Developer: The Creative Assembly Publisher: SEGA UK Price: £34.99 Platform(s): PC
Playing Rome II is like cracking open a boiled egg to discover it's full of chocolate. At first you'll think "What the hell happened to my egg?" but after you've dipped into it a few times, you realise that this egg is much better than that nasty old simmered chicken embryo you used to eat. By the same token, Rome II remains the same framework of strategic campaigning and tactical battling that Total War ever was, but the interior workings have been tweaked, switched and expanded in a million different ways, and the result is the deepest, most diverse and spectacular Total War ever.
There's a lot to get through, so let's not beat about the bush. Rome II begins the same as any other Total War game, you pick a faction, jump into a new campaign, and attempt to take as much of the world for yourself. Now however, alongside taking it by force, there are also cultural and economic victory conditions available, any of which can be attempted at any time. There's also Prologue Campaign, which sees you attempting to quell a Roman in central Italy, that in addition teaches you the basics of battling and campaigning. It's thorough, well written, and has some nice set-piece battles that gradually open up as you go along.
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Speaking of battles, well, they're bloomin’ amazing, largely down to increased scale and intense detail. The detail on and animation of individual soldiers is astonishing, with better character models than many FPS'. Watching a unit of Roman Hastati charge a line of Celtic Spear throwers is quite something, as the Romans hold up their shields to block the incoming spears, which actually pierce the shield and remain there for the duration of the battle. When you scale this up to 2,000 Roman soldiers besieging a city the size of Carthargo, with ladders on one side and ships on the other, it truly is one of the grandest scenes in gaming. And it's entirely your own creation, generated by the units you recruit, the battles you pick and the tactics you employ.
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Crucially, some of the frequently occurring Total War battle issues have been addressed. AI seems to have been greatly improved. Enemy cavalry is adept at flanking, and the AI will chase Victory points and try to use reinforcements to get behind you. The only AI issue so far is melee units seem to rout a little too easily on Normal difficulty. Meanwhile, Siege Assaults have been made considerably easier, thanks to less unwieldy siege equipment and greater assault options, such as being able to land ships full of troops in the city's port (provided it has a port, of course).
In fact, combined land and sea Assaults are one of the highlights of the battle mode. There are a few problems though. In particular, the game is terrible at estimating an army's likelihood of winning before a battle. You'll likely find yourself winning a lot of fights which the computer states are essentially impossible.
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While the battles are as spectacular and enjoyable as ever, they're actually the least changed aspect of the game. What's more likely to strike you are the dramatic alterations made to the campaign map. The way cities and regions work is totally different, the UI has been completely revamped, and a brand new, personality-driven political system has been added.