Monday, July 10, 2006

Total War: Rome

One of the pleasures of picking up well-received PC games a year after its release is the ability to pick up their ‘Gold Editions’ which usually include the 1st expansion and a patched vanilla game and a substantial discount.

This is what I did with Rome: Total War. I’ve seen it on the shelves for some time, often retailing for as much as $60.00 Canadian last year. This past Wednesday, I walk into our local Future Shop with a mission to find this game. And luckily enough for me, there was one copy of the game left, and it was the Gold Edition, with the Barbarian Invasion included expansion for considerably less than the full priced versions of the vanilla game I saw on store shelves last year.

I’m no stranger to the Total War franchise. I had downloaded an early demo of Shogun: Total War several years ago and was impressed with its engine. In fact, when I bought my new computer in 2003, the first game I bought for it was Shogun, then already deeply discounted. Ultimately, Shogun: Total War was graphically impressive but slightly clunky, and it was still largely a twitch based RTS type strategy game with a glorified turn based campaign map tacked on.

Rome is a vastly improved game. The campaign scenario is a fleshed out turn based strategy game in the vein of Risk or Sid Meier’s Civilization games, while the individual battles themselves are in real-time. The player are then given the option to either auto-resolve battles or to fight them out and similarly on the macro side of empire management, players can also choose to automate all their cities and focus only on moving armies and fighting. This gives players a range of choice on how to manage their factions in the campaign game.

No game has married the strategic scale of a turn-based game with the tactical nature of RTS games as well as Rome: Total War has done. As someone who enjoyed games like StarCraft more for its co-operative play, rather than the frantic nature of a typical RTS death match game, I really appreciate the real-time strategy battles in this game. Fast movement is replaced with realistic movement. There is even a pause button for players to pause the game and give their individual units commands. And the real-time battles themselves play out realistically. Ordering a unit of Centurions to march from the left flank of my battle line to the right will take time, even if they are running at full speed.

Further more, unlike your typical history based RTS games such as the Rise of Nations and Age of Empires games, the separation between a campaign map and a tactical battle map also separates economic (macro) empire management from tactical battle management. Fighting a battle then having to zoom across the map to ‘home base’ to move idle workers to a logging point is a non-issue in Rome. I could only wish more RTS games masquerading as history simulations should take note.

The realism injected into the battles result in very well paced battles and the tactical nature of the fight itself is enhanced. Instead of degenerating into a mass of units dying, there is still a lot of management that can be done even when the bulk of two armies clash. Rarely do I find myself struggling to command my units, as is usually the case with most RTS games, when there are too many units to manage and too much going on.
Supported by an impressive 3-D engine and an epic Hans Zimmer inspired soundtrack by composer Jeff van Dyck, the battles themselves become a kind of beautiful cinematic experience of battle formations, clashing melee units and cavalry charges. Students of history will appreciate this game for giving them a view and control into one of the great epochs of history, despite some obvious deviations from history.

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