The original Rome: Total War was perhaps one of the best-loved strategy games of all time and for good reason. The mixture of turn by turn with epic real-time strategy battles was seamlessly done, allowing players to forge vast empires, create alliances, and fight some of the most prominent historical battles. Naturally the Creative Assembly, the guys behind the Total War series, have wanted to replicate this success and what better way than a sequel? Unfortunately there are a few mistakes that negate the magic that its predecessor seemed to have nailed so well.
My first experience with ROME II was a rather frustrating installation. Many people are reporting a variety of bugs and installation issues with the game, including errors related to pre-loading, missing activation keys, and so on. Personally I opted to a buy a copy in the store. After installing two out of three of the discs just fine the game refused to read the third, forcing me to download gigabytes of data. A suggested fix from Steam did not fix the issue.
So I finally busted out the game, and jump right into campaign. There are a handful of familiar factions such as Rome and Carthage, with many of the old factions being renamed along historical lines. From here on out you start noticing just how different ROME II is from any other Total War game. As you pick your faction you also pick a political affiliation, which in Roman terms means aligning yourself with a particular family house, which provides certain bonuses.
As I started off surveying the map, which is very pretty if I do say so myself, I realized that after years of Total War experience I had no idea what the user interface was trying to tell me. The days of managing individual cities have ended with this installment, with ROME II opting for managing provinces of multiple cities instead. The UI coupled with this system is complex, there's just no other way to put it, far much more so than previous titles in the series. Saying it would be friendly to a newcomer would be a flat out lie.
After you finally get done with your turn you'd better hope that you're skipping AI movement on the campaign map, because ROME II has over one hundred factions on the map, making it agonizing to wait for your next turn.
Perhaps the most annoying issue with this is that your cities either sink or swim together. Let's say you've just captured a city in the province of Italia, which is made up of four cities in total. Naturally, the city isn't too happy about being put under siege and then being forcibly taken. The city now hates you. Due to ROME II's province system the other three cities now hate you as well. If one city is feeling distasteful towards you, they all will suffer public order penalties.
After successfully conquering and looting a city (Syracuse) I managed to turn one of my provinces from a positive public order in the forties to a negative eighty-six with a single stroke. Naturally a Total War veteran would think to counter this with squatting an army over your city, but it turns out if you don't have troops across all of your cities you don't even get the public order bonus from that. The system just makes for straight up annoying gameplay, and from a historical perspective it makes little to no sense.
As you finally start understanding the UI there are definitely some nice things CA has added to the game. Armies are essentially their own entities, they have their own emblems, their own names, and their own system of leveling up which rewards you for pulling off victories. You can even set particular stances for your forces, giving them bonuses and demerits for things like raiding, ambushing, or performing marathon marches to cover large distances.
The aforementioned political/family system is also a nice touch. Like a true Patrician managing your family's reputation and local events is important. For instance, a member of my household (my daughter) was apparently disgracing the family name with her behavior. I was given options on how to deal with her, such as making her a priestess or marrying her off. Little things like this pop up frequently where you're expected to manage your reputation.
Politics is equally as interesting. You can actively advance the careers of members of your house or spread rumors and lies about those who oppose you. The chance for success varies, but I must admit I do like the ability to take part in the classic Roman schemes that have been so frequently displayed in fictional dramas.
Diplomacy, in a word, is harder. And that's not really a bad thing in my book. Other nations won't just trade with you for the heck of it, or sign agreements just for the fun. I've noticed getting what you want out of others is much more of a careful process of trust building than anything else. First you have to start off with something small like a non-aggression pact. After that you slowly build your way up until eventually you can pull of trade agreements, defensive alliances, and client states. If you win battles, choosing to release or kill captives can change how other factions see you. If you release prisoners a faction and its allies will think better of you, if you kill them the opposite happens. It's also interesting to note that killing prisoners will please that faction's enemies.
Perhaps the bread and butter of Total War are the battles themselves, and they generally don't disappoint. Graphics can be tailored to suit most systems and aside from some graphical errors and glitches that are pretty standard at launch everything works fine. Autoresolving now has a few options within itself, allowing you to tell the AI how to run the fight its about to do for you by being aggressive, balanced or protective. Chances for victory and how much of your force is likely to remain are nice additions to help you choose.
When you duke it out manually its generally pretty fun. Aside from the UI rearing its confusing head once more I found the combat to be enjoyable. Units seems to have much more historical detail, and zooming in on them displays individualized faces and war cries that are interesting to listen in on (especially when your guys take to the insults) before you jump into the fray.
City battles are also more interesting and accurate. There's no such thing anymore as an undefended city, for even if you don't have an army garrisoned within it you'll have local forces and levies that will be mobilized to defend. Larger cities often have multiple capture points, making a little more sense as well as making things a tad more interesting than just squatting over the town square. These battles can also involve naval and infantry actions simultaneously, allowing for sneaky flanking actions and epic beachhead invasions.
In regards to multiplayer its pleasing to note that the Avatar Conquest system from Shogun II has been ditched (thank the Gods!) and the more familiar system of straight up battles with full customization have returned. Co-op campaign seems to work well. although the fact that CA has put in so many darn factions will no doubt make the experience quite long and drawn out.
ROME II's a game of great depth, that's to be sure, yet the user interface, faction bloat, and empire management continually bring down the fun new features in the game by making them hard to use and frustrating. The game is good, but it lacks the magic and intuitiveness of its predecessor. No doubt the game is something you can have fun with for hours and hours on end, but if you were hoping to relive the glory days you might be sorely disappointed.