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Rome II: Total War

Mad Jack

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It's in their faces; a mixture of trepidation and excitement. They rattle their rectangular shields, knock spear heads against one another. Their leader, a Legionnaire, or maybe just a Centurion, gives the kind of impromptu speech that's been practised a thousand times. Not that it matters. Waves crash against the sides of the Trireme longboat, and the collective grunt of a thousand oarsmen in across a dozen other boats drown out the specifics of what he's saying. But you can tell it's the impetus to victory – you can see it in the way he moves his arms, the conviction on his face. The sunlight flashes across his helmet.

Total War: Rome II is not like other strategy games. It's not even all that much like other Total War games – it's had enough of a steroid injection to transform it into a much bigger, burlier, hulkier game. It's buff. Soldiers look as detailed as you like, each one of their faces animated by about as much technology as you might imagine is thrown at a major console title. But there's not just one soldier on this field, or even a few dozen. There are thousands. Tens of thousands.

It's Carthage, in 209 BC, and Publius Cornelius Scipio is assaulting the great city in an attempt to finally take the tusks out of Hannibal's attack by denying him his greatest asset. The most interesting part of all this, and a first for the Total War games, is that it's an amphibious assault.

As the Triremes (Roman longboats) come hurtling towards the beachhead, scattered siege towers and abandoned ladders from the years of failed attacks litter the beaches. When the ships ground themselves up on the sand, soldiers pour out of them, quickly organising into tight turtle formations to protect themselves from the barbed, blackened sky. It's like Spielberg in a strategy game.

"What we're trying to do in battles and the campaign is really push what we think makes Total War unique," says James Russell, the Lead Designer on the Total War series. "You've got this whole spectrum of what you can see in the battle on a really close, human level in the soldiers." He demonstrates it, too, strapping the virtual camera onto the back of one unit as it scales one of those siege towers. It's a feature they're pragmatically calling 'Unit Camera', and it instantly strips away the detachment that is typical of an RTS, replacing it with cinematic zeal. You've still got the freedom of camera movement, though, able to swing the camera left and right and even crash zoom, throwing you shakily into the distance to witness your tiny men throwing themselves to their tiny deaths against the enemy.

"Then you zoom out," continues James, "and you have this breath-taking scope where you've got tens of thousands of men." Here, flaming rocks hurtle through the sky towards huddled soldiers, and the siege tower lurches forwards towards the walls. It's not alone, and nor is it unsupported, with huge siege boats lobbing their own flaming rocks at the walls of Carthage, hammering them constantly as the infantry moves up against them. It's at this point that the demo zooms out entirely, switching from the beautiful spectacle of the battle to a detached strategical view. Units are turned into simple squares, and a rudimentary layout of the city is cast underneath them.

"It's this combination of those two views, that whole spectrum, which is what is unique about the game. We see them as adding to one another. It looks more breath-taking when you see ten thousand men because you've just come out [from seeing just one], and the impact when you're zooming in on that human level combat is all the more striking because you know that there are ten thousand of these going on at one time."

This has always been true of Total War; the series has always brought you simultaneously right up to the fight whilst also letting you pull back beyond even that one battle, out into the grand strategy of the game laid out on a continental map. But it's never felt nearly as evocative as here. The siege tower reaches the walls, but in the few moments before the door falls open and all hell breaks loose, the Legionnaire turns and gives his men a few words of encouragement. He actually turns, and he actually speaks. It's a tiny vignette of a much grander conflict that wonderfully encapsulates what's going on.

Then the door falls open, and all hell, indeed, breaks loose. Carthage's walls have been breached, and the battle just turned dirty, pushing through streets and up hills towards grand temples. Even here Total War has expanded and evolved, turning the sieges that so define it into a far more tactical endeavour.

"With multiple capture points it's now much more cat and mouse," James elaborates. "As a defender you can't just camp. You've got to be dynamic and you've got be mobile. You can lay traps, hide cavalry down a street and ambush invading forces as they come around."

As entertaining as the battles are, without context they're just hollow conflict. Luckily, Creative Assembly is planning on adding context in spades. "We're broadening the scope of the map; it's a bigger map than the first Rome. It's an ideal setting for us to push the human angle because of the importance of individuals, how their personal decisions remade and forged new empires."

