If video games were Roman defeats, Total War: Rome II would be Manzikert, which was a pretty bad showing for the Romans, one with a high cost. But the long-term effects of that battle are complex and far-reaching, over-analyzed and often over-weighted. Some historians go so far as to describe Manzikert as the event that kneecapped the Roman Empire, which is ironic because the part of it you know about was long gone by 1071 and the other part would totter on for another four hundred years. Me, I don’t buy it. Manzikert was bad, but post-Manzikert misgovernance did more damage than the battle itself. Byzantium could have recovered, it just failed to. Total War: Rome II has ample opportunity to recover from the scattershot problems of initial release and turn itself into a genuinely remarkable game. If Creative Assembly bungles that opportunity, then Rome II, like Manzikert, will be remembered as the beginning of the end.
I have an actual, paid-for, honest to god degree in Roman History. In what will doubtless come as a galloping surprise to you, it’s not useful that frequently. But people ask questions when they hear I have it. A psychiatrist once told me that the most boring patients were the ones who hear voices. “You know what? Those voices always say the same things.” Who knew? Similarly, the questions people ask upon hearing I have a Roman History degree are… let’s say predictable. And, inexplicably, they all begin with the word “so” and end with the word “anyway.”
- “So, why did Rome fall, anyway?”
- “So, why did they kill Julius Caesar, anyway?”
- “So, what was up with the gladiator shows, anyway?”
I’m happy to answer, but as anyone who actually knows will tell you, the answers are rather complex. Not structurally; a couple of sentences will do – if the asker has an understanding of the Roman mind. Since people who ask those questions never do, the answers require an enormous amount of supporting explanation, to the point that anyone who asks has long since lost interest by the time I’ve finished the preamble to my answer. Which is why I’ve taken to simply saying “it’s complicated.”
The Roman mind is different from the modern one; it took me four years of study to really nail it.
Most people who play Rome II, the latest in the venerable “historical” combat simulation series from Creative Assembly, have no interest in understanding the Roman mind. For whatever reason, people who are into video games seem more interested per capita in Roman history than people who aren’t (it’s just something I’ve observed), but interest isn’t the same as willingness to spend four years of study on it. Recognizing this, Creative Assembly doesn’t try to make a wholly accurate Roman world in Rome II, any more than it tried to accurately recreate feudal Japan in Shogun II. It takes accuracy as far as is reasonable and stops, because past that point you get into a situation where your very efforts will diminish your audience.
I have no choice but to look at a game like Rome II through the lens of my education, and that might result in impressions somewhat different from others you’ve read… and, maybe, surprising to you. So bear with me. In return, I’ll treat you to something: a shortcut to understanding the Roman mind. You can find it in practically every living room in the Western Hemisphere, on the Fancy Books shelf, in volume 3 of a series bought on sale at the drugstore and never opened. Yes, if you’re ever baffled or confused by something you’ve learned about Roman history, try to remember the following, from Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization:
…the typical Roman of this age was orderly, conservative, loyal, sober, reverent, tenacious, severe, and practical… He distrusted individuality and genius. He had none of the charm, vivacity, and unstable fluency of the Attic Greek. He admired character and will as the Greek admired freedom and intellect; organization was his forte. He lacked imagination, even to make a mythology of his own. He could with some effort love beauty, but could seldom create it. He had no use for pure science, and was suspicious of philosophy as a devilish dissolvent of ancient beliefs and ways. He could not, for the life of him, understand Plato, or Archimedes, or Christ.
He could only rule the world.
Puer, qui omnia nomini debes.
You owe everything to a name, boy.
As admirable and well-received as Shogun II was, Rome II is divisive and mysterious. To my eyes the game isn’t as bad as some have implied, and it’s far from the worst Total War game (if video games were Roman defeats, the plodding and over-ambitous Empire: Total War would be Arausio), but no one has called it the best. Superior (in some ways) to the first Rome, inferior (in others), mostly I think it’s disappointing not because of anything it does, but because of the many things it fails to do.
