I had high expectations for Total War: Rome II. Shogun 2 is one of my favorite games of the recent years, and its second expansion Fall of the Samurai made it even better!
Total War is one of the few game franchises that has managed to keep itself outside of the grasp of the casual-gaming market, and has time after time provided some of the deepest, and most engaging strategy games available. But it was only a matter of time before Sega and Creative Assembly began to treat their flagship franchise as a mainstream release rather than a niche title, and they chose to begin with Rome II. The result is a series of questionable changes to the way the game is played, a dumbing-down of the overall interface, a gutting of features, and a host of bugs and balance issues in a game that feels more like a paid-for beta than a full release.
Creative Assembly has been tweaking the game with patches every one or two weeks since release trying to bring the game up to par, so it's in a state of constant flux as major balance tweaks, mechanic changes, and even new feature sets are being introduced. As such, I don't feel it's appropriate to fully review the game quite yet, and I will treat the release version more like a public (paid for) beta. Hopefully, the game will see marked improvement, and it will not end up like disastrous SimCity "reboot". I also wrote an impressions post about that game, but never got around to a full review because the game never became worth playing.
More or less control...
Amphibious invasions help to integrate your naval operations with general conquest, and adds a sense of scale to coastal battlefields.
The most immediately noticeable area in which depth and control have been lost is in the interface. I'm not going to complain too much about the campaign interface, since it still has most of the information that you would expect. Provinces are divided up into regions, and each region contains a settlement, but the province interface allows you to manage all the settlements in the province. This is a little bit of streamlining that makes sense. You don't have to manually click on every little settlement in order to give build orders or view public order. The only downside is that this system has minimized the role of resources. You don't build specific structures on improvements (such as mines or pastures). Instead, this is all apparently handled by the cities, which would be fine, except that now enemy armies can't pillage your resources directly. Instead, a more abstract "raid" order has been tacked on to armies that lets them automatically pillage resources in the province.
The place where the game has really suffered from a minimized interface is in the battles. A lot of the formation controls have been removed (such as the ability to rotate units or adjust their rank and file), and so deploying and moving your armies can be much less orderly and much more of a pain in the ass.
War has changed
There have been several significant changes to the game that dramatically alter the way that you fight wars on both land and sea.
Armies just aren't what they used to be
Probably the most significant change (from an overall campaign gameplay standpoint) is that all units must now be attached to a general (or admiral for navies), and the number of generals that you can have in the field at any given time is limited by your current senatorial influence level. This was apparently done in an attempt to minimize the amount of unit micromanagement. Generals now recruit units while in your territory, which automatically appear in the army the following turn. If you need more troops to continue an invasion, you can also immediately hire mercenaries to fill your ranks (if there are mercenaries available to hire). You don't have to build units in cities and then march them to the front lines. This makes invasions easier, but you don't have to worry about controlling supply lines anymore. And if you do need to build a reinforcing army, you have to build a general to go with them, or march an existing general back in order to recruit the units.
The need for defensive armies has also been mitigated by the inclusion of large city garrisons. This means that you don't have to keep armies at home in order to defend your empire from invasion, but since the enemies also have large garrisons, you'll usually be stuck needing two or three of your [limited] armies in order to capture capitals, since they will be very heavily reinforced by garrison troops.
Mercenaries can be recruited and used immediately, even while in enemy territory, but they cost a lot of maintenance.
I understand why these changes were made, but I don't really like them.
I do like the mercenary concept. They are cheap to hire, but cost very high maintenance, which makes them useful when you need a quick boost to manpower. But you need to disband them after you use them or else they become a huge drain on your treasury. But not being able to build stand-alone units is a pain, and the mercenaries don't fill that need. A lot of times, I can't hire mercenaries anyway, so in order to bring in reinforcements, I need to march a general all the way back to friendly territory. And if the general needs a unit that only a single province has the ability to train, then he needs to march all the way back to that province. Huge pain in the ass!
The battles themselves aren't really all that much better than campaign management. The intro prep speech cutscenes are replaced with a short and simple in-game voice over, and units seem designed to route very quickly so that battles will take less time. Massive battles with tens of thousands of soldiers are routinely over within several minutes because overmatched units flee within seconds of being engaged. Oh, and if you're sieging a city with a wall, make sure you take the time to build siege engines (ladders and battering rams), since grappling hooks apparently haven't been invented yet. So if you don't have a ladder to climb the wall or a ram to break down the gate, it is impossible to get into the city!
