Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Cursory Game Review of "Rome: Total War"

Developed by The Creative Assembly and published in 2004 by Activision, the latest in the Total War series, Rome: Total War, far exceeds any expectations set by Warcraft in warfare while borrowing from the allure of Civilization (Civ) and Master of Orion (MoO). Like Civ, the macroscopic management of the empire (involving the queuing of building structures, the queuing of training troops, and the movement of troops across the available map) is turn-based; however, the time (number of turns) to produce a building or unit is, like Warcraft and unlike Civ, a fixed number of turns dictated by the item being constructed or trained rather than the manufacturing capabilities of the city. Like MoO, battles are fought optionally as mini-games. Unlike MoO, these mini-games are real-time and follow in the genre of Command and Conquer (C&C) and Warcraft but replace the old C&C and Warcraft era maps with true 3D terrain, camera perspective, and high-resolution military units comprised of twenty to fifty individually animated characters per unit. Also unlike MoO, when declining to manually play a mini-game, the player merely is given (and rightfully so) the statistical end-result instead of peering into the 5-10min long battle animation which would otherwise ensue. In brief, this game borrows heavily from, and exhibits itself as, a medley of classic strategy war games, yet does so as would a good recipe harmoniously blend common palatable flavors while adding a few hitherto uncommon ones.

The storyline while lackluster is implemented in a very novel manner. The ahistorical premise of the game is that the Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR) wishes to expand Rome vicariously through three powerful Roman houses, the Julii, Scipii, and Brutii. The player's avatar is the faction leader of one of these three houses - the particular house being chosen when creating a new game. The Senate will give time-bound missions incentivized with modest rewards to help steer the player’s faction. Cities cannot be formed or destroyed as would have been able in Civ; instead, each faction simply advances by conquering existing cities and choosing to either occupy, enslave (dispersing 25% of the population to other cities), or exterminate (lowering the population by 75%). Initially, many of the available cities are rebel-owned. These rebel cities have no allegiance and cannot form diplomatic channels and are thus fodder for adjacent civilizations. The player’s faction is initially allied with the SPQR and the other two Roman factions. The Julii house would typically expand northward and northwestward into Gallic territory. The Brutii house would typically expand southeastward and eastward into Greek and Macedonian territory. The Scipii house would typically expand southward and southwestward into Carthaginian territory. Later in the game, Rome expands into Germanic, Dacian, Seleucid, Thracian, Spanish, Scythian, Egyptian, Briton and other territories. The objective of the game is to own the Senate while possessing 50 provinces. Like Civ, the best way to achieve the objective is to build structures improving the economy, city defenses, and sanitary conditions. Like Warcraft, military units have prerequisite military structures, one upgrade path for various infantry units, another for various cavalry units, another for various missile units, and yet another for various naval units. A blacksmith or armourer in the city is the only exception, helping improve the quality of weapons for all military units.

Curiously unlike most other strategy games, family members of the faction's patriarchy are important. All the characters gain virtues and vices over time, form entourages conferring insight, marry and propagate, and eventually die as in real life. Some characters may even be elected into the senate and rise through the various bureaucratic ranks. While moderately complex for a strategy game, much of the complexity is mitigated by being read-only. The only control on the family the player has is in selecting the heir, choosing to betroth a female family member to a requesting suitor, and occasionally choosing to adopt into the family a commander who has shown his mettle in combat. Male family members of age (sixteen or older) appear as a General at the capital, carrying modifiers set by his virtues, vices, and the traits of his retinue. These modifiers can affect anything from the morale of troops at battle to the cost of erecting buildings in the city to the chances of rising in the bureaucracy of the senate to the likelihood of having many children. Like any other unit, a General - and, importantly, his modifiers - can be moved across the map from city to city or battle to battle. Less importantly, in real-time battle mini-games, a General often appears as a cavalry unit of 10-20 horsemen - which can have some minimal, direct use. Gameplay-wise, the 10-20 horsemen simply indicate the General's "health" since each horseman bimodally either survives combat or dies during it.

The quality of the mini-games' graphics is astounding, even when using a slightly older (circa 2002) graphics card requiring one to disable various aesthetic features. Unlike the motion-picture implementation in C&C and Warcraft utilizing a dozen key frames, Rome: Total War uses proper 3D animation, vector-based with perhaps five dozen inflection states involving the categorical concepts of marching, running, fleeing, scrimmaging and, for missle units, firing. The viewing camera is, seemingly, several meters above the ground, angled downward toward the battlefield. The height and downward angle of the camera are automanaged and read-only, but the player may polar rotate and cartesian translate the terrestrial plane. Whenever the axis of height is important (viewing units on a slope or viewing from a slope), the camera's automanager will correct the height and downward angle of the camera to provide suitable sight.

Throughout this review, I have been doing a grave disservice by referring to the real-time battles as mini-games; in actuality, these real-time battles can be the sole focus of the game and the creators cleverly catalogue historical battles for instant play, dismissing the need to ever plod along a tiring and lengthy Civ-style campaign. True to its mission of being realistic while fun to play, battles occur on a giant arena which may take 10min to walk across with infantry. Fortunately, your opponent tends to be positioned a minute away. Woodlands and hills can shift the balance of power in battle, forcing one side to fight an uphill battle or render its siege weapons immobile due to absence of clear terrain. Town Watchers, Hastati, Principes and Triarii are, in ascending order of power, the infantry and heart of Roman might early in the game. The various cavalry and missile-based cavalry units are fast, useful to prey on outlying infantry or to pierce a hole in the opponent's rank. Velites, Archers, and the ancient world's engineering marvels such as ballistas and onagers are strategic units with limited but invaluable uses. There are also special units various civilizations possess. A dearth of elephants available to Rome, and consequent cultural abhorrence of elephants and denigration of the militarization thereof, makes this unit unavailable to a Roman army while available to a Carthaginian one. Similarly, pikeman and other units are for exclusive use by certain civilizations. Once the battle is underway, formations prove vital. Morale and effectiveness of one's units are heavily dependent on orderliness, easily disrupted by beasts such as wardogs and elephants or by swift, indefatigable cavalry. A pivotal unit may quickly flee long before it could ever be vanquished if the men are disheartened by pervading chaos. Most units, unfortunately, are limited to the dull blocks legionnaires classically form; however, cavalry can form rhomboid and wedge formations, cavalry auxilla - missile-equipped cavalry - can also form a Cantabrian circle around their prey, and legionnaires during sieges can form a testudo, the oft-romanticized 'invincible' tortoise formation. Given the richness present elsewhere in the game, the unvariedness of formations is a puzzling oversimplification. Perhaps this streamlining correctly portrays the genuine monotony of roman formations. Thankfully, spectacles such as incendiary pigs – oil drenched, violent pigs unleashed upon an enemy and later ignited by fire-arrows to wreak one-time devastation on the opponent – more than make up for the narrow range of formations.

Graphics: 8 /10
Gameplay: 6½/10
Novelty: 8 /10