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Total War: Rome 2 review: The condiments of war

Dan Crabtree

I once watched a reenactment of the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge – a Revolutionary War battle in Wilmington, NC – and one of the colonist militia used ketchup packets to simulate fatal blood loss. Upon recoiling from the impact of the invisible half-inch musket ball, he fell to the ground, reached into the pocket of his homespun colonial breeches, clenched his fist, and pulled out a handful of Heinz to smear on the open wound. His body was not buried; the corpse slid into his Corolla and went back to Wendy's to restock.

There's something inherently silly about historical fiction that the Total War series will never shake, though Total War: Rome 2, the eighth in the series, comes as close as any reenactment can to escaping it. A passion for historic detail is more convincing than any graphical leap or streamlined troop management system could be, and the staggering obsession over political intrigue in 280 B.C. is a fascinating study in itself. And, as the first Total War game to support thousands of independently animated hoplites, the technical feat is (usually) a marvel too. Developer Creative Assembly put me in charge – now Caesar's dead and there's ketchup everywhere.

Gallery: Total War: Rome 2 (9/2/2013) | 33 Photos

For those unfamiliar with Total War, the campaign allows players to assume turn-based sovereignty of a nation in an elaborate, complex game of computerized Risk. Players manage cities and provinces down to the siege factories, tax rates, diplomatic visits and even the cows while trying to conquer the ancient Near East with military might. Individual battles can be automatically resolved using behind-the-scenes math, or they can be played out on the battlefield, giving players direct control of troop maneuvers. Both overworld and in-battle play require thoughtful tactical decisions, and utilize terrain, weather, and faithfully recreated historic cities to distinguish the nature of each encounter.

Outside of a two-to-three hour prologue and the well-staged Historic Battles, the allure of Total War: Rome 2 is dependent on its mechanical, tactical intrigue, particularly during campaigns. The approach attempts to blend the narrow, focused storytelling from the original Rome: Total War and Napoleon: Total War with the encompassing perspective of Empire: Total War. The effect is similar to 2011's Total War: Shogun 2 in that it succeeds in painting a believable, interconnected picture of the Aegean nations during Rome's height of influence.

Even better, the varied unit types and abilities faithfully represent military tactics from the time period (I'm willing to believe) and establish an interwoven system of skirmish statistics. Veteran players will find on higher difficulties or competitive online play that their orders must be both premeditated and improvisatory for their armies to endure. For example, a cleverly-positioned formation of spear nobles hidden by trees or terrain can mean the end of a preemptive camel archer assault, and likewise the tactical advantage of elevation or a bottleneck can keep a city from subjugation. Players are quickly funneled into a necessity for sound combinations of range, tank, and support units and the wit to adapt their use to an evolving battlefield. The narrative created by clever AI states or other players tells more nuanced tales than any scripted event could. Rome 2 leans heavily on these emergent stories, and is better for it.

Total War Rome 2 review
Total War: Rome 2's expertly crafted UI elements deliver critical information in period style without distracting from the action on the field. The game has to convey an unbelievable amount of data on demand, which it does mostly through scroll-over pop-ups that expand to reveal detailed stats on towns and units. Troops are represented by Greco-Roman style pottery reliefs in a collapsible panel, and important events in the campaign or scripted battles get their own cinematics. On the world map and in-battle I never felt encumbered by unnecessary menus or notifications like in past Total War entries. The clutter is gone, replaced by audio cues and convenient scroll-over windows, which makes the gargantuan task of securing an empire that much less daunting.

It's become table-stakes for the Total War series to deliver an astounding soundscape supported by cascading orchestrated scores for each region. Total War: Rome 2 sits at the head of that table by replicating the chaotic, terrifying echo of Iron Age combat across three continents and employing a mix of sweeping Mid-East dirges and European standards. I may never understand why Roman characters are given British accents in any media, but the voice work is as faultless as the score.

