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Rome: Total War (2004)

April 28th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Ancients, Creative Assembly, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review

It’s hard to believe that Rome: Total War is almost four years old, let alone that the Total War series is not new anymore. Shogun: Total War debuted in 2000, was an instant hit, and Creative Assembly has never really paused since. Aside from a couple of ill-advised forays into action gaming (Spartan: Total Warrior and the recently released Viking: Battle for Asgard), CA has focused its efforts on making their crown jewel series shine.

You can divide the Total War games into three eras based on the engine used. The 2D Shogun and Medieval were followed by the 3D Rome and Medieval 2. Empire will use an even more advanced engine. But Rome did more than just introduce a new look to an already attractive game. It made some fundamental changes to the way the campaign played out, changes that made the series better in many significant ways.

Though I think that the traditional division of strategy games into RTS and TBS is pretty silly, there’s always a weird problem of definition with the Total War games. Many people want to stick them in the real time strategy box for some reason, even though it’s an awkward fit. The battles are real time, but that’s it. And those aren’t “strategy” as much as they are a mini war game that is derived from your actions on the campaign map. I would argue (in the face of people smarter than me) that the Total War games are primarily turn based. And, battle engine aside, almost every other improvement to the game you saw in Rome was focused on making the turn based campaign more interesting.

Take the map. All the games use provinces to divide the map, the first Total War generation used province movement, sort of like Risk or the EU games. Rome has a map with free movement through forests, roads and fields meaning 10,000 separate battlefields. Instead of remembering which provinces have river battles, you can plan to use rivers or mountain passes to block an enemy advance. Terrain isn’t something you work with just in the battles now, it is something you can plan for on the fly.

The “mission” system is probably the biggest step forward, though. The Roman factions (Julii, Scipii and Brutii. Ugh, by the way. Those should be Julii, Cornelli and Junii.) have to deal with a Senate that gives orders and rewards those who fulfill them promptly. The Senate’s whims could clash with your plans. You might not want to attack Macedonia yet. And maybe Sardinia just isn’t much of a priority for you. The rewards for completing the missions were often pretty good – elite units, cash – and the penalty for failure was usually just a stern warning. Most importantly, the missions served to direct your energies.

And of course, there were the character traits and retinue of followers. Introduced in Medieval, traits were taken to a new level in Rome, influencing just about every aspect of the game – likelihood for office, taxes raised, city unrest, fertility, and military competence. The level of personalization in the game made user created narrative much more compelling. I think every long time Rome player can tell you a story about that one general who could be counted on to turn the tide of battle, or the promising talent who slowly went mad after years of butchering civilians in the East.

Though the Caesar series has, over the long run, been more successful, Rome is probably more important in terms of both framing and reflecting how people think about ancient warfare. There was advance promotion in the form of the brilliant British historical game show Time Commanders. The 3D battles made for better than average teasers and trailers with elephants throwing legionnaires in the sky and onagers pummeling city walls. Few strategy games have been as well marketed to and well received by such a range of gamers.

Its popularity is one reason why its gross historical errors bother so many people. Ptolemaic Egypt is rendered a holdover from the Pyramid builders, scythed chariots notwithstanding. Wailing women, head throwers, war dogs and druids march beside warbands, principes and phalangites. Siege weapons become commonplace pieces of field artillery. Elephants and scythed chariots are the WMDs of the battlefield.

Like Age of Empires, Rome is a cartoon version of ancient history, and it is one that privileges variety of experience over historical fidelity. After the Seleucids and Carthaginians, how many pike, horse and elephant armies do you need? So make the Egyptians some sort of unholy marriage of Ramses and Stargate. How do we differentiate the Germans from the Gauls and Britons? Can we get some women in here?

But focusing on the things Rome gets wrong obscures the brilliance of the entire model. Yes, the battles move a little faster than they do in earlier Total War games, but that’s designed to get you back to the campaign map as quickly as possible. The variety in units and army composition means that you need to adjust tactics a bit and not just rely on massing your heavy infantry.