Much of what bothers me isn’t what bothered most other people. I have not found it unbearably buggy, though I suspect bugs behind the scenes, where subtle things happen that aren’t supposed to. On my mid-range machine, it runs just fine with the graphics cranked up to optimus maximus. Other reviews complain that you have little to do in early turns and spend a lot of time ending them; I have not experienced this. A couple friends and I played as the Gallic Averni for like twelve hours straight and had plenty to do each turn, even though this faction starts with just a single region to work with.
What I dislike is the tenacious failure to fix some things that should have been fixed four or five Total War games ago, plus the odd strategic shortcomings, poor information flow, sizable gaps in places where things ought to be clearly explained, major strategic elements (I’m looking at you, faction management) that are semi-functional at best, and a fair amount of Roman History Degree stuff that getting right would’ve been just as easy and would have certainly made for a far better game. Mostly it does not make me feel very Roman, it does not make me feel like I’m guiding a civilization whose sole capability on this earth is to rule the world. Rome II doesn’t do that, nor did Rome I. But do I think Rome II is bad? No, not really. It’s absolutely not the game I wish it were, but it’s okay, one that will while away a lot of my hours in coming weeks.
However, it’s not one I recommend you buy, because “not bad” isn’t the same as good.
Total War has always been an RTS series at heart, which stacks the deck against it to some degree. It is not a political simulation on the level of Crusader Kings 2 or Europa Universalis, two games that eschew battlefield granularity in favor of shockingly complex political machinations. They also show us that the more complex a simulation you build, the faster your “casual” audience is going to fall away. Those who’ve undertaken to learn those games enjoy them, but the curve is unbearably steep, and once you do understand, you inevitably wish for… well, for some of the Total War tactical content. I believe there’s still a best of both worlds to be made, and for selfish reasons I’d like to see it set in the classical period which I actually know something about and would therefore feel at home, but Rome II is not it and to my knowledge no developer has come close.
Carthago delenda est!
Carthage must be destroyed!
—Practically every Roman politician of the period, but mostly Cato the Censor, to the point where it got really irritating and people would basically “yeah yeah” him whenever he wrapped up a speech with it, in fact I bet probably the main reason they destroyed Carthage so utterly was to stop Cato saying this line
It’s best to play your first campaign game as the Romans, despite the mouth-watering array of other choices. This is Rome: Total War and it’s heavily geared toward the descendants of Aeneas. It’s not Suebi: Total War or Macedon: Total War, and non-Roman playable factions still use Roman tech trees, Roman tactics, and Roman governance – the first wall-breaker you’re going to encounter.
Campaigns start in 272 BC, a very interesting time for Rome. Its star is rising, but nothing is guaranteed, and the game opens with the Romans already fighting their Etruscan neighbors. Greece has a strong foothold in southern Italy; barbarian tribes mill in the foggy north. But the greatest danger looms across the Mediterranean, where the mighty African nation of Carthage is at its apogee. For the next 150 years, if you live on the Med, you will be at war.
Rome II has a strategic quirk that makes a lot of sense but takes a lot of getting used to. In most games (think Civilization), control of cities is what matters. In Rome II, it’s regions. Each has a settlement, and three or four regions make up a province, but the settlement itself is less strategically important than the whole of the territory it’s part of. Cities happen to be where you build buildings, and control of them indicates who controls their region, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of cities when you need to think in terms of provinces: armies muster and reinforce in regions under your control, not (necessarily) in cities; income and happiness are calculated across the province rather than on a settlement-by-settlement basis, meaning a clever player can mess with neighbors who share regions within a contested province.
It’s a good system somewhat hobbled by simplifications elsewhere in the game: you set taxes nationally, for example; you can exempt a province from taxation but can’t tax at different levels based on provincial wealth or loyalty or ability, limiting mid-level provincial tactics. As such it mostly is something you have to get used to rather than something you can use to your advantage. The same problem exists with military maneuvers at the strategic and tactical level.