Naval battles are the only real step back in Total War: Rome 2. Where Napoleon: Total War used a precision targeting system to allow ships to aim cannons and fire different kinds of shot, Rome 2 substitutes a few ballistic galleons, some archers, and ramming techniques to get the job done. To be fair, naval warfare was far less advanced in 250 B.C. than in the late 18th century, so the shift can be justified by context, and land combat is still nuanced enough to spend time on the field instead of just the world map. On the world map, generals can also move seamlessly between land and water, which will cut down the number of battles won by warship alone.

Total War Rome 2 review
Given the incredible scope and precision Creative Assembly packed into Total War: Rome 2, I wasn't surprised to see isolated technical shortcomings, particularly when the game is at its most ambitious. (For reference, the PC I used for this review was well above the recommended specifications.) When I started a three-faction multiplayer skirmish with AI opponents, the convergence of the three forces caused the game to stutter to the point of becoming unplayable. Other instances of dropping frame rates or stuttering also occurred intermittently during campaign battles, particularly when using the cinematic view, or a view close to the action. Some multiplayer sessions suffered from similar issues, which could usually be fixed by dialing down the detail level in settings.

When the models do render quickly, it's a pleasure to see the ancient world alive and in action, recreated with such scope and care. Without even the addition of the three Greek States DLC factions (Athens, Epirus, and Sparta), players can take command of nine different regencies, city-states, or kingdoms circa 300-200 B.C. (Rome, Carthage, Macedon, Iceni, Arverni, Suebi, Parthia, Egypt, and Pontus), which are grouped into four major civilization types (Roman, Barbarian, Hellenistic, and Eastern).

While Egypt may play similarly to Parthia because of their shared heritage, each faction boasts its own historical buffs, gods, and technologies that markedly change how the faction should be commanded. The Barbarian kingdoms, their research trees stunted by barbarism, can form alliances with the more erudite Hellenistic states to gain cultural stability, which in turn might incur disfavor from the Romans who everyone despises de facto. The Eastern states can recruit elephant riders (which is just as great as it sounds) but struggle with internal unrest because of their divisive social castes. Throw in 104 non-playable nations with distinct motives and the ancient Near East starts to wax like a snappy teen drama.

Total War Rome 2 review
A quick glance at the in-game Encyclopaedia makes clear the conversion rate from historical fact to game mechanic. The Romans, for instance, invented the modern concept of an underground sewer system, which changed the course of humanity's sanitation and wellness developments forever. In Rome 2, researching sewers translates to +3 public order. The Iceni's oral traditions laid the framework for the lore-crafting that would perpetuate the myths of King Arthur throughout the world. In game, a loremaster's hut nets +2 percent research rate.

The silliness of turning history into a tactical land grab is worth mentioning in order to point out that the Total War series, and much more Total War: Rome 2, won't appeal to everyone with its tedium exchange. My experience was marked by exciting discovery and challenging political maneuvers, but I was willing to work through the steep learning curve to uncover the rewarding, if Pyrrhic, victories beyond. Not everyone will want to learn that recruiting a Champion, upgrading his cunning, then deploying him to a recently conquered city will help to rout enemy Spies poisoning the water supply, or that building siege weapons requires a workshop, which can only be built after first researching two specific military tech tree nodes. Historically, the logical leap can be made, but only for the committed.

For these dedicated strategy connoisseurs and Roman history buffs, Creative Assembly has just about crafted the pinnacle work in the art of meaningful detail. Each Ptolemaic temple and Gallic brine distillery reaps some number value for the tactical player, which is in itself a notable benchmark. The trouble with meaningful detail, however, is its imposition to be noticed, a barrier that will likely fend off hordes of uninitiated would-be conquerors.

As Caesar's lilting British tongue desperately recalls his rule over the crumbling columns of a militant empire, I don't mind the ketchup oozing from his invisible wounds.

This review is based on a Steam download Total War: Rome 2, provided by Sega.

Dan Crabtree is a freelance game critic from the war-torn province of Northern Virginia. During times of post-Hellenic peace, he works as an I.T. guy and hangs with his dog, whom most consider handsome and well-read. He can be found on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

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