Randomized character advancement
An equally irritating feature of armies and generals is the new trait system. Much like Shogun 2, generals can earn experience that you can use to give them valuable upgrades. The interface for this has been significantly screwed up, since there is no visible upgrade tree like there was in Shogun 2, so you don't know which abilities are going to unlock new upgrades.
In addition, characters will gain random traits that will have wildy varying effects. Characters seem to gain new traits every turn, regardless of what they are doing, and these traits can sometimes completely undo your planned upgrade path by assigning penalties that completely offset or negate the upgrades that you've given them! There was a similar mechanic in Shogun 2, but it wasn't nearly as annoying. That game's pace was slower, so traits were earned much more gradually, and they were usually based on long-term actions taken by the character. Park the general in a city for several years, and he may get lazy or complacent. Send him on a rapid spree of successful conquests over the course of several seasons, and he may instill his soldiers with courage. The traits that you gained made sense and added flavor to the game. In Rome II, they just feel so arbitrary and rushed. I'm not sure if they are based off of the general's actions, but if they are, they can only be taking one or two turns into account. So leaving a general camped in a city for just one turn may result in a permanent debuff! Total bullshit!
Don't even bother with naval engagements
Naval engagements seem to be completely broken. The emphasis of naval combat is now on ramming enemy ships in order to break their hull and sink them. Boarding and capturing enemy ships is still part of the strategy, but it's much more difficult this time around.
Unfortunately, naval battles seem to be completely broken! Units don't follow orders, don't stay in formation, have trouble with pathfinding, and seem to intentionally expose their flanks to the enemy in order to be rammed and sunk. Maybe I'm just missing something about how naval battles work, but they seem completely unplayable.
The focus on ramming and boarding highlights problems with ship pathfinding and A.I.
I don't even bother playing them; I just autoresolve. Unfortunately, even the autoresolve is crap. The autoresolve seems to use raw manpower as an overwhelming determinant for success. This means that an embarked land army on a bunch of makeshift transports can easily overwhelm and decimate a fleet of trained sailors and marines on dedicated warships. Absolutely unacceptable!
Land armies can embark onto sea without the need for dedicated transport vessels (similar to Civilization V). I don't have a problem with this mechanic as a concept, but it's very poorly implemented in this game. It doesn't take any time (and consumes very little movement) for a land unit or army to embark. Since the map has been scaled out so much, this means that it's very easy for an army to escape onto the sea. An army in Rome II can march from the east coast of Italy to the west coast, embark, and sail halfway out into the Mediterranean in a single turn. So if you're pursuing an enemy army, and they embark onto the sea, you will most likely lose them, since embarked units move faster than when on land. It would be much better (in my opinion), if an army needed to stop for a turn at the coast and set up camp in order to build its transports before being able to embark. It seems kind of overkill that an army has to spend a whole year of game time in order to embark, but these sorts of things are the inherent cost of trying to make a game with as wide a breadth as Rome II has.
Scale versus granularity
Scale is a big problem for Rome II right now. The devs wanted the game to cover a very large amount of time and a huge amount of land. The campaign begins a little after 300 B.C., and lasts till the fall of Rome around 4 or 500 A.D. (I think). That's a lot of history to cover! As such, every turn on the campaign is a full year. In addition, the map covers all of Europe and the Middle East, Northern Africa (Carthage and Egypt), and parts of the Near East (ends near the western border of India). So individual provinces cover large swaths of land (entire countries sometimes), and armies can travel across entire nations in a single turn. It's not as bad as Empire's campaign map, but it just doesn't feel comfortable.
The campaign map covers a large area, but feels small and cramped.
Part of what made Shogun 2 so exceptional (in my mind) was the scale of the map and the scope of the game. Putting the focus exclusively on feudal Japan (China and Korea were not part of the map) meant that the map could have a much greater level of granularity. On top of that, the shorter time span meant that turns represented seasons instead of years, so you had to think about seasonal weather (snow and rain) when deciding when to invade an enemy's land, army movement wasn't as ridiculous, and characters had much greater usefulness and longevity. It all felt so much more comfortable and manageable, and Japan felt like this huge, intimidating empire. Rome II's Europe feels rushed and small by comparison.