In many ways, the battle engine in Rome is the inverse of the wargame model in the Great Battles games. You can use historically appropriate tactics to win, but you don’t need to. This is partly because the AI is very weak. It will waste time deploying after a battle has started, will split its line of spearmen to hunt down isolate skirmishers and will send its general straight into the jaws of death. But it’s also because this game is not “that sort of game.” Remember in Gladiator when Russell Crowe led a cavalry charge through a dense German forest? That’s what kind of game this is. Wholly improbably and wholly engrossing. And much better than Gladiator.

But don’t let the historical errors overshadow the historical facts. You need to keep your phalangites in a straight line. You need to guard those flanks. The testudo gives you protection but you lose mobility. Roman heavy infantry could take down almost anything in a straight fight. There is certainly no shortage of bad lessons here, but there are good lessons, too. Rome is certainly not a great simulation of ancient warfare, no more than it is a great simulation of ancient politics.

The great weakness of all the Total War games has been the diplomatic model, and Rome‘s remains terrible. Good relations are difficult to keep up and, as if fully aware of how weak the AI is, you almost always have two enemies at once. “Total war” is an appropriate title since most wars end in near total conquest. If you want peace, you must first finish the war.

One issue I have with Rome: Total War is the end game. The Romans get a great end game – one faction gets too big for its britches and you need to fight it out for the rule of the Eternal City. No other faction gets anything as cool or even a Senate to challenge them to missions. That’s probably why you have to unlock the other factions (or edit a data file) in order to play them – the Romans are the star and they have all this stuff for you to see there. (Similarly, Medieval 2 starts with only the Catholic factions available. All the better to show off the Pope.) So while the non-Romans get some neat units, they don’t get any overarching goal beyond conquering 50 territories.

To Creative Assembly’s credit, they fixed this somewhat in the Barbarian Invasion expansion. Success for each faction was contingent on conquering specific territories. It wasn’t quite as compelling as crossing the Rubicon or the Nile or whatever river you had to cross to invade your former friends, but it was something.

Though it was the third Total War game, you can make a strong case that Rome is the most important strategy game to come out in the last five years. It married cutting edge graphics with some serious strategy wonkery and even if it had little real effect in bringing people to history, it undoubtedly brought people to the genre. Though the Total War series was certainly respected before Rome, it was this game that I think lifted the series into AAA+ territory, making CA a brand name in both design and technology.

For our purposes, it also had the effect of being on the leading edge of a raft of ancient themed games. By my (not entirely scientific) count, the five years from 2004-2008 have had twenty ancients games released, including expansions and sequels. That’s as many as were released in the entire decade from 1992 to 2003 – and a quarter of those were Impressions city builders. Thanks to Rome, the ancient world has become the second choice setting for historical strategy games, mind you a distant second choice to WW2.

On the negative side, Rome has set a very high mark for ancient games that follow it. You need to compete with either its spectacle or its variety, because if you try to compete in both you are going to get your ass kicked. Modders for Rome have tried to improve on it, but for my money have failed because they either get the pacing completely wrong (Rome Total Realism and its dozens of cities) or innovate in ways that highlight how weak the strategic AI is (Europa Barbarorum). Rome: Total War is not perfect, by any means, and some days I prefer the elegance and simplicity of Annals of Rome, but it has raised expectations for whatever comes next – both for better and worse.

On Wednesday, I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on the ancient theme in general, missteps along the way and what games tell us (and don’t tell us) about the ancient world.


17 Comments so far ↓

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  • JonathanStrange

    One of my favorite games of all time, Rome Total War comes very close to having everything I want: strategy, tactics, and Romans. A shame that its A.I. isn’t quite up to the challenge. Everybody talks about A.I. but no one – well, save Stardock – does anything about it.

  • Chris Nahr

    As I recall, Russell Crowe did not really charge through a forest but rather out of a forest where he had set up an ambush, and onto the open space where the battle was raging.

    Also, Roman cavalry at the time was no shock cavalry like cataphracts or medieval lance knights. They did not rely on a coordinated impact, so the forest would not have greatly reduced their fighting power. It’s not like horses can’t run around trees, after all. :)

  • Troy

    You’re absolutely right about Roman cavalry, Chris, but it doesn’t make emerging from a forest in the rear of an enemy that fights well in the woods any smarter. Even if you can run around trees, you can’t exactly use them for hit and run easily, especially in dense forest. Even when cavalry isn’t a shock arm, it still needs build up speed to be effective since mobility is your big asset.

