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Rome: Total War

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  Reviewed by Erich Becker
October 22, 2004
Real-Time Strategy
Creative Assembly
How do you describe a game like Rome: Total War to someone? Realistically it is a lot harder than it looks. How do you describe one of the crowning achievements in game design in the last five years and not make it sound as though you have lost your mind and lapsed into some kind of ancient, ritualistic trance? The simple answer to the question is, simply sit them down, and let them play the game and fully experience what addictive gameplay is like. I, for one, didn't think I would like the game after never playing any of the previous two games in the series, but my preconceptions were wrong and once I let the game grab a hold of me, it has been impossible to stop playing.

Rome: Total War puts you in command of an army during one of the most turbulent times in the Mediterranean region. Rising factions in Italy are at war with one another including the remnants of Greece and the Barbarians to the north. You, with your army, enter into one of the great families in the game as a god-like overseer who has complete controls of all settlements and people. Simply put, the object is to build, conquer, and rule, but becoming the all-mighty emperor is a bumpy, yet amazingly detailed road to travel.

The game starts you off with a tutorial prologue that introduces the controls and the gameplay workings of the series. Being a franchise newbie I took it upon myself to listen to every advising sound-bite and read every scroll presented to me so I wouldn't miss anything. Two primary advisors aide you through your quest, one focusing on the campaign map, the other helping you on the battlefield. Since you spend an equal amount of time in each of these settings, we'll start with the campaign setting.

The three-dimension campaign map shows every geological and man-made feature that you could expect to find throughout this part of the world. While in this mode you can see the terrain and any areas you have exposed from the fog of war. Each area you will visit is divided into provinces, with each province possessing one city which must be captured in order to spread your influence. Your armies are represented by a single, towering figure that moves over the map in a predetermined distance, represented by a green shadow cast on the ground. Anything in that shadow is immediately accessible including your other armies, to which you can merge, or enemy armies to which you can engage in battle.

If you decide to engage an enemy, a scroll will present you with the battle's odds, the number of men on each side, and the quality of general each army possesses. From here you can either withdrawal from the fight, let the computer calculate the winner, or fight the battle yourself (which I'll get to in a moment).

Also, while on the campaign map, you can lay siege to an enemy town in an attempt to break down the populations' morale, and cave to your influence. Each city or town as a certain number of turns (each of which last as long as you wish and then progress the game 6 months at a time) to which it can last while being under siege. During that time the inhabiting army may sally forth a battle against you, to break the siege. If you don't feel like waiting five or six turns to take over a settlement, you can build siege weapons like rolling towers and battering rams to capture the walls. This all happens in the game's battle mode where you must slash your way to the town's plaza and occupy it for a set time limit, or exterminate the opposing army. Once you have captured a town you have the option of leaving the population alone, enslaving it (spreading an equal number to each of your settlements), or killing off most of the people to show your might to the world (this results in less income from the city, but more initial money from looting). For me, I usually enslaved the population, but you have to keep the public order high so that riots don't form. If one faction pissed me off to a greater extent, a massacre occurred. The game rewards you for obtaining certain population levels, so killing everyone may not be the best option all the time.

Your cities are an important aspect to your power in this part of the world. In order for a city to progress a leader must be present to recruit troops from the population, or build new buildings. The better the leader, the better the town will prosper under their leadership. Like most RTS games, your settlements will follow a technology tree, progressively opening up more advanced buildings, which in turn lead to upgrades to your troops, and even more advanced buildings. When a governor is absent, the city will be put on a self-manage mode in order to keep it operational until you return. This presents one of the minor drawbacks to the game. Usually you will want to expand faster than family members are available to govern (as only members of your family can rule). While this isn't a big deal, it does limit players who go for a "power overwhelming" approach.

While you can easily spend hours per turn on the campaign map, positioning armies and plotting your next move, you will eventually do battle with an opposing army, and this is where the game's real heart and soul comes from. When initiating an attack, or being attacked, the game presents you with the aforementioned battle summary scroll. If you decide to manually fight the battle you will be transported to the battlefield and given the opportunity to position your army in a section of the map, and go from there. Rome: Total War is a strategy game, but the overwhelming factor of 400 men on each side of the battlefield will lead to a grassy knoll scattered with dead bodies. The game's engine is capable of showing thousands of rendered characters on the screen at any given time, along with fully 3D buildings and the surrounding environment. The game's clean interface gives you access to every unit in your army separated by unit type. For example, clicking on the picture of the archer in the interface selects all the units in that particular group of archers (the number displayed on the tile tells you how many units are left in that division, most start with 40). Battles which look overwhelming with 12 divisions on the field usually aren't with single clicks and double clicks issuing most orders. After your orders are issued, the strategist with the best plan will win the battle and either send the enemy fleeing or bleeding.

The graphics aren't pushing your video card to any maximum levels, but they get the job done more than adequately. With the positional camera you can zoom down to the battlefield level and see each character up close and personal. With an engine that can push this many characters on screen at the same time, and still give excellent performance (even on a mid-range Athlon XP system), you can't help but be impressed.

Rome: Total War's orchestrated music is some of the best heard, not only in the genre, but in computer games today. Kicking in at just the right times, the blood gets pumping while involved in huge skirmishes. Also, the voice work of your advisors is very well done as well as your general before a battle.

One of the minor drawbacks to the game is the naval battles. Unlike the ground-based warfare, naval battles are always computer controlled and determined. Your ships are able to blockage enemy ports, but the ensuing battle could be win or lose depending on the computer.

The uniqueness of every battle brushes off the feeling of doing the same thing over and over again. The beauty of the strategy genre is the ability to do things differently each time. Some battles, you may decide to take a defensive approach, waiting for the enemy to come to you. Other times you may decide to launch the initial assault. One of the beauties of the game is the ability to actually siege towns, making scenes like those in the perennial Lord of the Rings trilogy a reality, at least in the computer game sense.

There is so much to say about Rome: Total War, and so many gameplay mechanics which set it apart from similar games that I had better take my own advice, and let you learn by experience. For fans of the franchise and of the strategy genre in general, you will find a complete, addictive game that should keep you busy for a great long while. Casual gamers may be intimidated by the seemingly complex mechanics, but a single time-losing session will change their minds. Sure, those looking to dig deep into the game will find the micro-management they desire, but for the most part, the tutorial makes the game immediately accessible to anyone. Rome: Total War is definitely one of the year's 10 best games and a worthy addition to any gamer's collection.

(Click to Enlarge)

Minimum Requirements...
Windows 98SE/ME/2000/XP; Pentium III or Athlon 1.0GHz or higher; 256MB RAM; 8X CD-ROM; 2.9GB Hard Drive Space; 100% DirectX 9.0b compatible sound and video card; ATI Radeon 7200 or higher or NVIDIA GeForce 2 or higher.


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