With the second series of Time Commanders in full swing at the time of writing, now seems like an opportune moment to publish a somewhat belated review of the third game in The Creative Assembly's Total War series. Time Commanders is an appropriate reference to cite in the introduction for this particular game, because had it not been for the first series of the program, I wouldn't have taken the trouble to buy the game - and what a mistake THAT would have been.
If you've ever taken the trouble to read my writer's profile, you'll be aware that RTS isn't exactly my favourite gaming genre, so when you see the score at the bottom of the page, it may come as somewhat of a shock to see that I hold Rome: Total War in such high regard. It's doubly a shock when you consider that I'm not even a fan of the other two Total War games - the number of hours I've played both Rome's predecessors being able to be counted on the fingers of my hands - so, what then separates Rome out from its peers?
I think I can sum it up in one word: accessibility. Unlike Shogun and Medieval, Rome's learning curve is more rolling hills than mountain range, able to be scaled by the most inept of RTS gamers (i.e. yours truly). This is due to a superb tutorial campaign, which introduces all the elements of gameplay in an organised and efficient manner, gradually increasing the player's knowledge without ever overwhelming them with too much information. Furthermore, this tutorial campaign is compulsory - you can't start the main Imperial campaign without first having at least started the tutorial campaign. Whilst it's not compulsory to finish the tutorial, it's at least worthwhile playing through the first few turns, to get to grips with both the strategic management and the tactical battles.
Veterans to the series will probably be annoyed at the inability to get stuck straight into the main campaign, but it's worth spending an hour or two on, if only to get an early taste of what it's like to use onagers (huge siege catapults). Likewise, Total War devotees may also be irked by the inability to immediately play the main game as any faction. You are restricted to the three main Roman houses, Brutii, Julii and Scipii, until you have completed a victorious campaign. The reason for this isn't immediately apparent, but becomes clear as you play through the campaign.
Romans, you see, are hard. Hard as nails. Their troops are professional, resilient and have the best discipline of any faction in the game. As you happily take a few hundred Hastati and carve your way through a thousand or more Gaul barbarians, it becomes obvious that perhaps it's not the best idea in the world to be able to immediately leap into the game and take on the mighty Roman Empire, until you've experienced just how potent a fighting force they are, and learn their weaknesses first-hand by commanding them. Besides, if you want to play with war elephants just after you've bought the game, Hannibal will gladly oblige you in the excellent standalone Historical Battles.
The Creative Assembly haven't just set out to make the best RTS ever made, but thanks to their collaboration with historical program makers, they've set out to bring it to as many people as possible. Whilst this might be seen as dumbing down in some quarters, it's actually a very shrewd move by The Creative Assembly. Not only have they maximised their exposure of the Total War brand, but made strategy gaming much more appealing to people who'd previously never contemplated picking up a mouse in anger.
It's just as well that Rome has been made as user-friendly as possible, because it's still a giant of a game. The range of units on offer is somewhat bewildering, and if you choose to play the full campaign (where you need to control 50 regions, and conquer or outlast the SQPR), expect to stick in at least 30 or 40 hours before you rule the known world, depending upon the difficulty level. Fortunately, the in-game advisors give you plenty of advice should you ask for it - both the difficulty and advice levels are customisable - and the AI can take control of the time-consuming city management, allowing you to concentrate on crushing barbarian scum.
If you've played either Shogun or Medieval, you shouldn't expect too many surprises in the way you play the game. The strategic campaign map is managed on a turn by turn basis, and the tactical battles are handled in real-time. This traditional Total War formula has been tweaked, however. The turn-based strategic campaign has been enhanced graphically, with a simple, clean interface that rarely puts you more than a couple of clicks away from the information you want. The army, fleet and special unit icons have all been fully animated, the centurion representing one of your armies striking the figure representing the opposing force, or slinking away, cowering, if you retreat from confrontation - simple, purely aesthetic tweaks that don't really add much in terms of game value, but are nice enough touches to bring a smile to your face. Of more significance is the reduced turn length. Each turn now only represents 6 months (as opposed to a year) meaning that battles can now be fought in winter as well as the summer.
The season can have a major effect on whether you will seek to confront an enemy force. Cavalry-based armies will have a much easier time in snow than infantry, and bad weather will likewise adversely affect archers. So it can actually be in your best interests to wait for bad weather before attacking an enemy position, if your army is biased towards cavalry or the opposing army has a lot of archers. As you play the game more, you'll discover which unit types are most effective against others, and which combinations are most likely to result in both units being smeared over the battlefield in a fine red paste. A new addition to the tactical battles is the introduction of the inspirational pre-battle speech by your General. These speeches use a set of pre-recorded lines, which are spliced together to give you an indication of whether a victory is likely, and also show you the personality of your General, which can range from cautious and superstitious to downright bloodthirsty. It's critical for your success that you make use of these snippets of tactical knowledge, and the clues from your General's speech, because the AI is no mug. Leave a flank open, and you'll quickly find the AI ruthlessly exploiting the gap, particularly at higher difficulty levels, and especially late in the game when troop units are more disciplined and more potent. The graphics engine, too, has been enhanced, allowing unit types to be more easily distinguished, and the improved animation of individual units raises levels of immersion even higher. You can't help but grin when men are sent flying by rampaging elephants, or when cavalry units leap athletically over lines of infantry.
The standout tactical battles, indeed, the standout sequences of the game, are the siege battles. Whilst you can starve out enemy towns, it's far more fun to raid them instead, and try to destroy the defending force. As you can imagine, these battles get rather complicated to manage, especially if there are ten thousand men or more on the battlefield. This is kitchen sink warfare - with siege weaponry, sapping under walls and the infamous testudo formation all coming into play, whilst the city defenders rain down fire arrows on your attacking army. It's massively rewarding, taking a fully defended city with stone walls, your aim being not only to take the settlement without damaging its amenities, but with as few losses as possible.
Whilst there is little real difference between which Roman faction you can choose for your first campaign, there is plenty of replay value provided by the other factions, though it would take you a lifetime to play though a full campaign using them all. If you're going to replay the game at all, it'll most likely be online in head-to-head play. Be warned, however, that unless you're regularly beating the AI at the highest difficulty levels, you're less likely to Come, See and Conquer, than you are Come, See, and Get Your Arse Kicked... the majority of online players would shame Alexander the Great when it comes to tactical nous.
Now, after such unbridled praise, I bet you're chomping at the bit to see there are any flaws at all. In terms of the tactical play, not really - the recent patch has ironed out most of the imbalances, such as toning down the previously overpowering war elephants. The only thing that really earned my ire was the voiceovers. The voice cast are uniformly antipodeans. Whilst that might have been good enough for Ridley Scott's lead in Gladiator, it's absolutely immersion shattering to have New Zealanders chattering away with advice in the midst of battle, or on the campaign map with a thick southern hemisphere accent. I was also rather bemused to hear Greek Hoplite mercenaries with poorly imitated Scottish accents. The General's speeches, too, whilst interesting and new on the first few occasions, soon get rather tiresome - thankfully, you can skip them. These are relatively minor flaws, however, and don't take the edge off a truly exceptional game.
The improved game interface, sumptuous graphics engine, the enhanced tutorials, more polished presentation and the flatter learning curve all help ensure that this third instalment of Total War isn't just the best in the series, but the benchmark for all historical RTS games.