For some, Creative Assembly's celebrated Total War series represents the ultimate in Real Time Strategy titles; deep, complex, involving, life-sapping experiences that bring out the megalomaniac in the gentlest souls. PC Gamer, for one, ranks Medieval as its best ever PC title, and both Medieval and Shogun have sold in respectable quantities too. But as good as they undoubtedly are, both seemed destined to be the preserve of the hardcore elite, when they surely deserved a much wider audience for the legions of historical warmongers out there.
But while Rome: Total War might well have "epic, cinematic battles" with "graphics and gameplay beyond anything ever seen" and armies of more than 5000 sprawling out all over huge sprawling maps, would CA's ambition prove a little too hardcore for most? While all the promised improvements sound like music to the ears of the converted, what about the huge potential audience out there that has so far remained over-awed by the complicated scale of it? The RTS fans who prefer micromanagement of single units? Or the complete newbie who's taking his or her first steps in the scene? Whatever the lingering doubts and concerns, Creative Assembly has gone back to basics, listened to the feedback, and delivered a game so patiently explained and with a clean interface so intuitive that anyone should be able to enjoy what's on offer here in a matter of minutes.
Time. Huh. What is it good for?
Evidently, time is still the key requirement to get the most out of Total War, with the potential to be playing it months, maybe years down the line if you're that way inclined, but exceptionally intelligent game design allows for a welcome degree of flexibility in how you approach the game, and ultimately how you play it. From our three hour session on a nigh-on finished build, it's a game you can dip into, have a few quick battles on (allowing the CPU to auto-determine the result of encounters with the enemy), and allow the training and development of your army to go on behind the scenes, or you have the chance to really get your hands bloody and micromanage every element available to you - or maybe a bit of both. It's that type of game.
We played through the Prologue twice to get a feel for what to expect in advance of the game's arrival in late September, and subsequently downloaded the recent demo to freshen up, and it's fair to say that the demo barely even scratches the surface of what there is to do the tutorial, never mind the full game. Although the Prologue pitches you into battle as the Julii in Italy, the full game sports a dozen playable nations with units including Roman Legions, Greek phalanxes, Barbarian hordes, Egyptian Chariots and Carthaginian War Elephants.
As you'd perhaps expect, Rome is essentially advanced Risk, with the overall aim to conquer the world, gradually building up and training a powerful army, advancing through various tech trees to gain more powerful units and weapons, with the usual requirement to gather resources and keep the population under your control. Nothing new there, you might think, but the excellence that shines through Rome isn't so much the concept but the execution, and if the Prologue is any indication at all, there's much for everyone to look forward to, newcomer or battle hardened veteran.
Rome-o and Julii
The Prologue kicks of in 329 B.C., with the player assuming control of The House Of Julii. At this stage you've been appointed as the 'new leader of an upcoming noble family with the basic objective to 'forge a safe, strong and lasting Empire in Italy'. Given constant help and advice from Victoria and military assistance from entrusted Centurion Marcus you're pitched straight into a battle scenario with the simple objective of repelling a Barbarian attack near Rome who are trying to take control of Tarquinii in North West Rome. With an army of Gauls approaching from the north, you're told that they rely on brute force, and that taking the head of Gaulish warlord Demnorix will quickly demoralize his troops. On your side, you're informed that General Gaius Julius is the most important unit, with his wisdom and courage delivering great morale to everyone around him. Elsewhere the Triari spearmen are the backbone of your Roman army, but Archers need protection. At this stage the game keeps things simple, with sparse maps, clear objectives and few units to worry about - this all changes, of course, but it's a game that tricks the casual observer into thinking it's more complicated than it is, with an entire army under your control with just a few clicks.
With your first maneuvers just a few button presses away, the game gives a refresher on the control mechanics, and it's the standard RTS style, with the standard view rotation a matter of pushing the mouse cursor to edges of screen, with mouse wheel to change camera angle, middle button zooming in and so on. Again, the familiar standard of unit selections allows you to select one or all units in a variety of ways, and directing them into battle becomes second nature in a matter of a few clicks - with speed and formation changes a refreshingly intuitive affair, and various key commands available to zoom right into whatever a particular unit is doing, or pan back out just as easily to get a more strategic view of proceedings.
If things are getting too hectic, Rome includes a useful Pause mode for you to dictate the action at your own pace - enabling the player to issue orders without risking taking further damage. Advised not to bother chasing routed units (you'll tire them if you chase other units relentlessly), you quickly move your Triarii into battle, right-clicking on the Barbarian 'scum' to activate the sword icon, which, when zoomed in, generates an impressive battle scene, albeit lacking the blood and gore that would no doubt have otherwise harmed the game's chances of getting a lower age rating. Other unit attacks work in the same way, with the Archers' icon changing to a bow and arrow and the like, raining down their missiles from afar.
Visually, it's hugely impressive in terms of being an RTS without requiring the kind of expensive upgrades that, say, an FPS would demand. Units are well animated, convincing and exceptionally detailed up close, with lush terrain detail to match. For the purposes of displaying a war game in high detail, with virtually every option turned on, the mid-spec 2GHz demo rig equipped with a GeForce 5200 was as slick as you could wish for. Indeed, CA claims Rome will run acceptably on anything above a 1GHz machine with 256MB RAM - which these days ought to pose few problems for most active PC gamers. Battle scenes are - at this stage - quite low key, but the promise is of mass battles raging between around 10,000 troops, which is an awesome prospect by anyone's standards.
With the Barbarian battle over relatively swiftly, every skirmish generates plenty of stats, with breakdowns of kills and casualties for every unit. Heading back to the main campaign map (a map of Europe, focused in on Italy) with your first win under your belt, you're then introduced to the planning facet of the game which enables you to hire mercenary units, train your troops and generally build up your armies via resource management. Once again, everything you're new to is explained via your advisors, with the intention that you'll have the opportunity to try everything out at least once. Ultimately, if you fancy tinkering with everything, the building of temples, improvement of roads, public services, defences, the training of soldiers and the taxation levels, that's entirely your choice. With a cunning automanage system available, you can leave it all up to the game to take care of, while you get on with the more battle-focused side of things. We're not sure why you'd want to miss out on the tinkering, but that's just us. It's not for everyone, and CA wants to always make sure the game is fun for whoever plays it.
Even battles can be resolved, largely without getting your hands dirty. For example, during Prologue the Senate tells you to go and capture another town in a set number of turns, but once you've moved your army into position you're given the choice of sticking out the siege by starving the occupants of a town into submission rather than storming the walls with your catapults and killing everyone inside. With the battle won, you can either try and get the population to live with your ways or exterminate the lot there and then. It's a little less involving to do it this way, of course, but if you're the sort of player who wants to build up their empire quickly, it's a shortcut to the more interesting, bigger scale encounters - not to mention a means to unlock the game quicker.
Too much to see
Whatever your eventual style of play, each turn ends whenever you click the icon in the bottom right hand corner, with event messages arriving like emails down the left side of the screen to inform you of your financial and social position, and so the game goes on, with a succession of missions thrown your way and territories to conquer. So far, we've barely even taken the cellophane off the box, never mind scratched the surface, but initial impressions on a technical and interface level are superb.
Delving into the campaign itself promises to be an awesome challenge, and on top of that there are various one-off historical missions, not to mention the multiplayer mode that we look forward to getting to grips once we finally take possession of the full game in a few weeks' time. Until then, play the all-too-brief demo (two very simple and easy to win missions that show off the visuals much more than the actual game) for a flavour of what's to come and start saving up for what promises to be this year's essential RTS war game.