Creative Assembly have seemingly learned nothing about rushing out a mechanically rich strategy title. At the very least, things need to work. In its current state, they really don’t – at least, not to the expectations of most. Before Friday’s patch, which was accessible through opting in for betas, Rome II was unplayable as far as I’m concerned. Now it’s playable, but at a low albeit better frame-rate, with a host of issues that still stop me from enjoying the campaign to some extent. I was enthralled by the idea of a global map with historically accurate factions scattered all over the globe, but what we really got was something less impressive – still impressive, but less impressive.

My biggest gripe is a superficial one. Every race or faction pretty much feels and sounds the same, and there’s absolutely no authenticity when it comes to their voices. No army feels genuinely different to another at face value, which is something I felt should have been important. Sure, each force has its own unique tactical capabilities (to a very, very shallow extent), units, and strengths and weaknesses, but everything lacks a sincere authenticity that ultimately makes Rome II a sort of Hollywood mock-up in the vein of Alexander or something. It feels as though the factions have been modeled on three variations: Northern Europeans, Mediterraneans, and the Eastern factions.

I have mixed feelings about such a large map.

I have mixed feelings about such a large map.

There’s really no messing around in Rome II, because the campaign map being a rather large slice of the globe may overwhelm some. It’s a bit like playing Civilization V on the biggest map possible. This is both a liberating, and very restrictive thing. Sure, it beats the tiny tri-Islands of Japan, but I can’t help but miss Napoleon or the original Rome‘s more direct campaign modes. They were more intimate, nuanced, and varied in scale. I also miss the running narrative from Napoleon, and to some degree the historic context and setting of Shogun II. Rome II is a content machine: it tosses you into the fray, and the only way to get going is to take a few words of advice as to who to take down first, and then follow objective victory states from the campaign map. Aside from that, you go forth and conquer on your own.

This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the game didn’t progress at an absolute snails pace. Don’t get me wrong, strategy games should take time – but I’m not talking about the time it takes to make a decent decision, I’m talking about the time it takes for the CPU to. Things start off pretty speedy, and because there are around 100+ factions in the game, expansion across the map means that time between turns is increased. So much so that I’m actually turning to play my Vita during CPU moves, and that’s with CPU animated moves turned off. This is actually a huge problem, and it absolutely destroys flow. During the quieter times where you’re either making few moves, or stacking moves, it can take upwards of 20 minutes just to build a basic army and move a small distance. This is one of the many reasons you’ll find it harder to get into Rome II than previous Total War incarnations.

2013-09-08_00002Creative Assembly should have split the map into four separate campaigns; Northern Europe, Spain, Italy and Africa would have reduced the load on the CPU during enemy turns, and offered a more nuance and in depth look at each factions plight. Sorry if that offends any fan-boys out there, but sometimes, less is more.

If you’re not put off by the snale’s pace or relatively inauthentic feeling armies, then you might be caught by the infuriating sea battles. Sea battles have basically never worked in a single Total War game, and whilst they’re eye-candy, they simply just do not work. It’s all well and good issuing my orders to my units at the start of the battle, or strategically moving them around to somewhere before they make contact, but the mish-mash of wood on wood soon makes boarding/ramming merely a matter of where the ship happens to be at the time.

In clusters of vessels, units can often completely ignore that you’ve told them to board, and be boarded or rammed to death themselves whilst the AI painstakingly tries to path-find. The amount of times I’ve lost an entire crew because the AI was attempting to path-find, and they got rammed to the floor… well, I’ve lost count. Do yourself a favor and try and skip naval battles by allowing the auto-resolve. Unfortunately, naval-battles are a huge part of the game, especially if you want the upper hand taking a town by land and by sea, but Creative Assembly still haven’t figured out a way to make it work so it’s tactically reasonable and enjoyable.

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Eye candy doesn’t cut it.

Battles are beautiful, of course, but they’re also very messy. At no point did I believe that the enemy players had been equipped with the AI to make them play authentically like the faction they represent, and actually, most battles invariably – as they often do in modern Total War games – become a big mess, with hundreds of units slugging it out in the middle. Playing the campaign with the Romans didn’t seem to represent any known Roman tactics, even if you can emulate their formations, and that’s because fighting generic Creative Assembly AI isn’t like fighting Mark Antony, a real dude. Often, the enemy will line up in front of you, waiting for an attack. Sometimes, and this has been exhibited on YouTube, they’ll charge at you, and right before contact, break away and run off.

There are serious problems with the morale system, which seems to take more control away from the player than it should, often making the idea that “lasting until reinforcements arrive” or tactically thinning enemy forces with an accepted defeat is impossible. I found that many of my units sporadically ran off into the distance, came back, then ran off again, even in the battles I was winning. It just seems a matter of ‘ranged stay ranged’, ‘melee go melee’, ‘cavalry flank from a hidden spot’, and if you can generally keep that the way it’s obviously supposed to be, you’ll be fine. There haven’t been any major innovations to combat that I can see, and to many, myself included, the visuals seem downgraded from Shogun II.

The bigger the unit count, the messier the battle.