On the lusciously rendered campaign map, units are limited to narrow, predefined passages surrounded by impenetrable landscape. This Total War mainstay is especially bothersome in Rome II, particularly given the huge pre-release marketing blitz reminding players of Hannibal’s Alpine traversal during the Second Punic War. The Carthaginian general took a massive army over the Alps into Italy, a feat so utterly suicidal that the Romans had never even paused to consider it. Hannibal paid a high price: of 40,000 heavy infantry, 12,000 heavy horse, several hundred elephants, and about 75,000 auxiliaries and noncombatants, more than half were lost to falls, freezing, and avalanches. Those who made it materialized in northern Italy and thundered down on undefended Roman positions, leading up to the colossal Roman defeat at Cannae, one so devastating that if Hannibal had marched on Rome itself instead of bumbling around Italy for a further fourteen years, he’d have destroyed the Republic in a stroke and rewritten the whole of western civilization in the Carthaginian image.
In Rome II you can cross the Alps in less than a turn.
There is no way to do what Hannibal did because the Alps – and plenty of other geography, including plain old forests – are simply impenetrable except where the game allows you to go.
Stuff like this takes the oomph out of strategy. Hannibal was a smart man. He knew the price and crossed the Alps anyway, because the potential advantage was so huge. Even then, the logistical and command skill required to do so with only 50% losses is unbelievable. Hannibal wasn’t a military genius because he crossed the Alps, he crossed the Alps because he was a military genius. Similarly, Caesar didn’t circumvallate Alesia because he had to; there were easier ways to take the town. He circumvallated Alesia because he wanted the defenders to look at Roman engineering and tremble. He wanted them to know, at their end, that they’d never really had a chance against him. The investment of Alesia was a statement. It said to the Gauls: you are an inferior people. You always have been, you always will be. Look upon us and despair. Since you can’t do stuff like this in Rome II (or, to be fair, in any other game), you lose something.
While we’re on the bad stuff, let me relate the single biggest pet peeve I have about this game. You won’t give a shit about it, but you do get to watch YouTube.
Barbarian tribes tended to value individual courage over unit tactics, so their warriors would go tear-assing off into the fray to prove their valor. Many of Rome’s other enemies, Carthage included, had more discipline than that, but the Romans could only rule the world, and they lived for discipline. At a time when most civilized foes were still using the (horribly outdated) phalanx, Romans had devised legionary tactics such as the Maniple Switch, which HBO demonstrates for us around the forty-ish second mark of this:
4,200 combatants, give/take, in a legion. Four to ten legions in a normal army. Array your legions in checkerboard. Lock shields. Wait for the barbarians to come screaming in. Centurion blows whistle. Kill several barbarians. Whistle again. Unlock shields, front row moves to rear, protected left and right, second row to front, lock shields. Same barbarians, new line of Romans. Whistle. Switch. Whistle. Switch. A dozen or more rows, each completely fresh to the fight while the same exhausted (but very bold) enemies hurl themselves against the shield wall, and by the time the first row gets back up to the front, they’ve had a nice breather and a chance to wash the blood off.
One of Rome’s enemies – Pontus or the Cimbri I think – called it “the Roman millstone.” Back again and again, Rome just ground you down, season after season, year after year, never stopping or changing or seeming any the worse for wear after a defeat. And for all that Rome II does well, it misses an ineffable Roman-ness. Most gamers may not be bothered by that, but I guarantee all strategy buffs are bothered by this - speaking from a position of knowing how Roman formations worked it’s rather infuriating to order an attack and see my cohorts assemble into the “globby mishmash” formation:
Creative Assembly worked so hard, in so many ways, to capture certain elements of historical accuracy in Rome II. So why exactly, after like seven Total War games, can they still not get formations right? Why does every battle devolve into a bunch of dudes just sort of milling around, not fighting as a unit if they’re fighting at all? Why don’t the Romans fight light Romans, the Gauls fight like Gauls, and so on? Instead not only does everyone fight exactly the same way, that way is stupidly unrealistic. Forget even historical accuracy, if you must; give me an AI that behaves intelligently. Intelligence is what the I is short for in AI.