The team is achieving this though a reworking and expansion of one of the features that made Shogun 2's DLC, Fall of the Samurai, so impressive. In Fall of the Samurai you'd occasionally have decisions pop up, moral choices that you'd deal with and get a temporary buff or debuff, depending on whether you'd appeased or aggravated the populace. Here, though, Creative Assembly is aiming for something far more ambitious: "We want to really push the dilemma system so we have proper chain dilemmas. It's almost interactive storytelling in a way. We want chain dilemmas so that this choice will take you down this path, and that will create different choices as a result of that. It's human level drama woven into the campaign map."

So the player's choices become consequences that they will have to live with – and the trait system will make a return, too. But instead of focusing on the individual, here it's being used to tie you more to your armies. Rather than a simple grouping of units with an attached general, armies will be Legions, and Legions can gain traits, depending on how they fight.

"We want a legion to have a history that goes beyond its general," says Russell, "because that's how it was. That's why you 'Don't mess with the Ninth.' Legions had a particular history." Whether or not you can gain negative traits and be forced to deal with the dead weight of a cowardly legion, or one that's all too ready to rape when you set about pillaging, isn't entirely clear, but the idea of having armies with their own history is certainly an appealing one.

This is the overarching message that came through whenever Russell was talking about Rome II; they want it to be bigger and better, yes, but they also want to emphasise the player's investment in the game, and have them make choices based on how they feel, not just how they think they'll win. You'll have favourite armies that are favourite for reasons you can see on the battlefield, and that only get stronger with time.

Even the AI, great bane of Total War's history, is aiming to be more cohesive and fundamentally more human than before. Previously, the AI had two conflicting directives. The bit that wanted to kill you and take all your stuff, and the nice friendly bit that knew you were a trade ally and didn't want to make you cry. Now, they're putting those two together, creating a thinking machine that has both those considerations to take into account, rather than just trying to reconcile a contradiction.

The byproduct of this is that the AI will be predictable, and will think about things prior to doing them, building up armies for a double cross, or maneuvering troops into place to seize your assets. "You might be able to spy on the AI, and see it thinking about double crossing, building up forces to attack you," says James. Not only this, but by simplifying the core of the AI, Creative Assembly is much better equipped to give them proper personalities. "You'll have AI's that are much more vengeful and some that are more forgiving, and that's tied to factions," Russell explains, "and we'll also be able to explain that to the player." So the single-minded, barbaric gauls might be less inclined to sup on grapes and wine with you, while the more exotic cultures to the East could be more open to such frivolous diplomacy.

Creative Assembly hopes to achieve this through all sorts of fancy technical AI tricks. If the developer can take the seemingly schizophrenic behaviour of the AI in previous games and make it something that players can understand and predict, then suddenly Total War will no longer just as frustrating to play on occasion as it is otherwise incredible.

With a game of this scope it's impossible to get a clear picture from just one battle to serve as an example of how it might be to play. It's only been in development for eight months, and Creative Assembly has its eye on a Christmas 2013 release date. So much is left to hopeful promises and assurances that this time they're going to get it right, and this time the AI will be smarter, the pathfinding will be better, and the spectrum will be wider than ever before.

But it's the human angle that's most intriguing. It's that narrative and emergent storytelling that makes Total War games the grand strategy epics that they are. It's always that impossible defence or brilliant double cross that sticks most in your mind when you're finally done and you pack your save games away.

By focusing its efforts on making those moments even more memorable, amping up the spectacle with gorgeous graphics, deeper systems and ever more to pull you into the world, Creative Assembly is setting its sights as high as they've ever been. If they can pull it off, they'll be able to supplant Rome: Total War as the best Total War game they've ever made. Which would be rather fitting, really.

So. Fucking. Excited. For. This. Game.

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I came.

The strategy game that got me addicted to strategy games, and now it is getting a remake!

I can still remember fondly how I slayed Egyptian hordes with my hoplites and owned the world with the Spartans, and soon it's possible in a whole new game :w00t:

Time to re-install RTW1!

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  • 1 year later...

Had it pre-loaded since Sunday, initial impressions are the game is glorious, but I'm not effed with the Prologue. LOTS of graphical issues being reported by people, so be careful. If you have an AMD GPU, I'd recommend maybe keeping your hopes down until a patch (Unless it runs perfectly, it seems to be just AMD's having problems).

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Yeah took me a good 30 minutes to get everything to the best I can. I NEED Unit detail on Extreme, otherwise the units look like shit.

Looking at /r/totalwar and the Total War Center, some of the problems people are having are ridiculous.

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