Total Weekend War: Creative Assembly Finally Fixed Rome II
It only took three patches, with a fourth on the way, but Creative Assembly has finally wrestled Total War: Rome II into a playable state. Not only is the game playable, but I can report after some significant conquests this week that it is actually quite fun.
The British developers fixed the release version’s major problem, turn-processing, which comprised the introduction to my extremely cantankerous review. Roughly a month after release, hitting the “End Turn” button now results in the brisk cycle through AI turns you’d expect, not the epic slog the game initially offered, which felt like reading Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in Esperanto. Even later on in the campaign, when AI armies proliferate, longer per-faction turn times are offset by the fact that most of the minnows have already been swallowed up, leaving fewer factions to wait through.
Quicker turns means more turns, which means practically everything to a game like Rome II. More experience with high-level units, buildings, and technologies. More opportunities to test the various mechanics, many of which have been effectively re-balanced. More tactical, deliberate wars, waged without the kind of desperation that a minute-long wait between turns can cause.
I was able to try out a greater variety of different factions, which gives a good sense of the scope of the game and the different experiences it can provide. I ended up spending most of my time with the Averni (better known as the Gauls), carving out a huge empire in central Europe in memory of my childhood buddies Asterix and Obelix.
Egypt, too, is a fun choice, with a strong starting position which shows off the campaign map’s navigable Nile. Naval units can simply sail right down, which seems obvious, but how many other strategy games actually offer it? In the Caucasus, an experiment with Parthia and Pontus was abandoned early due to the Eastern Empires’ profusion of aggravating skirmisher cavalry units. Before moving on, though, I did notice a clever Game of Thrones Easter egg: Eastern Spy units borrow some distinctive dialogue from a fan-favorite character, the mysterious assassin Jaqen H’ghar.
Three patches have also yielded an arsenal of minor tweaks, some noticeable, some not. Frame-rates are more stable, both on the campaign map and while navigating the various menus. Battles feel much more in keeping with the series’ history; units stay in the fight longer, and don’t indulge in any obviously squirrely AI behavior on the battlefield itself.
That said, there’s still more to fix, possibly with Patch 4. Rebel uprisings and the city-less armies recently evicted factions still tend to launch themselves into suicidal assaults. The AI also still struggles with upgrading its armies; even 100 turns in, I was swatting aside stacks full of base-level slingers that made easy fodder for my upgraded heavy horse.
There’s also the question of why it took until just recently to get the game into working order. Conventional wisdom points to inflexible scheduling on the part of publishers SEGA — only the people who actually worked on the game know for sure, and they’re not telling. What’s certain is that if the game had shipped without the crippling turn-processing bug I alluded to above, my review would have been completely different, and I’d wager that others would have been as well. This begs the question of why Creative Assembly and SEGA would willingly distribute with a game with such an obvious flaw — I have a hard time believing it’s something that just escaped their notice in testing. What does SEGA stand to gain with an inflexible release date that results in a critical pasting from Game Front and many others? Why does Creative Assembly make this mistake again and again, agreeing to ship before their game actually works right?
It’s a situation that shows the greedy, cynical side of the business — too many people in the games industry are happy to dazzle consumers with carefully stage-managed demos and preview coverage, collecting their money before selling them a product that will work tomorrow, next week, next month. It’s not like you can hand over $30 and tell SEGA that the next $30 will be provided in a future patch. As I said in my review, I hope there are lessons learned on both sides of these Total War transactions, although, again, I wouldn’t count on it. At least now we can spend the weekend enjoying the game as it was meant to be played.