On a foggy hill, deep in barbarian territory, our Roman army readies itself for battle. A few miles away, the Averni of ancient Gaul (a tribe that famously opposed Caesar and lost) amass in a forest. Our Rome is significantly outnumbered by these woad-caked tribal warriors, but army size isn't everything in Total War. We have catapults and veteran triarii with the finest armour; they have iron swords and rocks.
We select a unit on the front line and hit the new cinematic camera button. The camera swoops down and we find ourselves viewing the battlefield through the eyes of an individual soldier. Our fellow soldiers psych themselves up, jumping up and down and banging their shields with their swords. Some look nervous. "We may be outnumbered," barks a general, who's started giving a rousing speech to his men, "but victory will be ours!" And with that, we charge.
As our army roars towards the forest, we spin the cinematic camera around. It's a striking sight; thousands of soldiers, siege weapons, and war dogs stampeding down the hillside. We hear the sound of boots thundering on the ground and armour clunking. This is the most cinematic Total War yet, which gives battles and soldiers more personality. But, this being a strategy game, you won't be spending much time at ground level as the battle begins to rage.
"Land and naval battles are now seamless. Ships battle on the Nile as infantry clash on its banks"
Hit Tab and the camera pulls back, giving you a bird's-eye view of the battlefield. This displays the position of your army, and any enemy units whose positions you've revealed. Terrain now blocks line of sight, which makes it easier for you - and your opponent - to stay hidden, which is perfect for ambushes. Light infantry units make good scouts, and you can send them ahead of your main force to reveal hidden enemies, or as bait if you're particularly ruthless.
Pressing Insert while using a projectile siege weapon like a ballista or catapult switches to first-person view, and you can fire these weapons manually. The camera follows your deadly ball of rock as it soars through the air, and watching it smash into a crowd of enemies and devastate their numbers is incredibly satisfying. Batter a ship and the crew will panic and leap overboard as the hull is shattered and fires break out on the deck. Lightly armoured Mediterranean-class ships are quick and maneuverable, while barbarian ships can take more of a beating, but are slower.
Land and naval battles are now seamless. This is one of the most impressive new features in Rome II, and makes for gripping and dynamic battles. Ships can battle on the Nile while infantry clash on its banks, or you can ferry troops through ports and drop them off inside cities. Compared to the unwieldy floating fortresses of Shogun, the ships here are much more nimble, making naval battles more exciting.
"This is the most cinematic Total War game yet, which gives battles, and your soldiers, more personality."
Not counting DLC, there are nine playable factions, each with their own legendary generals, technology trees, special units, and traits. For example, only the 'civilised' factions have access to the most advanced ships (that is, until the barbarians capture one of their ports in the campaign).
Playable factions include Rome, Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, Macedon, Pontus, Parthia, The Subei, The Averni, and The Iceni. The Greek States DLC, which anyone who pre-ordered will get for free, adds Sparta, Athens, and Epirus, whose challenging campaigns are geared towards Total War veterans. Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses. The Romans get a huge bonus to growth, while barbarians have weak industry, but are less likely to lose morale in battle.
There are three victory conditions for campaigns: military, economic, and cultural. Military is the simplest, requiring you to control a set amount of settlements and provinces, and maintain an army of a certain size. For an economic victory you have to establish trade agreements with a certain number of factions, and hold at least one of every type of strategic resource. Finally, cultural victories are achieved by holding settlements, building temples, and developing tech.
As in previous games, individual units earn experience from winning battles, but now the army as a whole does as well. With enough experience you can develop so-called traditions, which give your army bonuses for certain disciplines, like capturing cities or naval prowess. When a new army is recruited, these traits will be passed on.
Diplomacy is important in campaigns too. Factions will develop 'attitudes' as you play, dictated by your behaviour. If you're a known warmonger, they'll be less likely to cooperate with you and set up trading deals. These attitudes can also explain why a faction has declared war, which can in turn help you decide whether to respond with military or diplomatic action.
Monarchy factions are built on reputation and influence. Winning battles gains influence, while spying and assassination lowers it. Civil wars can break out in republics, but you can take advantage of this and become emperor. The new province system makes keeping track of all this easier than in previous Total Wars; Regions are now grouped into provinces, which makes managing settlements less a chore.
"There's an incredible amount of depth here, and you'll still be learning new things fifty hours in"
There's a better sense of fluidity throughout the game. The campaign map - which is reminiscent of the Civilization series - gives players far greater control over your army. Meanwhile, if you're at war and desperate for more men, you can hire mercenaries. But even though a lot has been streamlined, this is still a big, dense, and initially bewildering game.
There's help for new players in the form of a story-led prologue. Here, playing as Rome, you'll be taught the basics, both on the battlefield and on the campaign map. It does a decent job of introducing Total War to series newcomers, but it doesn't cover everything. Advisors - whose level of help can be adjusted - and a detailed encyclopaedia with built-in videos are on hand to help, but it'll still take time to wrap your head around everything.
If you're playing mainly for the real-time battles, it's possible to automate much of the campaign. Similarly, if you prefer the turn-based stuff, you can auto-resolve battles, deciding whether your army is defensive, balanced, or aggressive. Both sides of the game work well together: the immediate, thrilling battles and the glacial, methodical strategy of the campaign. There's an incredible amount of depth here, and you'll still be learning new tricks fifty hours in.
Your PC will be tested. The visuals are scalable, but much of the impact of the battles are lost when you play on low or medium. With everything cranked up, though, it's staggeringly pretty - if you have the hardware to run it. From the sun-baked deserts of Egypt to the rainy forests of Europe, it's a beautiful vision of the ancient world. There's a lot more terrain variety, which makes battles more interesting with the new line of sight system, and towns and cities look less boxy.
Path-finding has been improved over previous games, but there are still some problems. During an assault on Carthage, we filled a Roman siege tower with troops and then watched it get stuck behind a wooden fence, trundling backwards and forwards. The battle AI still feels slightly robotic too, but that's an understandable trade-off for having such enormous armies. Creative Assembly has committed itself to providing regular updates for the game long after its release, so we expect these and other issues to be ironed out in the near future.
But those issues aside, strategy games don't get much better than this. There's something here for everyone, whether you dream of commanding armies, or using espionage and politics, to crush your enemies. It could be more welcoming to new players - and you'll need to invest a significant amount of time to understand all of its intricacies - but get past that and you'll find a deep, rewarding game that brings history to life in an incredible way.
Rich, thrilling strategy that will appeal to politicians and tacticians alike.
- Huge, cinematic battles
- Incredibly detailed turn-based and real-time strategy
- Can be overwhelming for new players
- Some pathfinding issues