It doesn’t end there, either: why, when you issue waypointed move commands, does the unit move to the waypoint, come to a complete stop, rotate in place, move to the next, come to another complete stop, and repeat? Why can’t I draw curved lines on the battlefield to indicate the path I want them to take? And while we’re at it, why can’t I issue various speed up and slow down points right there on those lines? Why does cavalry not do what’s arguably the core of cavalry maneuvers and wheel itself after a charge? Absenting that, why is there no fucking Wheel Cavalry button? Why do I have to manually move them away after they charge and inevitably stop to engage in melee combat, manually turn them around, manually reform the flying wedge, and manually charge again? That’s not how cavalry works. The impetus of the horse does the work and the rider knows not to stop and fight some dude on the ground.
These (patchable) issues represent the most significant granular problem with Rome II: it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing as the Romans or the Bactrians, the fundamentals of historical strategy don’t work because a retarded toilet brush is Stephen Hawking compared to Creative Assembly’s asinine AI and pathing. And this has gone on, game to game, for years.
And you know, I freely admit I’m more forgiving of it in, say, Shogun II, because I know fuck-all about how Medieval Japanese warfare worked. Maybe they did stand around waving their katanas, never repositioning, never moving to the front or rear or retiring because they’re tired versus running because they’re losing. But you give me this in the classical period, which for reasons still befuddling to my parents I actually know something about, and it breaks the crap out of the suspension of disbelief.
Marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset
He found a city of bricks and left a city of marble.
—Suetonius, describing Augustus Caesar
I’m reminded of a line in Apollo 13, when Ed Harris’s character says, “let’s look at this from a systems perspective. What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good?”
And he’s met with dead silence. Nobody knows what still works, because the spacecraft has already broken in a way that is supposed to be entirely impossible.
So what do we have in Rome II that’s good?
A lot, actually, and therein lies some of my frustration and also my hope for a turnaround the likes of which the Romans were never able to pull off after Manzikert. First and foremost, it passes the Strategy Test. I’ve spent hours and hours playing, turn after turn, despite the maddening flaws described above. If you play longer or later than you should, that’s a passing score on the Strategy Test.
I’ve learned to follow the bizarro use of tooltip popups for key information. I’ve learned to roll with the frustrating insistence on applying dozens of often contradictory traits and qualities to my commanders (one general is both a sadist and a genteel administrator; another drinks too much and doesn’t drink; all of them have about a dozen hangers-on conferring various stupid bonuses, but not one of them has gotten married).
I’ve learned to accept that someone wrote a HUGE and largely correct encyclopedia explaining the difference between Hastati and Principes, breaking down the fundamentals of the Marian military reforms, but that nowhere does the game explain how to improve other cultures’ affinity towards yours. It’ll tell you why a trireme is useful but it won’t tell you how to get the God damned Athenians to agree to a trade deal.
And all of this, all these turn-offs, are sublimated, because it passes the Strategy Test, the tried-and-true method of judging quality in a turn-based game: do you look up and realize it’s three in the morning? Do you often think just one more turn? If so, it passes. And it does.
It’s also beautiful, simply beautiful, and I know we’re supposed to be “above” graphics but the graphics are lovely. Irritating as my brain-dead cavalry may be, it’s thrilling to watch them thundering down on a hapless mob of stick-wielding civilians press ganged into defending their town. It’s breathtaking to stage a great naval battle at dawn, the glassy surface of the Mediterranean reflecting the orange sunrise, to see the cruel underwater ramming beaks just below the waves, to watch marines hop around to shake the sleep from their minds before the battle is joined. During battles, most of your time is going to be spent looking at dots – it’s necessary to be zoomed out to get the whole picture. But you will regularly treat yourself to a serious zoom-in to see what’s going on in the regular soldier’s sandals. The first Rome was amazingly detailed in this, and they’ve only gone farther with it. Of course, perhaps some of that attention would’ve been better spent on artificial intelligence, since it’s impossible and undesirable to play the game zoomed in so far you can see a legionary’s facial stubble, but it’s cool that you can.
