Render unto Caesar.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to play Rome: Total War, and to praise it. The good is oft interred with sweet graphics; so let it be with Rome. This noble reviewer tells you that Total War is ambitious: if it were so, it was no grievous fault, for Rome hath ambitiously answered it.
Many apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, but I could not resist. The overwhelming desire to give moving speeches in grandiose, senatorial tones is only one of the many side-effects of playing the awesome Rome: Total War. Some of you may find yourselves wearing bed sheet togas, building small shrines to Jupiter, or wearing laurel leaves on your head.
Rome is the third game in the Total War series, and I can assure you that it is by far the best. The new game engine is not just an upgrade; it's a huge leap forward for the series. Returning players will be both pleased and impressed, and gamers picking it up for the first time will quickly become fans.
For those of you unfamiliar with Total War, the focus is on historical accuracy and large scale warfare. As a tactical real-time strategy game, it plays more like Myth than Warcraft. Whatever armies you bring to a battle are all you have; you can't just pop more centurions out of the centurion hut because you have enough wood, making battlefield tactics supremely important. Of course, against overwhelmingly superior forces, even the best tactics cannot save you, so it's best to try to ensure that never happens.
This is all done on the overland map of the Mediterranean and surrounding areas. You can play as one of three Roman families - the Julii, the Brutii, or the Scipii - which determines your starting territories and the focus of the missions the Senate assigns you. Your goal is to protect Rome and expand the influence and power of the SPQR across the known world. This all takes place a few hundred years B.C., just as the Roman Empire is rising to power. Eventually, you will need to fight your rival Roman factions in order to consolidate power for your family and declare the current head of your family Caesar.
Rome: Total War is really two games in one. Much of the game is played on the map screen, where the turn-based format plays a lot like Civilization. You must manage your cities, grow them, build roads and markets, tax them, use the money to recruit soldiers and other useful units, and march them around the map to the areas where they are most needed.
Spies and diplomats are sometimes more useful than force of arms, and the right bribe or the right assassination can sometimes do the job of a thousand soldiers. Of course, you should be careful what you do unto others - losing a key family member can be a crushing blow, because your dynasty is as important as the land you control. They are your generals and your governors.
The game takes place over several generations, and your family members will age, marry, have children, and eventually die. All the members of your family also start with and gain different traits. Nero, the "Bureaucrat" and "Social Drinker," might be best as a city governor near Rome, while Gaius might have a weakness for bribery, so you'll want make him a general of an army at the far reaches of the Empire. As they age or win battles, your family members can gain new traits and grow their retinue; a Nubian Scout might increase their field of vision, while a Barbarian Turncoat can give you the advantage when you fight against barbarians. This gives the game an RPG flavor as you find yourself getting attached to your family members.
And nowhere are your family members more at risk than on the battlefield. You'll find them there a lot, because you can't build an empire without busting a few heads. From the Greeks to the Carthaginians, there are plenty of other world powers out there who need to be taught a lesson or three about Roman might.
When armies collide, the action zooms into a battlefield based on the map region. Trap your enemy against the coast of Spain, and the battle will take place on the beach with nothing but ocean behind your opponents and nowhere for them to flee. Besiege a city, and you'll have to use siege towers and battering rams to deal with whatever walls and structures have been built there. Buildings destroyed in battle will be gone in the overland game as well, so you might have some expensive rebuilding to do.
Each of the game's 17 different world powers has unique forces based on real historical armies. Roman troops are disciplined and strong, while the Gauls are fast and fierce. Bedouin warrior's camels are tireless, but little can stand up against the charge of a Carthaginian war elephant. The variety and balance makes for all kinds of strategizing.
Without question, the sheer size of the battles will blow you away as literally thousands of soldiers battle it out at once. Arrows fly, spears clash on shields, and a well-placed cavalry charge can break the enemy lines, scattering soldiers like bowling pins and trampling them under horses' hooves. All sorts of different terrain, weather conditions and even the omens of the gods can affect the battles as well.
Powering this monster is a hugely impressive engine pumping out graphics that will wow even your non-gamer friends. Sure, the soldiers are nowhere nearly as detailed as a Doom 3 marine, but they look great and are well-animated, and watching four thousand of them storm the walls of Alexandria is simply amazing.
What do Mario, Sonic, Kirby, Earthworm Jim, Mega Man, and Donkey Kong all have in common? They all starred in bad TV shows! However, Rome: Total War has 'em all beat, because it's the first time that a game itself has become the star of a TV program. The History Channel's new show, Decisive Battles, uses the Rome: Total War game to animate many of history's important conflicts. If it's good enough for them, it's probably good enough for you.
Backing up the impressive visuals is some great sound. Perfectly orchestrated martial music accompanies your battles and scores the rumbling thunder of your marching legions. The voices are good, too, although a couple of them can't quite conceal their Aussie accents. "Rome. It's Australian for war, mate." You can even learn a bit about your upcoming enemy from your General's rousing speech to the troops.
Everything I've mentioned thus far pertains to Rome's lengthy Imperial Campaign mode. If becoming Caesar isn't enough for you, you can also play a shorter Campaign as any of the game's nations (once you unlock them), fight your way through ten different Historical Battles to try changing history, or take a swing at Rome's multiplayer modes.
There are only two ways to take on up to five other wannabe generals online: Single Battles that are usually resolved pretty quickly, and the more interesting and more tactical Siege Assault, where one player or team defends a city, while the other besieges it. Both offer decent fun and extend what is already a massive game.
Controlling your cities, families and troops in what amounts to two different, fully featured games is pretty complicated, and Rome: Total War is clearly not for casual gamers. However, the game's "Prologue" is essentially a very long and thorough tutorial. Fans of the series will probably be able to skip it, but everyone else will find it an excellent place to start and an essential way to learn everything you need to know to play a game as large, deep, and complex as Rome.
However, for every Caesar there must be a Brutus lurking in the shadows, and for all its great strengths, there are still a couple areas where Rome could use improvement. The unit A.I. could use a few more I.Q. points. While your troops are generally pretty effective, sometimes they'll have a hard time just figuring out how to run around to the other side of a house.
The weakest part of Rome is when you take to the sea. You'll need some ships to ferry your troops around, but these can easily get stopped or blocked by any other boat - not just those of your enemies, which doesn't make any sense. Naval battles are not playable and often resolve in strange, buggy outcomes.
But despite these small complaints, Rome: Total War is a fantastic conquest. The power of the game engine has finally caught up with the developer's vision of what a war game should really be like, and what a cool vision that is. It's almost like getting two games for the price of one…and you can even just play your favorite. Turn on auto-management and you can forget about your cities and focus on the battlefield, or, if the Civilization thing is what you dig, you can let the computer auto-resolve all the conflicts so you can set about finding a suitable husband for Livia Julii now that she's old enough.
Frankly, this is a must-have for strategy gamers, history buffs and hardcore PC geeks. Why watch in on TV when you can have all the glory for yourself?