However, I can’t review a game on what it has the potential to be, only what it currently is. And what Rome 2 currently is, is something of a disappointing, technically flawed mess. It may not be in as bad a state as Empire was on release (at least from my experience) but it’s certainly close.
So let’s get this out of the way first. Rome 2 has some serious technical issues. I’ve experienced several crashes in battles and on the campaign map and I’ve seen regularly inexplicable frame rate drops on both, which is one of the worst problems, at least for me. I bought a new PC, largely because of this game, which can run Shogun 2 on Ultra settings like a breeze. Yet Rome 2, even when I crank the settings down, will occasionally shudder and stutter along. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but clearly Rome 2 is in desperate need of improved optimization.
Then we have the bugs. These bugs range from graphical errors, to erratic unit behaviour, to unresponsive AI. The good news, is that all of these problems are fixable. With enough TLC, Rome 2 could become as polished and bug-free as Shogun 2. Because although Shogun 2 is now an extremely polished and silky smooth experience, that wasn’t always the case. It took time and patches to become, at least in my opinion, the best in the series yet. I hope one day I can say the same about Rome 2.
So let’s get into the meat of it, shall we? We’ll begin with a look at the campaign map. The Rome 2 campaign map is utterly gorgeous. It’s vast, highly detailed, varied and stylish. Although some of the visual effects are a little overdone (city selection & building smoke) the map feels alive, and watching your empire slowly expand is fantastic. Cities can be expanded as the population grows to include more building slots, and you can now watch your cities grow organically on the map, walls springing forth and buildings rising from clouds of dust – it’s a wonderfully simple, yet immersive feature.
The way you manage your regions and cities has also seen something of a much needed overhaul. Regions are now grouped into Provinces. This cuts down on tedious micromanagement significantly, something of an irritating burden in the late-games of previous titles. Now you can simply select your Provincial Capital and manage a region as a whole, seeing all the settlements included from a single panel. As in Shogun 2, building slots are restricted, forcing the player to choose which regions to specialise in which areas. One thing I love about this system is that it also gives the player smaller, local expansion targets in order secure entire Provinces for the benefits that brings (improved stability and edicts).
City happiness is another factor to take into consideration, and failure to manage it properly can result in rebellions. It’s a game of balance, as you weigh up the need for military, cultural and economic buildings within specific regions. I also liked the now improved region garrisons, as they can actually be quite effective – a good thing given the new army limits which I’ll talk about later. There are also two types of city now. Capitals and ‘minor’ cities. Both can be sieged, but only the Capital has walls. This adds some much needed variety to the by-the-turn siege-fest that plagued Shogun 2. However, it’s also not without its problems.
Like Shogun 2, the campaign map has been designed in a way to funnel the player and the AI into more direct conflict. This was intended, with the addition of non-fortified minor settlements and army stances, to increase the variety of battle types fought. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the result, as 90% of battles involve attacking the minor cities either by land or sea. In over 40 hours of play, I’ve not seen a single ambush or river battle, only two fortification battles, and only 10 traditional field battles, as opposed to over 90 non-fortified minor settlement battles. Having played and experienced these other battle types through the excellent custom battle mode, it’s a shame we rarely, if ever, see them in the campaign.
Another new addition is the army (and navy) tradition system. This is a great new feature, one I really have little fault with. General and Agent skills return, but these feel like something of a step back from Shogun 2 because unlike in that game, the skills are not laid out on clearly defined paths to follow. As a result, I didn’t feel like I was personalising my Generals and Agents as much as I wanted to. This issue is compounded by the choice of having one year per game turn, and many Generals and Agents tend to snuff it from old age the moment they begin to get interesting.
I was wary of a one turn per year system, but I wanted to give it a fair shake. Now I have, I can’t understand the decision behind it as it kills any personal player connection to their Generals and Agents and makes investing time in their skills feel worthless. Thankfully, there is already a 2 turn per year mod available. It doesn’t alter movement range or building or research times, but it honestly doesn’t need to as the game still feels finely balanced in those areas regardless.
Army and mercenary recruitment have been streamlined, but in a good way, as you now recruit directly to the army. There are also now multiple auto-resolve battle options which is a great idea in theory, but in practice it only seems to take troop numbers into account and not quality, making it rather unreliable. Armies now also have the already mentioned ‘stances’, but you’ll rarely see the AI use them, aside from the very handy Forced March. Armies can now also move freely across water by transforming into a fleet – a good idea, I reckon, but badly implemented, as they make regular fleets largely redundant. Right now, they are simply too fast and too powerful.
