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Total War: Rome II Review – Et tu, Gameplay?

He looks grumpy; he has every right to be.
Rome II box art. Courtesy Wikimedia

This is the note I left on the dining room table as I hauled my suitcase out the door, tears streaming down my cheeks, while Total War (or T.W. as she likes to be called) slept fitfully in the other room, likely caught up in another P.R. nightmare or suffering through another ‘stomach’ bug.

Dear Total War,

We’ve laughed and frolicked  and slaughtered through the good times, and stood by each other through the bad times, even as a full stack marched against our puny palisade with nary a garrison to repel them. Sure, our relationship hasn’t been perfect, but we always worked through it and we became stronger together. You taught me things I never knew existed and opened my eyes to a realm of unlimited potential. I stood by you through all your phases, even that strange “Empire” fad (I did get used to it after a while). That was always part of your charm, that quirky nature.

I still remember those long nights, me staring beatifically into the glow of your monitor, you whirring and processing the deaths of thousands of tiny pixelated men, whispering sweet nothings into my ear, like the horrified screams of executed prisoners of war, the burning of cities, and the women of my crushed foes issuing forth agonized lamentations. I loved you.

And now I’m leaving you.

I don’t recognize you anymore, ever since you started this whole “Rome II” thing. It’s like you’re someone else. A shadow of who you once were. I remember seeing you for the first time. You were wearing that gorgeous low-res Medieval armor I always loved. Now? I don’t even know.

I feel like perhaps Creative Assembly has pushed you too much to be someone you’re not. Maybe Sega is stressing you with the idea of that new promotion to consoles. Whatever it is, it’s affected our relationship. It’s like you don’t even know how to behave anymore, what with the strange AI you’ve been exhibiting and the lack of features you once had. I can’t even get through to you. I’ve been to the forums where you like to hang out, but the moderators there won’t let me see you.

Just remember, it’s not me, it’s you. Call me if you patch yourself together again.

Best regards,

Your Former Long-time Fan

All kidding aside, I am rather depressed. I’ve been with this series for quite a while now and sunk hundreds of hours (and dollars) into it with no regret. I was anticipating Rome II ever since it was announced. I marveled at the pre-Alpha build that was showcased, eagerly anticipated updates, and rejoiced when I heard it was going to be released September 3, 2013, which was much earlier than I expected.

Turns out it probably shouldn’t have been released that day. It seemed early for a reason.

I pre-ordered, like many others. I was seduced by the glamour, tricked by the hype, fooled by the advertising into thinking I was getting the latest and greatest Total War ever created. What I got was a paid beta.

Where to begin?

I suppose I should start by saying, I’m not going to address the technical bugs, the graphical issues, or gameplay glitches. These are expected. These can be patched. These don’t belong in a review.

No, what really sours me to this game is the fact that it lacks certain features that are expected in a Total War title and includes others that are antithetical to the spirit of the series. Let’s have a run down, shall we?

  • The family tree. This is absolutely essential. The family tree acts as both an immersive RPG element and as a vital organizational mechanic. I have no investment or interest in my rulers and generals because they have no character and because the relationships between each character, such that they are, are not just unclear, but wholly unknown. Do I have sons and daughters? Is my new leader at all related to my old one?
  • Political system, or lack thereof. I remember previews showing a faction screen that had some sort of political capital that could be spent on intrigue. I don’t know where it went, but it sure as hell isn’t in my copy of the game. In fact, the internal political system seems to be absent entirely. There’s some percentage rating about ruling class support and some characters sorted into various factions, and I can assassinate and defame other characters, but there is nothing to inform me if any of it matters. Currently, it doesn’t. It’s one-dimensional and pathetic.
  • Capture the flag. This mechanic is the death of tactical combat. I’ve lost field engagements because I couldn’t go stand on the arbitrarily placed flag quickly enough. I’ve seen the AI funnel its army into a choke point guarded by my units in a mad attempt to stand on the flag.
  • Poor unit cohesion. BLOBS. Another aspect that is killing tactical combat. My units won’t hold formation. I’m not talking about my barbarian horde either, but my Roman legionaries and Macedonian phalanxes. The very strength of these units were their discipline and formation, yet they break up as soon as the engagement starts to have mano y mano fights. Ridiculous.
  • Battle are over too fast. Yet another tactical combat killer. Battles typically last 3 to 5 minutes in my experience. Units run too quickly, units kill too quickly, and units rout too quickly.
  • Tactical battles just suck. This is a major problem. The series is called Total War. The core of the game is war and wars are fought in a series of tactical engagements. The core of Rome II, therefore, is currently broken.
  • Obfuscated UI. What is going on? Why did that happen? How does this work? Questions that kept coming up as I played. It’s like they designed the UI to hide information.
  • Pointless navies. Why have a navy when you can just embark an army? Their transport ships are as strong as any dedicated naval unit. It boggles my mind. There are unit stats. All it would have taken is to lower the combat effectiveness of these ships.

I feel like Julius Caesar getting stabbed left and right in the senate. So much betrayal and confusion. There’s more and I won’t even get into the advertising deception, which I do believe existed. Suffice it to say, the cards are stacked against Rome II.

To be fair, the game has some new features that are a step in a good direction and that showcase smart design decisions, but these new features are so bogged down under the weight of poor AI and glitches, and diluted by the aforementioned poor design choices, that it is hard to appreciate them. If the game is salvaged through patching and downloads, I can see myself enjoying such things as battlefield line of sight, the province system, the strategy overview, combined land and naval battles, and army traits, all of which are nice additions. The cinematic view is also a nice touch, though it obviously has no bearing on gameplay and is difficult to enjoy because of the quick battles.

The biggest indicator that this game is not working is the fact that I’m not interested in playing it. I forced myself to sit through approximately 24 hours of play. Forced. That was just so I could write a competent review. I don’t have any compulsion to boot it up and conquer the world. That compulsion was always present in past titles. All of them.

I’m not going to rate the game for what it could be, but rather for what it is: a disappointment. Change my mind Creative Assembly. Get Total War back on track so that I may reconcile myself with one of my all time favorite series. I’m not part of the casual crowd. I’m a veteran, a repeat customer. I’m what matters and you’ve alienated me. Bear in mind, it pains me to admit this.

THE VERDICT

4 out of 10

If you’re one of the few who didn’t pre-order, you’re in good shape. Don’t bother until they fix it, if they even can. For the rest of us? Not much we can do but cross our fingers. Older Total War titles are still fun to play, and we’ve got Civilization as well. That’s where I’ll be waiting for Rome II to get its shit together.

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3 Comments

  1. Ben says:

    Well written, I’m in the same boat and am saddened.

  2. Paul says:

    SO refreshing to read, as you put it, a “competent review”. I totally agree with every word, but even if I didn’t, I would have to admit that I couldn’t possibly have articulated it better.

    Also, I was laughing my ass off at that break-up letter!

  3. Chris Never to be emporer of rome :( says:

    it was long winded but had to be said…. even though its being repeated all over the forum of TW. I agree with you and am unfortunately in your position…. pre-order and all :( sigh…..

Give it to me straight.

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