Political assassinations, provincial strife and pivotal battles in “Total War: Rome II” bring back the familiar empire-building game play that drew critical acclaim to the series more than 10 years ago. But “Rome II” falls prey to its own ambition, with too many disjointed elements ruining an otherwise polished game.
Mixing turn-based strategy with real-time battle tactics, “Rome II” requires players to master their chosen faction on a macro and micro scale. Whether it’s mustering a legion through a mountain pass in the dead of winter or besieging an enemy stronghold in Northern Africa, “Rome II’s” sense of scale sets it apart from rival games like “Civilization.”
The campaign mode, which includes a rim of territory to be conquered around the Mediterranean Sea, is still the bread and butter of the “Total War” experience. After playing through a brief tutorial prologue, “Rome II” allows gamers the chance to choose their military faction and expand aggressively. This can mean garnering political backing as a Roman family or assembling the Celtic Gauls across Northern Europe. Regardless of which faction players choose, controlling new provinces means conquering four cities at a time. Spacious terrain and urban combat then provide a decent assortment of skirmish scenarios.
Despite its title, “Total War” also emphasizes the player’s role in maintaining order and peace across an empire. Attention spent solely on military-related activities will likely foment internal disarray and invite enemy invasion. Peasant revolts, food shortages and roving marauders add a separate layer of managerial complexity and historical accuracy to “Rome II,” so players need to pay close attention to public order and imperial infrastructure.
From a technical standpoint, “Rome II” completely falls short of its idealized talking points. User interface, the spine of every real-time strategy game, happens to be the game’s biggest blunder. Overseeing an expansive political entity requires a set of simplified micromanagement tools, but developer Creative Assembly somehow managed to undo its previously intuitive design. Now players will have to endure disorienting camera angles, boring enemy turns, and inefficient overlay menus.
Cinematics would be much more impressive if it weren’t for "Rome II’s" incredibly choppy graphics engine. Gamers not equipped with a top-of-the-line PC should prepare to weep as they continually lower their graphics settings. But for those among us who are blessed with high-end gaming rigs, watching a battalion of elephants collide with enemy infantry never seems to get old.
If players are looking for a stimulating battle, it’s more likely to occur in online play than against the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) software. “Rome II’s” built-in AI is still not quite up to snuff, since a small group of cavalry is enough to draw out and flank enemy forces. Online matchmaking servers will likely remain stocked with eager opponents for some time to come, but the excitement of one-on-one battles is short lived since it doesn’t incorporate broader elements of the campaign mode.
On day one of the game’s release, Creative Assembly sought to assuage grievances with a general software patch. If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s that players need to delay their purchase of “Total War: Rome II.” In six months’ time, the game will include the necessary patches to make it a more enjoyable game at a lower price point.