Can Rome conquer all once more and can Caesar have his salad and eat it? You might just find out in our Total War: Rome 2 review, or at least for the first bit.
Published on Sep 2, 2013
Sometimes a single component in a game is so expertly crafted and burns so brightly, all other pieces barely entertain at all. Wilting at the very thought of having to compare themselves side-by-side, these are both the best and worst things about Total War: Rome 2.
It's easy to forget just how seminal the first gap-year jaunt to Rome was, a game which saw hyperbole thrown around like the decapitated heads of a thousand feckless Gauls. And rightly so, in just under 9 years its legacy has become almost unfathomable, and perhaps unparalleled. The level of care and precision poured into the seemingly insignificant was mystifying, the pounding heart at the centre of Total War.
Befitting it is that a game about man's most influential empire has left a similar crater on the strategy genre, sprawling to all corners of the so-called civilized world.
Other games of influence have left similar legacies, be it your Half-Lifes or Bioshocks, but in a genre much more about mechanics than frivolous story, much of which still lay in Rome's wake to this day, why on earth would you dare to try and better it?
Total War: Rome 2 - Attention To Detail
For Creative Assembly, detail is Caesar.
Aside from petty particulars like soldier rank or class, there's an individually to every single person on the battlefield. The unit camera affords an intimacy previously unknown to Total War, should you wish to get up close and personal.
Soldiers actively respond to the shifting battle and fortunes of their respective tribes, emotions etched into the faces. Before a battle generals can be heard rallying their men, beating their weapons together and each baying for blood, or roaring triumphantly next to a mound of crumpled Spartan, every cry and wail is unique to each warrior.
In the thick of war itself there's a welcome claustrophobia, closely tracking a wedge of cavalry into the flanks of flimsy skirmishers, to be suddenly engulfed by concealed pikemen.
Being so close to the ground gives the action a new-found fluidity, especially when line-of-sight comes into play, for the first time in Total War, and scores of armoured elephant cavalry suddenly stampede into view over the brow of a hill.
Every one of them feels like they live and breathe, avoiding and destroying obstacles like, swarming and marching like bearded ants. It sounds like it should be a given in this day and age, but on a scale as grand as this. Even with thousands of infantry on screen at once, there's a sore desire to make you believe these aren't just fields of man-like machines programmed for battle. Each surface and object, man or otherwise, feels solid and permanent.
Never is this more satisfying when two opposing forces plunge blade first into one another, the crunch of bone and the clatter of armour has never felt this fantastically palpable. The aftermath is almost as good as the battle itself, weary hoplites cursing the names of fallen Samnites, each corpse remains where its previous inhabitant fell, crudely marking out the history of the fight just gone with a grizzly, cackling detail.
Total War: Rome 2 - The Calm Before The Storm
Not everything in Total War: Rome 2 is laden with such chaos, an equal amount of pleasure can be gleamed from the calm just before.
There's a satisfying amount of crossover between Football Manager and Total War, as strange as it sounds. The plains of what we now call Germany might bear some resemblance to The Hawthorns or Wembley, but tactical nuance is where these two cross paths.
Forge a battalion of battle-hardy legionaries and slug your way through the more fleet-footed, or perch up in the treetops and become an ambushing, devouring force of nature.
That choice is yours to make and the battlefield is your sandbox in which to do so. Self-organisation and discipline is enforced through trial-and-error, banding headlong into battle with the default formations will have forces running for the hills in no time.
The game wants to know this, but only once you earn the right. Selecting individual units to target others is always preferable, but mid-battle this makes for much stop-and-start if you want to gain a true advantage, occasionally breaking the sweet flow of bloodshed with constant pausing and unpausing.
Purists won't care for this one bit, plumping for battle realism mode where everything must happen in real time.
Total War: Rome 2 - Balance Is Key
Balance is certainly key, and mastering the subtleties of each takes much time and patience, before you can even approach military perfection.
It's more complex than simply rock-papers-scissors-elephants, any unit can overcome another with a deft touch and intelligent approach. Cavalry are particularly dastardly, easily bogged down in the mire of battle they can become almost instantly eradicated.
That's not to say they're underpowered or fiddly, just don't expect to canter through foot-soldiers like a hot hoof through butter.
Part of this learning curve can be attributed to the fox-like enemies, even with phasers only set to stun. Their behaviour is barely distinguishable from that of a human, except for when deciding to battle in the first place, perhaps, but what would a Roman war campaign be without a handful of serfs trying to take on entire legions.
Ill-witted barbarians approaching your walled city, outnumbered two-to-one, but they don't just hammer on the door expecting an immediate surrender. They skirt past, nestling in foliage, exchanging glancing potshots with the men on the wall.
Sending a single suicidal unit to toss a handful of firey spears at the wooden gate, shrouding it in flame and slowly crumbling it into ash. The rest of the army wait, then charge straight through, a more intelligent tactic than most humans might devise.
They fail, inevitably, but they fail impressively competently.
Total War: Rome 2 - 'Does Its Grand Legacy Proud'
There's a creeping sensation that this is less a game about the Romans and more about they time period in which they were relevant. Aside from the prologue, which feels like the jumping-off point for a solo-journey charting Roman historical exploits from start to finish.
Most of the game is simply left up to you who to fight as, Rome has more varied unites, compromises are limited regardless of whom you choose. This approach matches the sandbox nature of the game, but leaves those less interested in micromanagement, or with a penchant for history wanting for something else.
Individual historical or custom battles are an option, but without a driving force forward they won't entertain for long in isolation.
The interface may be slick, but shortcuts for construction, technology research or unit-management are limited with much of the leg-work having to be done manually.
Micromanagement itself has its inherent charms, balancing economic, social and military matters within a vast Kingdom can be fun, but becomes frequently tedious whilst waiting for battle to ensue.
The battlefield is so vast, varied and so delicately crafted that as good as the politics and surrounding society building may be, you're left constantly bloodthirsty, relishing further battle.
Maybe that's the point, as a Germanic peoples there's nothing more you'd like to do than slash open the rib cage of those ostentations Romans, with their feathery plumes and uncomfortably short armour-dresses. The draw and the thrill of battle is so great, and so well-defined that why would you want to do anything else?
The surrounding architecture is certainly necessary, a serious of isolated battles would feel fragmented and without a sense of purpose, and it's much more comprehensive than a mere necessary evil.
Total War: Rome 2 isn't as genre-defining as its kin, but that was never its aim.
A comprehensive reworking that does its grand legacy proud, bringing it up to the date in blistering fashion and polishing it for a new generation is all Creative Assembly could ask for, and it's precisely what they've done.
Version Tested: PC
8.0 / 10
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9.5 / 10
With a sumptuous attention to detail, life on the battlefield could be one of the most rewarding experiences you're ever likely to have.