There’s also a new system in place that limits the number of armies, fleet and agents you can field depending on your faction power. I actually like this system as it requires more thought on the part of the player when and where to use their forces. The ‘limit’ isn’t anywhere near as limiting as you may think. I never fielded a max limit of either army or navy, but maybe that’s just my own play style. Returning to agents for a moment – they are a lot of fun, but the three types tend to blur together as they fulfill some very similar functions.
The campaign UI is great, with a wealth of in-depth information only a click away, and the game contains an entire encyclopedia to sift through. The campaign also has a series of chapter based mini objectives (some designed to prod you in a historically accurate direction) which can be ignored or followed as you see fit. This is in addition to the traditional Military Victory condition, which is now joined by Cultural and Economic Victories. There are also new diplomatic options such as non-aggression pacts and defensive alliances, including the great new ability to set war targets for allies (which they actually will attack, believe it or not) new dilemma events with positive and negative outcomes depending on your choices (although these seemed to vanish entirely from my campaign – another bug?) plus a new internal political system.
The political system, unfortunately, is a rather disappointing feature. It’s all a little basic and shallow, and you can largely ignore it for the most part. It’s another game of balance to prevent (or encourage, if you like) a civil war. The problem is that it’s just not very interesting or engaging for the player, as without the family tree of previous titles, it’s hard to care about your family or tribe over time. You just keep an eye on the balance of power and readjust (or not) accordingly.
Overall, there’s a ton of great new stuff packed into the Rome 2 campaign map, and a lot of welcome refinements to previous systems. Some of these new mechanics may work better than others, but I feel with the right amount tweaking, either through patches or mods, all of these problems can be solved. The big issue though, and one that really needs to see an immediate improvement, is the campaign AI.
Compared to Shogun 2, the CAI is strangely passive. It’s almost timid in its dealings with the player. It absolutely refuses to declare war. Seriously. I’ve raided territory, assassinated Generals, poisoned water supplies – I’ve done everything I can to trigger a conflict yet even then, it just doesn’t want to tangle with me. Hey, who can blame it? Amusingly, when I then attack it, it often immediately asks for peace. In one specific case, I wanted to take a small region to gain complete control of a Province. I sent an army to take it which wasn’t very large or strong, and the AI faction had two full stacks nearby which could have easily retaken the city. But on the very same turn I requested peace with the faction and it accepted! It didn’t even ask for compensation for its lost region. I actually gave it some anyway just because I felt sorry for it. I ended up with a region with zero consequences or challenge as the AI just didn’t seem to want to fight me even though it held the superior forces in the region. It seems the Total War: Rome 2 CAI is a bit of a pacifist!
Now, I certainly didn’t want a CAI that randomly declared war for no reason, but this is a step too far, and as a result, there’s very little challenge or resistance to player expansion. And little to no challenge to me equals little to no fun. Now, I’ve read some people saying the CAI is often declaring war on them, but I’ve not personally seen it. Yet others have said they can never get the CAI to sign trade agreements, which, funnily enough, I can’t get enough offers for. Practically every turn the AI is begging me for trade rights, cash, or non-aggression pacts.
CAI expansion is another issue, as I expected to see more factions getting knocked out and others growing in power, but this didn’t really occur. Some did grow, but not to the extent we saw in Shogun 2, when it became more of an epic clash between a smaller number of superpowers towards the end-game. The CAI also seems to have trouble with city management (I’ve seen its armies starving in their own lands) and army composition – either building multiple small stacks, or a few larger ones comprised of weak troops, often 70% or more ranged units, such as slingers. But once again, I’ve seen a mod which already goes some way to re-balance the CAI and remedy this odd behaviour, so it’s certainly within the developer’s capability to improve it.
Okay, let’s move onto battles. To start, I have to say these look fantastic. The environments, the units, the cities – all top notch. The attention to detail and variety is staggering. The battle maps are large and gorgeous, certainly the best yet in a Total War title. Especially the fully upgraded city maps, which are amazing to behold. No complaints there. But everything else? Well...
I love the new overhead tactical map, but I love the new cinematic camera even more. I, and maybe I’m in the minority here, really like the battle UI design and unit cards. I love the variety of new battle types, especially naval landings to take a settlement – great fun! I love the artillery, unit types and cool battlefield deployables like flaming balls! And the new line of sight system is a wonderful addition, giving light cavalry and skirmishers important roles to scout ahead.
I also love the music. Rome 2 has a great soundtrack that really gets you pumped up for the fight. It has great combat animations plus great battle audio in terms of dialogue between troops. It’s immersive and often amusing. General speeches return but are no longer part of a pre-battle cutscene – a good change, as they often became repetitive and quickly skipped. The scene really gets set for an epic clash, no matter the size of the engagement….which is then over in three minutes. Three bloody minutes!
