Total War: Rome 2 Hands-On Preview — A Samnite To Remember
Last time I attended a Rome 2 event, at GDC, SEGA pulled out all the stops. People in costume, bunches of grapes — even a fake boar’s head (at least, I think it was fake).
Last week in San Francisco, there was none of that frippery. Instead, there was something infinitely more important: hands-on gameplay. A short introduction by Creative Assembly developer Al Bickham gave way to a couple of (to be honest, quite excellent) trailers, and then we were off to another room, full of rented gaming rigs.
The gameplay section at hand was the game’s prologue, a plot-driven chunk that will serve as both a tutorial for new players and an introduction to new and changed features for an old hand like me. Pleasingly, it centers around a little-known era of Roman history: the Samnite Wars, when the Roman Republic was still consolidating its power in central Italy. By limiting the scope of the action and providing some historically accurate narrative drive, the Prologue served as an excellent introduction to the world of Rome II.
Battle is joined right away — the Samnites have the Roman army under siege in Capua, and the player is provided with a small detachment with which to save the day. Some changes were immediately apparent, including the incrementally improved graphics of the terrain and the refreshingly distinctive map design. As a long-standing Total War player, I’m glad to see that the days of fighting over their same cookie-cutter fortifications and conurbations have come to an end.
Other touches are less welcome, including the ugly, garish 3D heads that deliver tutorial messages and pop up every time you select a unit, distracting from both the action and the gorgeous new unit cards, which incorporate some striking Roman iconography. Why strategy game designers are convinced that we need to see facial portraits is beyond me, but Company of Heroes 2 has the same exact problem.
At long-range, the brightly colored red and blue soldiers of the Romans and Samnites also seemed to bleed into each other — move the camera too high, and it’s like watching a battle between two different flavors of Fun Dip. That said, the option to take the camera extremely high and see a full picture of the battlefield, with units represented as simple colored polygons, should prove to be a useful tool. Armchair centurions will be frustrated by other UI decisions, however, which hide important information about unit health, energy, and morale behind tiny colored icons and micro-fonted tooltips.
Niggles aside, the game’s introductory skirmish was an exciting crash-course in Total War fundamentals, thanks in part to some excellent, martial voice acting. Players command a small group of infantry and pair of sling-wielding ranged units, and the game walks you through the Rock-Pilum-Scutum of unit superiority, the importance of flanking, and the benefits of using forests as cover. Destroy some Samnite siege engines, sneak across a ford, take the invaders in the flank, use some ballistas of your own, and the siege of Capua is lifted.
After that, it’s on to the campaign map, beautiful and evocative in Creative Assembly’s customary style. This time around, more attention has been paid to the strategic ramifications of geography, and the game is quick to point out how armies can use a new “stance” system to fortify major roads and mountain passes, or select “ambush” to lie in wait in an opportune forest.