Where's the senate? Where's the intrigue? Where's the character?
Pre-release videos and interviews also promised much more fleshed-out diplomacy, intrigue, and a dynamic Roman Senate. None of these features have made it into the game (yet). Hooray for broken promises!
Diplomacy is about the same as what was in Empire and Shogun 2, except that you can't buy and sell land (as in Empire), nor can you exchange family members as hostages (as in Shogun 2). So diplomacy feels simple and dull compared to those games. The A.I.s are also strangely passive. Aside from an apparent scripted declaration of war from Carthage, the A.I.s seem completely unwilling to start wars with the player, and even when they're at war, they are very reluctant to invade and conquer land (Carthage's boats just love to sail around in circles not doing anything).
Speaking of family, the family tree from Shogun 2 is gone. The only characters in the game are your own generals, admirals, and agents. There are no faction leader characters, or rival family characters that you have to deal with.
Political intrigue feels very arbitrary and are not organic or dynamic in any way.
The Senate is also a joke!
Every now and then, a random event will pop up and you'll be given a few choices on how to deal with it. But these events aren't given any context or flavor, and the outcome of the decision is completely random (and so your decision, ultimately, is arbitrary). I am reminded very much of the non-combat missions from the Indie Steam game F.T.L.: in that they're a total crap shoot!
One very positive change, however, is the inclusion of alternative victory conditions. Instead of requiring a military victory in which you conquer a majority of the provinces in the game, there are two other paths to victory: economic and cultural. Economic victories require the player to build up trade relations, horde money, and acquire resources. The cultural victory involves completing the tech tree and building multiple Wonders of the World. This adds flexibility to how you approach the game, and opens up more strategic options! On top of that, the campaign map does include some nice aesthetic features. Cities will actually grow as you develop them, and you can see every structure that you build within them, which does add a lot of flavor to the game's campaign.
Feels like we bought a beta
A glitch prevents armies from invading cities that are already blockaded by navies.
Much like with the initial release of Civilization V, Rome II feels very much like the consumers were sold a paid-for beta. There are huge, glaring issues with gameplay as well as significant bugs and performance issues. For example, encountering rain in a tactical battle will reduce the frame rate to about 1fps. One of the most annoying bugs that I encountered was an issue that prevents a land army from attacking a city that is blockaded by an ally's navy. In one of my campaigns, I could not complete an early-game objective an unify Italy because one of my war allies navies blockaded the harbor of Ariminum, which prevented my armies from invading the city. This better be a bug, because if this is operating "by design", then there is something seriously wrong with Creative Assembly's design teams.
Some other issues that I've read reports of but not observed directly:
- Elephant units are supposedly invincible and can single-handedly wipe out entire armies.
- Units will run around in circles instead of engaging a nearby enemy.
- A.I.s will fill their cities with high-level buildings that cause unhappiness from squalor, then get overrun by rebels and eliminated from the game. I did capture Carthage at one point because all their cities were under the control of rebels, but I didn't know why that had happened at the time.
- Numerous multiplayer bugs, such as the game going out of sync during A.I. turns, making it impossible to progress in the campaign.
There is a bit of a silver lining: as I said above, the release of Rome II reminds me a lot of Civilization V. Well, as bad as that game was at release, it received exceptional post-release support by Firaxis, who listened very closely to player feedback on their forums! Within a year of it's release, Civ V was a much better game than it was at release, and the recent Brave New World expansion has made that game every bit as good as its predecessors.
Creative Assembly has been releasing major patches every week or two since the game's release, as well as taking a great deal of feedback from players. So with time and a little bit of luck, Rome II might be brought up to a level of quality that Total War fans expect. It might take the better part of a year before it gets there, though; and even then, I doubt the game will match the greatness of Shogun 2. I'll be coming back to play Rome II every now and then, and keeping tabs on the updates that Creative Assembly make, and maybe in a few more months, I'll feel the game has reached a level of stability and/or finality that warrants a genuine review. And hopefully, that review will be much more positive than this "impressions" post was.
If I had to review and score the game now, it would probably earn a very unsatisfying 5 out of 10.