Veni, vidi, fuit ista destituta
I came, I saw, I was kind of disappointed
Have you heard of Pharsalus? It was the decisive battle between Julius Caesar and his frenemy Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. The Caesarian victory broke Pompey’s back (figuratively) and ended most of the organized resistance against his government. Given how important it was, it’s natural to assume that the Battle of Pharsalus was this huge epic thing with all kinds of heroics and stuff.
Pharsalus was over in less than an hour. It’s unlikely that Pompey was even in command. Militarily it was dull as dust. The battle didn’t end the civil war, but it ended the civil war, if you know what I mean; sometimes Very Big Things end with a fizzle rather than a bang. Interestingly it happened again in the decisive battle between Octavian (later Augustus) and his frenemy, Mark Antony, at the Battle of Actium. For being such defining moments of western history, Actium and Pharsalus were awfully blah. They just kind of were what they were.
Maybe Rome II is more like that than Manzikert; those two battles are more properly Roman anyway. While I find myself playing for hours at a time, and enjoying those hours (especially since I haven’t encountered the serious technical deficiencies described by others), I also find myself with almost nothing positive to say about Rome II when I am not playing. Ultimately I feel like Creative Assembly checked a Total War box with Rome II. They did nothing unique, nothing special, nothing innovative. They fixed practically nothing that’s been long-broken, added practically nothing of real note, and took no risks at all.
Rome II is forgettable, which makes me sad.
I can’t say for sure whether I want Crusader Kings set in the Roman world, or whether I just want Rome II to work the way it should, though my gut says it’s a combination of both. I want more political machination and better thought-out strategy options – even at the expense of variety in faction choices – and I want Creative Assembly to get off its ass and fix its now-unforgivably broken combat AI. The studio has issued a couple semi mea culpas (culpae) as regards Rome II; the game is selling well but general consensus is that it’s a failed opportunity and Creative Assembly bears the responsibility for that. They have promised weekly patches and major changes in coming months. We’ll see what actually occurs.
Oddly I set out to write a much more positive article about Rome II. But I can’t, I can’t even think of much that’s good to say about it. I have a section above that’s supposed to be about good stuff and, rereading it now, I see I just slumped back into new complaints instead.
I remember I was reviewing Evil Genius in 2004 and remarked something along the lines of “Rome: Total War, which came out the same day (as Evil Genius) and is a triumph in every respect, has sat idle while I play this flawed game…”
Total War: Rome II is a triumph in absolutely no respects. It’s not a disaster. It’s Manzikert… or Pharsalus, I guess. A battle that everyone expected to go a certain way and wound up going the opposite. Depending how the world (and the developer) reacts to the outcome, that’s what’ll be the triumph or disaster. But if you’re reading this as impressions and not as typically wordy Steerpikian lecture on Roman history, I can close with a hard solid condemno. It just ain’t worth it right now. And I have a feeling that if it ever becomes worth it through Creative Assembly’s patches, it’ll be too late and people will have moved on to other things. Save your sixty Denarii.
To understand some of the seemingly odder aspects of Roman history, you need to understand the Roman mind, which actually is kind of simple: the Roman was rigid, strict, disciplined, unimaginative, cold, organized, and clever only in certain ways. There was much he couldn’t do; he could only rule the world. Creative Assembly is very Roman. What it does, it does quite well. But it cannot do anything beyond the rather narrow scope of those capabilities.
Our mistake – my mistake, at least – was expecting more of it than it’s capable of. Creative Assembly can’t really innovate, can’t rock the casbah, can’t knock socks or sandals.
It can only make passable RTS games.
So, why did they kill Julius Caesar, anyway? Ask at Steerpike@tap-repeatedly.com.