that stops it from achieving that revered maximum score.

A new breed of superlative is needed to even begin describing how truly revolutionary and fantastic this game really is.  Medieval was a strategic masterpiece, but the superiority of Rome makes Medieval look positively crude.  Creative Assembly have exceeded all our expectations with this title, and simultaneously blown all the opposition into virtual oblivion.  Rome: Total War is a true chef-d’oeuvre, and deserves the attention of all gamers, not just strategy aficionados.  Donning sandals has never felt so good!