Combat speed is ridiculously fast. There’s also a terrible ‘blob factor’ in the way units attack, completely breaking any carefully planned formation. There’s no time to utilise any tactics or appreciate the fantastic (when you get to see them) combat animations. Special abilities are clicked fast and mindlessly to keep up with the pace and rout the other side faster than your own. It’s a bit of a mess, frankly. Unit pathfinding can also still be rather wonky, especially when it comes to using siege equipment.
The good news, as I said before, is that a lot of this is fixable. In fact, it’s already mostly been fixed for me as I downloaded a mod to improve the combat. Now I can enjoy much longer battles, with units that maintain a high degree of cohesion, even after a charge. Battle lines are more clearly defined, and I have the time to zoom in and admire the action. There’s also now time for tactics, such as flanking, to come into play, and special abilities are much more welcome as their timing is now more important – but they are not quite so decisive either.
This simple, yet effective mod has dramatically improved my enjoyment of Rome 2s battles. I can’t stress that enough, and I’m amazed the core game didn’t ship with combat of a similar nature, especially when it comes to unit cohesion, which in the base game is a bit of a mess. But even so, battles can still be disappointing due to the rather odd Battle AI. But before I get into that, I should mention naval battles – quite fun, but often they descend into a complete clusterf**k of ramming and little else. Siege battles look fantastic, but are often ruined by poor AI, so let’s turn to that now.
The best way I can describe the Battle AI is schizophrenic. I’ll give you two examples, both non-fortified city assaults. In one, I was attacking, and the AI smartly used its troops to block off every street leading to the capture point at its centre. It put spears at the front, and ranged units behind. It also landed a small naval garrison to bolster its lines. It effectively locked down the town, on all fronts, just as well as I’d expect a human player to do, and also defended it well, moving units to shore up the areas I probed to attack – sending men after my skirmishers, but not being led away – instead falling back to maintain its defensive line. Fantastic stuff.
But then we have a similar battle, a siege battle, where the AI does...nothing. Seriously, it sometimes just does nothing, and you can send a single unit around its lines to capture every point and win. Or there are the times when its attacking, and it just ignores everything but the capture flag, blindly (and fatally) trying to run through your entire force to reach it. As you can imagine, this rather ruins any epic city defence no matter how good it looks or sounds.
Yet at other times, it displays a dynamic intelligence which is improved on what Shogun 2 gave us. It uses special abilities more effectively. It holds units in reserve. It holds formations, flanks, and uses skirmishing units properly. It retreats, re-forms, and attacks again. The fact is I’ve seen the Rome 2 BAI do some great things which would make it the best in the series yet – but it just doesn’t do them nearly often enough. A lot of the time, it just doesn’t seem to work at all and as a result, battles become far too easy.
And once again we return to a lack of challenge. And without challenge there’s no sense of accomplishment. No real feeling of victory, because it doesn’t feel earned. This is Rome 2s biggest problem, aside from the technical issues and bugs. Your victories feel worthless. Your great empire was too easy to build. But once again, this is something that can be fixed, and it certainly needs to, because I don’t think I can maintain any interest in my campaigns otherwise.
Okay, time to quickly cover a few remaining things and sum up. Custom battles are great, I love the map selection system and all the new options. Historical battles are a lot of fun, but seriously – only four? I hope they do some more. I’ve not tried MP yet and I doubt I will. I’ve never really been interested in TW for MP, so it would take something special to make me. Something like the Avatar Campaign of Shogun 2, the only TW game I’ve really spent any time playing MP with. But the MP of Rome 2 is just the bare bones basics and as such, holds little interest for me personally. Strike that down as another disappointment. I’ve not tried Co-op either so I can’t comment on that.
Overall, Rome 2 is a fantastic, frustrating, buggy, messy experience. It’s got so much potential and it’s a shame to see it in this current state. A bad game will always be bad. But Rome 2 isn’t a bad game. It’s a good game, a potentially great game – if not the best Total War game yet – but it’s been released in a bad state. It’s fixable. Unlike a just plain bad game, Rome 2 can be saved.
The first thing I think the developers need to do is patch out the bugs and improve the performance. Get it working right. Get it stable. Then we seriously need to look at AI and the balancing of certain systems such as combat and a few of the campaign mechanics, such as AI aggression (or lack, thereof). Then, ideally, with the aid of community feedback, we need to see new content, or the fleshing out of features such as the political system. A family tree, anyone? I’d also highly recommend a closed or public Beta in the future to help avoid another release like this. Sure, you won’t catch all the bugs, but thousands of us are willing to test your game for free – so why not let us do that?
Despite all the negatives, I’m still having a lot of fun with Rome 2 and I hope that with enough time, patches and support we’ll have the definitive, biggest and best Total War.
Just not yet.