David Murphy Feb 14, 2014

Total War: Rome II Review

At A Glance

Total Annihilation

Gorgeous battles and strategic map visuals; naval combat; built-in Wikipedia-like help system; compelling tactical elements within general combat.

Total Cereal

Too many factions; turns take forever; micromanagement abounds; city-building lacks depth; army-building lacks urgency; graphical hog.

We hope you have some chores to do between turns

It didn’t take long, but we soon came to a point within our Total War: Rome II empire-building where it would have been much nicer to just build a big wall around our smattering of conquered lands, put up a “Go Away” sign or two, and live out the rest of our days in boredom and serenity. After all, the game had already taken us pretty far toward the former.

While we’re big fans of “starving them out,” you can also employ fun rock-chuckers to encourage enemies to vacate a city.

It’s a shame, too. We can recall spending (too much) time playing many of the predecessors in the Total War franchise—moving around armies and special units as if we were playing a hybrid of Risk and chess, and jumping into absurdly fun, sprawling battles reminiscent of the opening scene of Gladiator. That’s all still present in Total War: Rome II, but the game itself just isn’t all that compelling.

For one thing, it’s huge. Starting off any of the offered campaigns (which is the closest you’ll get to a “story mode” within this strategy title, save for its “prologue” trainer campaign) presents an overwhelming amount of factions and lands for you to deal with. That doesn’t sound so bad at first, given that the game is called Total War and you should really arrive expecting to dance with a number of lesser folk. However, just getting through a simple turn or two is a battle unto itself.

We were rocking a fairly beefy system to play this title—even going so far as to install the game on an SSD—and we still found ourselves waiting around 45 seconds or so just to get through the turns of our campaign’s many, many other players. Worse, that was just in our campaign’s early game when not all that much is happening around the map. Best of luck to you if your computer is a little slow on the uptake; you might want to go make a sandwich (or mow the lawn) while the AI does its thing.

If you like to turtle—sitting inside your borders and building a lovely little civilization while everything else around you burns—this might not be the title for you. There’s simply not that much to do within the game’s city-building component, save for carefully managing the balance between your provinces’ public order and food. Want to make a building that gives you more food? More unrest! Want to quell the unrest so you can make more food or other buildings that confused us as to their usefulness? Insert random building here!

There’s also a growth-rate mechanic that allows you to increase the size of your cities, assuming you’re even allowed to add more buildings—some will be limited to just a few. In other words, Total War: Rome II ain’t Civilization; don’t expect to be able to take every city of yours through some kind of masterwork plan to transform it into the next Rome; expect to do a lot of minutia calculating as to whether your simple upgrades will make or break your faction’s food surplus (or start a decrease in public order). Spoiler: You really don’t want to break your provinces’ careful balance.

Unless you have armies on the move, the city/cultural aspects of the game contribute to its boredom, thanks to the aforementioned overabundance-of-factions issue. If you find yourself with a few turns where you’re just taking care of business at home instead of marching around and sticking pointy spears through everybody, you might very well be waiting five minutes for the 20 seconds’ worth of action that you’ve taken. Do this enough, and you’ll turn yourself into a warlord if for no other reason than to give yourself a bit more to do.

We’re almost afraid to uncover the entire map, lest it lead to turns that each take five minutes to resolve.

Similar to previous Total War titles, there’s a whole micromanagement aspect behind your faction’s “characters”—your generals, thieves, nobles, and other “special” units. As they grow, you can assign them skills and upgrade their abilities and statistics. You can marry them off, promote them, kill their wives, and even attempt to kill them off, depending on how their growing influence factors into your faction’s politics. If that sounds confusing, if not antithetical, don’t worry; we didn’t have much of a clue what we were doing in this element of the game, nor is it quite clear what you should be doing on the political field (nor is this level of micromanagement all that much fun).

We partially blame the game’s “throw you into it” mentality. Admittedly, Total War: Rome II does come with a lovely “prologue” campaign that’s designed to get newbies up to speed on the game’s various parts; we recommend you not skip that, even if you’re a fairly accomplished Total War player (and will no doubt find yourself unchallenged in the campaign’s actual battles). At the end of the day, however, there’s just a lot going on within Total War’s “map mode,” for lack of a better way to phrase it, and it’s not exactly thrilling work.

That brings us to the battles.

We greatly enjoy the raw, physical fighting of the Total War series, and Total War: Rome II spares no expense in that regard. While the computer still remains fairly out-thinkable, there’s just a delightful joy that comes each time you fire up your cavalry’s special abilities and run them right through enemy archers—and that’s just the beginning.

Total War: Rome II ups the ante by throwing naval combat into the mix, and it’s every bit as beautiful as it is tactically interesting (even though we wish there were a way to move one’s troops from land to ships, and vice versa, within the general campaign). You’ll smile with delight the first time you zoom in to watch your troops leaping over from your ship to an enemy vessel; disembarking a huge chunk of whoop-ass in front of a garrisoned city within a battle is even more glee-inducing.

However, Total War: Rome II’s prettiness comes with a price. We didn’t quite expect to see frame-rate issues, thanks to our system’s Nvidia GTX Titan card, but our battles definitely got choppy when we cranked the game to its highest graphical settings. The developer has since patched the game, but after our deadline had passed. Bummer.

It’s no Saving Private Ryan, but sailing toward a garrisoned city (full of painful archers) does feel a bit awe-inspiring.

Total War: Rome II puts us in the precarious position to say that the game’s a half-success: The rock ’em, sock ’em battles are fun and engaging (albeit imperfect), but the game’s larger strategy elements make us want to retreat back to the pleasantry of Civilization V. Unless you want to throw down every turn you get (which you might very well do, should you opt to enslave your beaten foes), Total War: Rome II is a tough, strategic slog to get through.

$60, www.totalwar.com , ESRB: T


Total War: Rome II

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