Total War: Rome 2 Hands-On Preview — A Samnite To Remember
After building a fortification in a defensible valley, astride a major road, it was time for another tangle with the Samnites, who were presumably still smarting from their recent loss. This battle — fought at night, in the driving rain — proved both an atmospheric defensive encounter and a good chance to try out cavalry for the first time. The basic Roman Equites are powerful, but not invulnerable, and it was important to get the timing of the flanking charge right.
In the end, tactics played a part, but so did weight of numbers. Armies have been overhauled in Rome II, notably by changes made to the recruitment system: players will now recruit units directly into armies — never from cities, as before. In an interview conducted after my play-session ended, developer Al Bickham summed it up nicely: “If you’re in friendly territory, you create your own troops, and if you’re in foreign lands, you can recruit mercenaries…what you’re not doing is going ‘oh I’ve got a unit of archers here, and two units of spearmen here, and a unit over here — I’m going to send those guys to that army, those guys to that army.’”
There’s also an increased emphasis on light RPG mechanics that will give each army its own personality. Shogun 2 players will recognize the attributes and retainers that can be added to buff generals, but now the armies themselves can earn these bonuses as well. It’s a complicated system, but a rewarding one.
Far less complicated is the new method for moving troops by water — simply march them to the shore, and they’ll embark immediately, with no fussing over transport ships. A quick dash down Italy’s Western coast led to another Samnite defeat, this time a siege of a lightly fortified town. Siege battles in Rome II now depend on holding one or more capture points until the opponent’s score ticks down to zero. It’s not revolutionary, but it gives beseiging armies more options and makes the resulting battles more unpredictable.
Victorious generals also now have the choice of freeing, enslaving, or killing captured troops, resulting in various diplomatic credits and debits. Diplomacy was not on offer during the hands-on, but the system sounds fascinating; Bickham described a trip by a group of Creative Assembly developers to an AI summit that had them all abuzz. Someone had designed an AI social network simulator, which models the ways groups of people moved together or apart. As Bickham put it, the AI team “came away thinking more about Total War as a social network, really — the AI factions and the player as well.”
In practice, this means diplomatic behavior that is more sophisticated, more realistic, and easier to quantify. The programmers, Bickham expained, have succeeded in getting the factional AI to “look at relationships further away than it has done in previous games.” “It looks at you,” he continued, “and it makes judgments on your actions. It looks at its allies, and its opponents that it’s encountered, but it also looks further, at the allies of its allies, and the opponents of its allies. And the allies of its opponents, and the opponents of its opponents!” When I mentioned the ancient (but unfortunately, not Roman) maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Bickham described it as a kind of in-house “watchword” for the Diplomacy AI.
If this all seems even more complicated than previous Total War games, which are already extremely complicated, well, it is. But as Bickham insisted, the wealth of new or improved features is undergirded by a commitment to UI design and information presentation that will keep the game from being overwhelming.
Cities are now grouped by province, and they’re easy to improve using a centralized interface, which, like the unit cards, is rife with more attractive, Roman-style art. A new province-wide edict system, which allows players to emphasize tax collection, say, or civilian happiness, can be tracked at a glance by color-coded confetti that floats in the air above each settlement. Technology trees are now less intimidating, grouped by category, and adorned in the aforementioned Classical art-style.
All in all, there was much to like about Total War: Rome II, judging by the brief section I’ve played. When dealing with such a gigantic game, however, one must reserve judgment until its wings are really spread, in this case from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Eastern border of Ancient Persia. For all its smart innovations, some flaws did rankle, including battle AI — still prone to doing really wonky stuff, after all these years — and the uncanny talking heads — get rid of them, strategy developers, please! That said, I’m excited to learn more about the game at it nears release, and even more excited to crush the Mediterranean under my sandals when it releases on September 3, 2013.