Total War: Rome 2 Preview: Turning It Up to XI

Et Two, Creative Assembly?

Al Bickham, the studio communications manager for The Creative Assembly, is showing me the right way to go about razing Carthage. The Roman way. On the screen in front of us, a fleet of Roman ships beaches just outside the city and begins to disgorge thousands of centurions, their commanders calling out orders as the massed ranks surge up the sand. As they run to the walls of the ancient capital, arrows rain down on the soldiers and catapult stones and flaming pots soar overhead. As the men dash between siege defences on their way to the gatehouse, I realise I'm watching a classical version of Saving Private Ryan.

Carthage feels like a city, too, a Mediterranean capital bronzed by the sun. It has a harbour, it has grand boulevards that lead to the narrow, winding roads of its residential districts and it has great and glorious temples that sit atop a hill at its centre. It's from these that we take a moment to look down upon the carnage that is spilling onto those grand boulevards, filling their gutters with blood. As the walls are breached and the defenders try to slow the advancing Romans, buildings are collapsing, fires are spreading and bodies are filling the streets. It's just another day in the Roman republic.

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Prepare to embrace every excess of Rome, including war.

While Scipio Aemilianus' destruction of Carthage was the climax of the third Punic War, in the broader context of Roman history it's just a paragraph or two in a book. In a game of Total War: Rome 2, it could be but one of many great and terrible battles raging across an empire that spans three continents. It's this kind of grandeur, this sheer sense of scale, that's inspiring The Creative Assembly's developers as they make their next Total War game. They want drama, they want dynasties and this time things have to be big - certainly much, much bigger than the one-nation arena of their last game, Shogun 2.

"Shogun 2 was an exercise in focus, in looking at a single culture," says Bickham. "And while there were variations in unit types between the different clans, it was really a drop in the ocean compared to what we'll be doing in Rome 2. We want to wind it back out again to cover a much, much larger geographical area and a whole series of cultures this time." The desire is to create a game that really does span those three continents - not just geographically, but by reining in (so that you can reign over) all the diversity, contradictions and complications that are found in the cultures and peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa.

But when I ask lead designer James Russell just how much farther Rome 2's world stretches compared to its predecessor, he's coy with the details. How big is it, exactly? "It's big." Are we talking a map that stretches from Scotland to Libya? "Oh, bigger than that." But then we're pushing the boundaries of the ancient world, and that would be big indeed, surely enormous? "Yeah," he says. "Big."

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When you aren't smashing things up, you'll get to build a fair few things too.

Russell is much more interested in talking about the details that make up this world, the colours on this canvas. There's the potential for enormously varied armies with many different fighting styles, for all kinds of terrain to fight over, for different technology trees, for much larger battle maps and cities that are actually the size of cities, perhaps even for different playable factions. There's also more room for a much larger roster of weird and wonderful historical characters, something that Russell wants to shape into "the human face of Total War".

"We want to make the campaign feel more human," he explains. "This is a time when individuals and their personal decisions really make history." Senators, emperors and generals could change the ancient world and it was the force of their personalities and the flicks of their wrists that, for good or for ill, shaped the lives of millions. The Romans that we remember now were the most ambitious, the most tragic, the most romantic, even the most perverse, and Russell wants the games of Rome 2 we play to reflect this. "We definitely want to get characters like these into the game and we want to make the human-level dramas a bigger part of it."

"We definitely want you to feel like there's also a threat from within, too." - James Russell, lead designer

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Your generals will lead your troops into battle and shout orders to them across the battlefield.

The idea is that the decisions these characters make will have as much impact on the world as any great battle or city siege, and the personal and political dilemmas that they wrestle with will have serious consequences both in the short term and the long term. "The way that you respond to a particular dilemma will influence the dilemmas that you get later on. We want to chain them into story threads, mini-narratives that we want to thread into the gameplay."

The Roman republic will also be playing its own Game of Thrones, with politicians jockeying for power and influence - some, perhaps, playing that oh-so-deadly, single-seat variant of Imperial Musical Chairs where there's only ever room for one person on the throne when the music stops. Political allies could be as important as military ones in a game of intrigue, family affairs and internal conflicts: "We definitely want you to feel like there's also a threat from within, too."

He hastens to add that, though the scope of the game will broaden considerably, Creative Assembly doesn't want to add to players' workloads. They hope to make a grander, more glorious experience than the first Rome, but not one that sucks players into the quicksand of micromanagement.

"Rome 2 is about making your decisions more interesting, not just making more of them," says Russell, who doesn't believe there's much fun to be had in individually administering all your regions or precisely tweaking all your armies. As a Roman ruler, he explains, your mind should be on where your Tenth Legion is and if they can move to support the Eight Legion, not building another unit of 40 archers or altering a tax rate in eastern Gaul. To this end, there's a new Province system for quickly administering regions under your control, so that the game doesn't turn into an endless parade of paperwork.

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Even though it's a work in progress, the new battle engine already looks impressive.

Battles are also going to be bigger and bloodier affairs too. As the demo of the Siege of Carthage showed, armies and navies can now fight alongside one another and equal treatment is given to battles on sea and land. A greater emphasis on navies is something of a lesson learned from Shogun 2, where control of the seas could be a considerable tactical advantage and not just an interesting diversion. With the Mediterranean at the centre of the Roman empire, maintaining a strong navy is going to be a high priority, allowing players to move their armies around more easily and perform amphibious assaults.

There's likely much more planned, too, but there's a lot Creative Assembly won't be drawn on yet. They don't show me anything beyond the assault on Carthage which, though a choppy "pre-alpha", is still played out in a much prettier version of the series' real-time battle engine and suggests all sorts of destructible scenery. The campaign map will be improved, the game is being developed with consideration for the modding community and, Russell says, they're "planning something big" for the game's multiplayer, but they don't want to share anything specific.

Russell does say the game's budget is their biggest yet - "about 40 per cent bigger" than anything they've made before. So is it fair to say this is Creative Assembly's most ambitious game to date? "In terms of budget, in terms of the variety of assets we need to produce, and the nature of Rome itself," he says. "It's a big step up."

It is indeed, and squeezing so much history onto the PC is going to take some time. At present the release date is set for a tentative "second half of 2013". That might be toward the end of summer, or it could even be toward the end of the year. Rome 2 won't be built in a day.

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