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Total War: Rome II preview

by Kat Bailey, shacknews.com, Jul 2, 2012 6:15AM PDT

For Total War fans, it was nice to see the series return to its roots in the Shogun era. They liked the colonial era-themed Empire Total War as well. But every new Total War announcement has been consistently met with the same refrain: When is the series going back to Rome?

Sega communications manager Al Bickham laughs: "They would say, 'Yeah, yeah, that's great, but where's Rome 2? Rome was enormously popular. It probably has a lot to do with how strong it is in the popular imagination. The swords and sandals fighting, the gladiators, and everything else."

The Roman era has not just the fans under its spell, but Sega as well. In an effect to capture the true scope of what developer Creative Assembly lead designer James Russell rapturously describes as "an unbelievable era in which great people influenced history," Sega has kicked the budget up by roughly 40 percent. And it shows too: Rome 2's setpieces rank among the most the ambitious the series has ever seen.

Consider the invasion of Carthage, which is meant to be a mere taste of what's to come. Being the only civilization to seriously challenge Rome during its golden age, the capital of Ancient Carthage is suitably large and impressive, and Rome 2's depiction doesn't disappoint. Russell describes Carthage as being "much larger than anything we've ever tried before"--a vast city with multiple entry points and a substantial number of capture points.

The Roman invasion would not look out of place in a show like HBO's The Pacific. The legions pour off their ships and charge ashore, where they are met with flaming arrows that look not unlike bullet tracers. The camera zooms in on a pack of Roman soldiers inside a siege tower. One of them turns and yells, "We fight for Rome!" Then the door slams open, and they are battling through the avenues of Carthage as walls crumble and streets burn. You can guess how it ends: a herd of elephants abruptly comes crushing through the Roman forces, because you can't have Carthage without a few armored pachyderms.

The scope is tremendous, no doubt about that. But Russell is also interested in getting a soldier's view of the battlefield: "We really want to convey the feeling of the Roman meat grinder. I want the camera to go down to the Saving Private Ryan-level perspective, then zoom back to the epic level with the armies and the tactical map."

In the end, the goal is to give the soldiers of Rome a human face. Ideally, the units will interact with one another, and they will react to a buddy getting an arrow to the face. At the macro level, individual legions will develop based on their experience on their battlefield, lending them a degree of personality that goes well beyond their assigned numbers. Russell also hopes to integrate heroes like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra in the campaigns in some capacity--the "great people who influenced history" mentioned earlier. It's all very ambitious, which suggests that Sega has even bigger plans than usual for their popular strategy series.

As befits Rome 2's scale, it will be set during the absolute height of the Roman Republic and cover what looks like several-hundred-years' worth of history, including the aforementioned destruction of Carthage at the end of the Punic Wars, all the way through to the rise of the Roman Empire and beyond. Among the choices available during the campaign will be to preserve the Republic, become Emperor, or simply to become rich and play as many sides as possible.

Russell's goal is to take the emphasis off micro-management and put it on "fewer, more significant battles" instead. Among the changes, it will now be possible to take provinces and other surrounding regions without having to rush the most important city. As Russell puts it: "You're not always just head-shoting the capital." Ships will also be taking on an enlarged role. No longer mere containers or warships, ships will be able to properly capture territory, and take part in combined land and see battles.

But in keeping with the theme of making it all more personal,' there will be plenty of dilemmas, some of which will be chained into mini-storylines. This is where it will be possible to throw unfortunate slaves to the lions, or maybe get together with Cleopatra. It's here that you will be able to put your personal stamp on Rome 2, even more so than in the way you organize your armies or manage your Empire. It might not be the "human level drama" that Russell is promising, but such storylines are certainly intriguing for the way they take the focus off the intense number crunching and multi-level strategy and put it on the developing narrative, if only for a little bit.

For all the new mechanics, chained dilemmas, and everything else though, it's pretty clear that Rome 2's biggest selling point is its pedigree and its setting. The original Rome: Total War remains one of the most popular games in the series, and retains a loyal modding community. For more general audiences, it's hard not to get sucked into the sight of ancient armies crashing through enemy phalanxes, looting, pillaging, and burning as they go. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Total War fans as they return to their favorite game--maybe even more so than with Shogun 2.

For Sega, meanwhile, the stakes seem higher than usual. Aware that they are dealing with most popular game in the series, they appear to be going all out with Total War: Rome 2. The sense is that they want to take that next step and leap into a part of the mainstream consciousness normally reserved for seminal strategy games like Civilization. Come 2013, we'll find out if Sega is indeed ready to rise to the rarefied level of the first Rome: Total War and beyond, or if it will be condemned to the ash heap of history alongside Carthage.


This Total War: Rome II preview was based on an event for the game at the publisher's office.