    Plus, I really hate that movie.

  • Chris

    Completely agree with you about the mods Troy. It was a revelatory moment when I realised that Rome was aiming for Hollywood rather than realism, and that the battles were short for a purpose, so that the time time spent on them was balanced out with the time spent on the strategic map.

    My major problem with the Total War games is that after you tire of building a city to build an army to capture a city to build it up to build an army, you’re pretty much tired of the game. The strategic element is ultimately quite thin.

  • Troy

    I don’t think Rome‘s battles are necessarily aiming for Hollywood any more than they are aiming for history. They are aiming for something akin to an arcade game with a strong historical skin. And variety is necessary to keep things interesting.

    It would be nice if they were a little more open about it though. Ahistorical units are justified with the weakest of historical references alongside good summaries of the evolution of the legion or the cataphract.

    And I disagree that the strategic element is thin. The constant revolts from squalor or nationalism force you to massacre cities constantly – a real strategic weakness in the original game – but the constant need for reinforcement, to plan which cities you can hold and which you can build up quickly…all this is the very meat of strategy.

    That said, Medieval 2 did a better job by letting you build armies faster and giving you choices dependent on the type of settlement you seized.

  • Chris

    By the strategic element, I’m referring to the strategic map game as a whole. Whilst those decisions you referred to are there, there isn’t much more than combat – as you say in the original piece, it is total war. Compare this with 4x games, and it certainly is thin.

    It’s the tactical battles that differentiate it from them, but in my opinion, they’re not strong enough to stop it ultimately becoming quite repetitive quite quickly.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    The best part of RTW was when you got to the mid-game and discovered that the Romans fielded top secret elite units of ninjas.

    (They were called “Arcani”, of course, and there was some pseudohistorical mumbo jumbo to explain them. But look at the unit picture. They’re ninjas.)

  • shanicus

    Yeah, RTW was great. We seem to agree on that up to a point. I have to agree with Chris though, the strategy level was great… up to a point, when you realized that there wasn’t much to it except to build up a city for building an army, etc.

    I used to build some cities to make money and rarely razed cities except when absolutely necessary… enemy capitals unfortunately had to be razed every time.

    Medieval 2? I found it more repetitive than RTW. I guess that I just expected a bit more depth with the diplomacy. I quickly got tired of fighting all the time! And against 2 or 3 different faction groups per turn. It got tiresome, especially when conquering the Middle East.

    Oh, Jason L makes a great point about the Arcani, too. The Roman ninjas! They were great! Good comment!

  • Jimmy A. Brown

    I liked Rome, and Medieval 2 is good; but neither pleased me as much as the first Medieval. I was disappointed that M2 did not have titles to grant to your generals. I often play as the English, and the feature English unit, the billman, is frustratingly weak. It’s only good use is charging the flanks and then running for safety.

    I will admit that playing English in M2 was better in one respect: getting to the Holy Land is much easier on the non-Risk style map.

    The virtues and vices in M2 are also very difficult to work with compared to M1. It seems no matter what I do, I end up with a psychopath or an epicurean.

    While Rome and M2 did make improvements to the campaign, overall my experience of the game came up short compared to M1.

  • Hoo

    Love the early to mid game of RTW. Hate the later stages as it bogs down. I also love killing Romans in any game I play so playing the Gauls and Carthage was much more fun than playing the Romans.

    But after a while, the AI just becomes painful to play against. How many times can you see an enemy army retreat across the battlefield without engaging you and letting your cavalry massacre them as they obliging march in single file? OTOH, it’s fun when you’re holding onto a city against hordes of legions or other folks.

  • Xerxes

    I have conquered the map with all Roman families and am just finishing the same with the Parthians.

    There is no greater joy than bunching up 20 units of Parthian Horse Archers on open terrain and letting them loose on anything in their way. Completely incongruous, but what fun!

    Am about to try the Carthaginians on the hardest level…

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  • Jesper

    Can anyone tell me how I can change the playingtime in Rome – Total War? I know the place where i can change start date and end date! But can you change the count, so its only takes 1/4 of a year instead of 1/2?

  • Troy

    You’re better off asking on the Total War forums. I have no idea.