Rome: Total War  

Game Name:  Rome: Total War
Developer:  Creative Assembly
Publisher:  Activision
PC Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  May 25, 2016

It has finally happened.  I have reached the point, which most gamers eventually reach, where I have realized that my backlog is just too darned big.  A younger version of me would probably have been irritated enough by this revelation to develop an irrational plan to climb out from under this load.  At this stage in my life, though, I am too old for the hand-wringing and guilt about money wasted on this hobby.  Do not, however, take that to mean that I will let my gaming library go unused.  After all, a new baby boy means that we will have to tighten the purse strings a bit to eventually pay for college, so with that in mind, I have resolved to incorporate more backlogged sequels into my playlist in an attempt to start clearing whole game series from my catalogue.  Considering I have already run three Total War releases through the wringer of this site, Rome: Total War seemed like the natural next step towards that goal.  This retrospective is harder to write than most, though, since this is one of the rare classics that continues to maintain an active player community to this day, with a weekend on Steam seeing regularly over 1,000 concurrent users.  Returning to this world, as pleasant as it was, makes me realize that this faithful devotion to the first ‘modern’ game in the Total War series is misplaced, and these gamers would be better served by a more recent release.

A big part of Rome: Total War’s enduring appeal is its setting at the center of the classical world.  This is a time and place, with its political intrigue, fascinating mythology, and clashing cultures that has always been a favorite of historically-minded gamers.  Films like Gladiator, Alexander, and 300 only helped broaden that appeal, as it sparked a wider desire to play the part of an ancient general leading hoplites and legionnaires against the ‘unenlightened’ barbarian hordes.  For its part, Rome does a fine job letting players live out these fantasies; albeit in an almost cartoonish kind of way.  Think of those Technicolor Roman-era dramas from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with their haughty British accents and unrealistically bright red costumes, and you kind of get the idea.  This lighthearted approach to empire building is well-received in an age of gritty, and frankly depressing, photo-realistic games filled with blood and mud.  Unfortunately, it is tied to a playable faction list that may have been great in its day, but is a major letdown by modern standards.  As an example, Rome II has separate campaigns and different unit rosters for Syracuse, Massilia, Epirus, Athens, and Sparta, compared to the single collective of Greek states seen in its predecessor.  Total War is at its best when taking an individual city state and improbably turning it into a world power, so combining the Spaniards or Gauls into unified mega factions only serves to take away a large part of the series’ appeal.  

Without these confederated powers to challenge Roman authority, though, Rome: Total War’s campaign would be lopsided because of the now archaic way it is designed.  Newer series entries have provided alternate victory conditions and deeper gameplay to inch the diplomacy and economic systems closer to those seen in Paradox’s popular strategy games.  Back during Rome’s 2004 release, though, it was enough to simply introduce 3D graphics and a more detailed campaign map for the Creative Assembly to sell an ungodly number of units using their tried-and-true formula from the first Shogun.  As such, the political climate in this game is represented in a rather goofy fashion, with the Republic’s territory split up between four factions: House Julii, House Brutii, House Scippii, and the Senate.  While a clever mission system provides some distraction in the first dozen turns or so, the early game breaks down because a Roman player has 3 automatic allies with borders that do not need defending.  Until an inevitable civil war breaks out between these leading families, making the latter stages of the game far more interesting, the only challenge from the AI is because the barbarian factions have enough territory and economic clout to continually throw units against Rome’s rapid expansion.  This setup stands in sharp relief to Rome II’s more insular political system which, while obtuse and unintuitive, gives players the chance to lead a united Republic against many smaller enemies on all sides, while avoiding a civil war altogether if their internal maneuverings are skillful enough.

Of course, the Creative Assembly was unwilling to rest on its laurels and have the structural foundation for the campaign be the only difference between its two Roman-era titles; as evidenced by the list of smaller improvements that made it into Rome II.  The exaggerated hillsides and sparsely populated forests have since been upgraded into battle arenas that look like real landscapes.  Siege battles now take place in locales that look like actual cities and towns from the period, unlike the comical maze of buildings that was deliberately designed to run an army by as many towers as possible to slowly wear down the attacking force.  Upgrade paths for generals, agents, and armies now allow a degree of specialization to match a gamer’s playstyle, unlike the more generalized leveling process of old.  Finally, by combining individual cities into more easily administered provinces and requiring a general to lead an army, much of the administrative burden of the series’ endgame has been diminished since players are no longer required to move small stacks of units around the map and set city-specific tax rates for hours on end.

Rome II’s improvements do not necessarily mean that Rome: Total War should not have a place in the libraries of series fans.  While I have only dipped my toes into the shallow end of the game modification pool, I have been told that Europa Barbarorum is still one of the finest Total War experiences ever conceived.  However, even if you happen to be a fan of vanilla game releases and do not want to deal with the hassle of altering any files or settings, Rome’s smaller hard drive footprint and lower system specs mean it can be installed and played on a range PCs beyond a dedicating gaming rig.  Sometimes that Total War itch just needs to be scratched, and a family holiday or work trip does not need to preclude you from the ever-pleasant blend of strategic and tactical gameplay that has defined the series since the early aughts.  Overall, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane and had a blast leading House Brutii to victory as imperator of Rome; especially when, in a few instances, the gameplay is actually superior to Rome II.  Quicker unit speed quicker, morale seeming to play a larger role in battles, and armies feeling like immovable masses when they clash are just a few instances where Rome: Total War truly shines.  Despite these positives, this is a game that is definitely showing its age, and regardless of what anyone can say about Rome II’s horribly botched launch, it has since been patched into the superior Total War for gamers interested in classical antiquity.

Verdict:  Not Recommended