‘I selected all, I charged, I failed’ is just one of the many maxims I’ve had to learn playing real time strategy games since my first foray in to them in the early nineties.
We’ve progressed a bit in the last twenty years from the old C&C style of ‘how many mammoth tanks can I build in five minutes to chuck at the enemy’ and the Total War series was one of the pioneers that progressed the genre. You see, you need to retain the mindset of balance while playing Rome II, both on the battlefield and in the halls of the senate. You need to play the benevolent statesman, religious manipulator and ruthless dictator just as much as the military general if you’re to have any hope of conquering the world as you know it. Appeasing your people is just as much, if not more important to securing military victories than fighting the battles themselves. Let’s look at an example from early on in the campaign…
Currently I’m in a bit of a pickle, I control only two out of the four provinces of the southern Italian province of Magna Grecia. The other two are in Sicily and so I am attempting an invasion of said province by raising a massive army of death to crush the currently controlling Syracusans in to the ground. This will apparently make my populace in the south ‘happier’, (assuming that they’ll eventually get over the fact that I’ve just burnt the homes of the new additions and cut the heads off anyone who resisted). And if I don’t do this the unhappiness could get worse. There are other methods of course for increasing happiness which include introducing more religious buildings and outright military oppression, but my mind is set with zeal on a unified Rome and my eye is firmly fixed on Sicily. On arriving however, the Carthaginians ended up successfully invading one of Sicily’s cities before I got there, and in a weird turn of fate I ended up helping the Syracusans fend them off while I plotted to eventually turn on them.
Meanwhile, in the north, some rag-tag tribe decides to make the terrible decision of waging war on me. Ha! I laugh in your face, you bear-skin wearing, food-encrusted-bearded, and frankly-unhygienic barbarians, no one can stand against the might of Rome! So I leave a small but dedicated force to defend the north, just in case the barbarians try something stupid, like attacking. What I didn’t count on was that while my army in Sicily were steam-rolling over both Carthage and Syracuse (and were very confused right now), the barbarians in the north had managed to raise a huge army of very angry men with spears. With my main army in Sicily and no time to reinforce the north I was forced to essentially fight the battle with pots and pans wielded by children against an army of ancient social delinquents that wear whole bear skins on their backs, for a laugh. So instead of selecting auto-resolve I attempted to fight them on the battlemap in full 3D and all that shit. And this is where Rome and the Total War series really makes a name for itself of course, the ability to render thousands of individual soldiers on screen at once and watch them duke it out. I don’t think I’ll tire of getting close up to follow a forest of spears held by iron-clad soldiers, all moving in unison; hearing the heavy rhythmic motion of thousands of boots on sodden land as they march stoically towards the unknown until we both watch, through the haze and over the brow of a hill, the thin distant line of our foe become wider and wider. The battle horns cry and the drums rally the troops, which instils a boost of morale – even within me – as I realise that we’re both in this together, my fate is bound to theirs. I just hope my preparations will force them to reconsider. I’ve placed the one cavalry unit I have in hiding in nearby trees in a rather pathetic attempt to outflank around five thousand spearmen, which is pretty much the only way to effectively attack spearmen with cavalry anyway. It’s not enough though, and I knew it never would be. The barbarians are ill-disciplined and ill-trained but there are just too many of them. I watch, from a distance, as the Hastati infantry stand fast, three men deep, shoulder and shield forward, bracing against the mounting tide and putting all their energy in to holding the line against the angry rabble of spears. It’s eventually too much though and as the barbarians slowly but surely thin the ranks of the brave Romans their morale starts to break, producing a ripple effect in the adjacent ranks and those that are left falter and flee. I watch on with nothing but sympathy. I could have retreated the army before this all started of course, but the ruthless dictator in me knows that it was better to thin their ranks and weaken them before they enter the city, stalling any reinforcement of them and making it easier to retake later.
And so I’m now left with a gap in my northern territories and in a worse state than I was to begin with, and I’ve hardly started the campaign. Public order drops in the adjacent settlements and, due to the size of my Sicilian army, the coffers are emptying at an alarming rate simply to keep them supplied. Add to the fact that I now have an angry army next door who, within a year, may try to take on the rest of my neighbouring settlements. Fortunately they’re still just a bunch of barbarians, it’s not like the Carthaginians would ever attempt to cross the Alps in to northern Italy. You’ll be telling me they’ll be bringing elephants next, led by a man who sounds like a serial killer… And I’ve made such a mess now, simply because I wanted to unify the Italian provinces and ensure the happiness of my people and it all seems to have backfired somehow. But my fault was clearly with balance and putting all my eggs in one basket by building a huge army for a quick invasion of Sicily while leaving the rest of my empire relatively undefended. You can’t just ‘select all and charge’ not even on the campaign map and in a way this makes the whole experience more immersive, humbling you back to the reality of real decision making. There’s a certain joy to be had from being presented with emerging strategic, political and military challenges and finding a measured, methodical way around them. If you stop and listen to Rome II when it tries to stay your hand you’ll eventually feel the gravitas of a powerful leader.
Rome II has plenty more routes to cavalry charging, elephant crushing, short sword-stabby, strategic glory though, such as the historical battles. These can be tricky at times especially to those unfamiliar with this kind of real time strategy (though seemingly not as much as the likes of the Alexander expansion for the original Rome: Total War game), but as usual they definitely sit well with the history buffs and those who require a challenge. Custom and quick battles are also enormous fun. I have a minor niggle though that in most of these battles the other side will simply sit there, waiting for you to make the first move. I don’t think I’m really aware of anyone who plays Rome II in multiplayer, and certainly not regularly. But the feature is no hindrance to the rest of it and is at the very least an interesting realm to explore. As of writing, it’s in a fairly stable condition and traditionally that has always been a sore point for the Total War series. I’m playing the newly released Emperor edition which, by now, has fixed many of the bugs that plagued the game on its release. There have been a couple of crashes and the odd weird flickering textures but to be honest I like to separate technical faults mostly from criticism of the game itself. Rome II isn’t for the faint hearted, that’s for sure, the campaign can be a long slog, just like previous games in the series, although that’s not necessarily a criticism. Yes, it’s clearly not for everyone, but for the budding general who likes to slowly build an empire, knowing that when it’s done it was a labour of love, Rome II offers all (or at least most of western Europe).