After Medieval: Total War and Shogun: Total War left gamers wanting more with what was a promising series with plenty of potential, The Creative Assembly decided to go back in time, back to what was the known world in the regions of Europe and Africa where the superpowers of Rome, Greece and Egypt ruled the lands. This addition to the series is dubbed Rome: Total War, and is four years in the making. Have The Creative Assembly spent their time wisely, or will Rome: Total War drift away into the land of lost strategy games?
As usual, the included game modes consist of skirmish style offline battles, a campaign mode and multiplayer gaming. Multiplayer allows up to 8 players over LAN and Internet connections, including the ability to play out historic battles, whilst the campaign mode is the premier offline mode and perhaps the premier attraction to the entire game as this is where most time will probably be spent.
The campaign mode is where gamers will experience the impressive structure of Rome: Total War, combining turn based gameplay with RTS gameplay. This is not by any means the first game to combine turn based with RTS (Rise of Nations as a recent example), however never before has it been so brilliantly executed. Most of your progression towards a successful empire will be done on the campaign map, where you manage settlements, build and move armies, set spies on enemies, and conduct diplomacy missions with neighbouring empires. Unlike many previous similar games, fighting a battle or discussing terms of an agreement isn't as simple as opening a game window, you will have to actually send your units to desired location and depending on the distance, this could take more than a few turns.
As your towns progress so will the troops and equipment they produce. Better local services such as blacksmiths will enhance the effectiveness of soldiers, whilst building archery ranges and stables etc will naturally unlock various extra unit types for you to wage war with. The amount of total units is quite impressive, including unique units for each available race, and each unit type has its role in battle. For example, soldiers equipped with spears will be effective against incoming enemies including cavalry, whilst archers and other missile units will be effective behind the front line attacking from a distance. It is your job to make sure you have the right stuff for the job on hand for any given situation, and I can assure you this is much more challenging than it sounds.
One rather serious issue found in the town management however is the state of your population. Smaller towns are easy to manage, but once you start getting towards 20,000 and 30,000 residents, the problems just start to pile up. One of these problems is the "squalor". Residents won't be happy if they live in squalor, which can usually be solved with sewerage and public bathing facilities however for some reason no matter what you build, the bigger settlements suffer from extreme degrees of squalor which has a huge negative effect on the public order, sometimes to the point of rioting and rebellion. When you have multiple big cities suffering from this same issue, the problem just becomes more time consuming and frustrating leaving very little time for conquering regions. I suspect this could be a bug that may be addressed in a patch, because if it is by design I don't see many people finishing campaign mode with their sanity intact.
Whilst most of the progression is done on the turn based campaign map, the crucial turning points of an empire are to be determined on the real-time battlegrounds, and this is where Rome: Total War really shines. As you prepare your mind for battle taking in famous quotes on the loading screen, the game shifts into RTS mode with real visual 3D representation of the units you sent into battle a few moments before on the campaign map. After a few encouraging words from your general/commander, you are given the option to place your units in position and then, finally, bring the pain, real-time style!
Most of your battles to begin with will be attack missions, where as the computer AI will be defending their settlement. Attacking is probably harder than defending, it is your job to penetrate the walls (if any) of your opponent without serious unit loss, and then exterminate the enemy, and even the most successful attack mission will probably end up with a few casualties - with arrow towers and boiling water drops at the gates, a few of your men are bound to fall. That's not to say attacking doesn't have its fun side though, available for offensives are battering rams, catapults, siege towers, ladders and even war elephants, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Whatever methods you use to attack the walls of the enemy, sooner or later you're bound to make it across and the real battle commences. This is also about the same point where you sit back in awe of just how amazing this game is.
Battles can go up to 10,000 units, but even the much smaller initial battles will send most strategy gaming fans into a frenzy of excitement . Not only do you have to develop and execute a strategy with your available units, you will have to do this in an evolving manner as this is real-time battle in its best form. Do you attack with your heavy infantry and ambush the unsuspecting suckers with your cavalry, or do you play it safe and react to their offensive? Do you take the flanks and corner their ground troops, or do you force them back with your catapult bombardments? Or maybe you just sit there clicking blindly and wing it? Every decision is yours, and every decision will have an influence. This is perhaps one of the few RTS games where numbers are not king, a superior battle strategy will defeat an army of much greater size, in fact if anything, a much greater number of units will simply complicate matters.
The RTS mode is not without its problems though. At times it can become quite hard to get a response out of your units. What seems to happen is since a single selectable unit usually consists of around 80 soldiers at full force, sometimes members of any given unit can get lost in the thick of the battle, so giving commands to this unit will produce undesirable results, usually in the sense they won't do anything at all. The path finding is the most exposed from this issue, if an infantry unit is spread out with some inside and some outside a wall for example, and you order them to a certain location, some may end up stuck running into the wall and it is hard to set them loose since actual individual soldiers are not selectable, just the entire unit.
On top of this, when you are able to control units there is very little in the way or formation control. Unit placement is a very important factor when concerning the outcome of a battle, however placement goes hand-in-hand with formation and unfortunately Rome: Total War lacks any effective formations beyond the basic "group" formation. Granted, you can order a unit to spread out incase of missile fire, however wedges, slants etc are seemingly nonexistent. This is a bit of a disappointment as many successful battles from thousands of years ago can be contributed towards effective formations, very few battles from the likes of the Romans and the Greeks were unorganised in this manner. When it comes down to it though, nothing can take away the pure excellence of Rome: Total War's RTS gameplay, the battles in this game are simply unmatched.
With the sheer quantity of supported in-game units, obviously the level of visual detail for each individual unit is not going to be overly impressive, however when the game is viewed with the default camera view (which will be more often than not), the visuals are actually quite decent whilst not taxing the system as much as you would expect for such a large scale game. In fact, the visual detail isn't bad at all really - moving armies will produce clouds of dust in their trail, walls and siege weapons will crumble under attack, and the bodies will pile up as you move forward (or backwards) in your efforts. Don't expect eye popping visuals, but don't expect to be disappointed either.
Rome: Total War is just what this series needed for it to go down in the books as one of the best of all time. Combining a powerful turn based engine for the management, and an insanely enjoyable RTS engine for the battles, Activision and The Creative Assembly have produced what could easily be the best strategy game of 2004. With the few issues aside, the gameplay is almost never ending, but it is also quite challenging and involved, so it isn't for everyone, but even if you have an ounce of strategy gaming in you, you will love Rome: Total War.