The bigger the unit count, the messier the battle.

When the playable factions were announced, I was excited. Partly because I wanted to Explore Egypt, Africa, Greece, and Rome, and partly because I felt as though this would be a huge game. Really, it isn’t. Whilst the map is large, the amount of cities and provinces are stretched rather than dense, and the actual battlefields themselves are largley uninteresting. I found I enjoyed playing as the Britons much more than anything from the east, due to the grassy, hilly terrains, but I wished for more urban areas and a greater depth to urban combat. There are a lot of things Paradox’s King Arthur II did better than Rome II, and I think I’d go so far as to say that sieges is one of them.

Health and safety issues plagued our lands.

Health and safety issues plagued our lands.

Similar to Shogun 2, sieges are about camping up outside an enemy base, using siege units to blitz through their defenses and either kill the enemy units or force them to flee. Nothing particularly new there. If you want to succeed, have another army on stand-by to come on as reinforcements, but don’t expect them to be particularly useful because they’ll come from the opposite side of the map and take 4 moons to even get to a gate, by which point your original army will have broken through into their main defenses. It’s simply Total War through and through, but playing as some of the more skirmish inclined factions makes these somewhat more enjoyable – like Braveheart, including the dodgy accents.

What’s more, Creative Assembly have kept the “diplomacy” system that needed serious attention. Diplomacy isn’t about offering some gold with an idea to make it seem more pleasing. In fact, on a global scale, diplomacy shouldn’t be identical between all factions. Creative Assembly have put no work into improving the “admin” side of things, and I find myself pretty annoyed that religion plays literally no role in Rome II whatsoever, aside from temples keeping the plebs happy.

If you read the faction descriptions, their religious roles are so evocatively laid out as imperative to their cause – yet it plays no role in either diplomacy, or morale, or any other way I can seem to find. I did some research into this on the official forums to see what people had to say. No one cared. One comment read: “Being of another religious following was not a particularly noteworthy difference to people back then.” This isn’t strictly true, and Paganism, the most widespread system of belief in Europe, should have played a huge role in European diplomacy.*

Cinema cam is a great way to watch your men chase down the enemy.

Cinema cam is a great way to watch your men chase down the enemy.

This time, you’ve the addition of general bonuses which are skills that can be used in battle. They’re buffs, usually, which can boost morale and damage of units, earned through winning battles and upgrading your general. You can also gain additional stat changes with traditions and family ties, so be careful who to recruit when building an army. The role of spies has a more interesting approach here, too, because they’re actually one of the easiest ways to be victorious over the enemy. Using a spy to assassinate an enemy general, and then take him on leaderless, is a relatively easy move with – I found, at least – a relative success rate of about 80%. Even when the success was estimated at about 30-50%, I got it 9/10. I have to wonder if Creative Assembly basically made up a lot of the statistics in Rome II, and masked them with an indicator of the likelihood that the estimate is correct or not. Doubling up those estimates.

City management does reach a peak, though, and it’s very easy to upgrade and see what’s going on in Rome II. You won’t find your armies instantly starving as we saw in Shogun 2, but you might say it’s a little too easy. There’s not really any more depth over the others, but it’s neat, tidy, and easy to manage between turns. Earning money is no problem at all, and I saw no cause to loot an enemy city in order to boost my coffers. Rome II will be, to some at least, a much easier game than any of the previous ones.

That's a lot of people.

That’s a lot of people.

This isn’t a rebuttal, but many other reviewers have spent a whole lot of time talking about the visuals of Rome II. Yes. They’re pretty. This is a strategy game, though, and Crusader Kings II, or the Victoria series do so well because people spend more time looking at the actual mechanics than they do at the visuals. It’s true that battles are stunning, even though bugs and visual issues plague the game, but that soon wears off after five hours of playing or so, when you realize that, against the AI at least, this isn’t a rich strategy title. It doesn’t take a genius to realize archers must be kept at a distance, or to know that pike-men are pretty good against horses, or that running too far to the enemy will tire them out.

Path-finding issues and poor enemy AI, with a lack of authenticity, odd voice acting, and a mediocre campaign map that – whilst it has accurate city names – lacks nuance, makes Rome II a fairly empty feeling title. Yes. I get it. If you’re not a strategy gamer, you might get blown away by the scale and prettiness of the graphics, but to be quite honest there’s a reason user-review scores are so low on meta-critic: reason number one is that it’s unacceptably buggy, and reason number 2 is that it doesn’t deliver even half of what it promised. The original Rome: Total War is a far superior game, and this just feels like a bunch of content thrown together, with money spent in all the wrong places. It’s still a fun game, though, but it certainly disappointed.

* There was no ‘Pagan belief book’ to dictate rites and rituals, which left Pagan communities to practice beliefs in their own way. Often, these different practices would at their very core separate tribes from one and other, let alone separating those such as the Gauls from the Romans themselves. It seems logical that religion should sway to some degree the favor of some more-so than others to your cause, and that would make for some very interesting implications. That said, Creative Assembly ignore the role of religion almost entirely, making both diplomacy and battles rather shallow.