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Sega’s Total War: Rome II promises to be a real-time strategy blockbuster (preview)

rome strategic map

Total War: Rome II is one of the big real-time strategy releases of the year, and from what we’ve seen with the latest preview, players will dig it. The more I see of this game, the more I fear the amount of time it’s going to steal from me when it comes out Sept. 3 for the PC.

Total War: Rome II promises to be a huge game — its developer, The Creative Assembly, has built up a huge following over the years. Without a major release, the Total War series sold more than 2 million games last year and 5 million expansion packs. That’s a huge franchise. It still has 700,000 unique players per month, and they are eagerly awaiting this year’s release.

Publisher Sega announced Total War: Rome II a year ago, and The Creative Assembly has slowly trickled out videos of a couple of fights, such as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, where the Goths ambushed the Romans in 9 A.D. The new graphics engine can support animations of colossal battles, with armies and individual units rendered in incredible detail. You can see the battle from one soldiers point of view, or scale up far above the battle. Now, in advance of the E3 video game trade show starting Sunday, The Creative Assembly is showing off more.

Al Bickham, the studio communications manager at The Creative Assembly, said in a press briefing, “We know we have the following to make this a very big deal. It’s a very big game, the biggest Total War game we have ever made.”

The game has twice the budget of previous games, and it aims to capture the drama of warfare, from the soldier’s view to the general’s.

rome strategic map 2

The campaign map

He showed off the new campaign map that gives you a view of the entire Roman empire. You can march your armies across the entire regions of Western Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and North Africa. When you meet the enemy in a given region, you can engage in a battle that takes place in real time on a beautiful 3D map. You can zoom in on the action to see the feats of individual soldiers, or you can pull back to see what entire formations of soldiers are doing. You can also zoom out to a strategic view to see how your forces are arrayed against the enemies. It’s easy to see resources in the form of elephants or horses that populate each region.

The campaign map is split into regions, or provinces, where leaders can deploy their legions. You have to manage the happiness of a territory or face open revolt against the empire. If you build a shrine to the war god Mars in the region, the people will become more warlike. When you click on a city, you can see what it looks like. A barbarian city will have primitive buildings with thatched huts. Each city consumes resources, and you can manage them like you do in empire-building games such as Civilization.

And within the Roman forces are factions such as the House of Julii, led by Julius Caesar. You have to manage the politics at home in Rome or face a civil war that can tear the empire apart. The Cicero faction, for instance, is against Caesar, who could become the emperor. In this political game, you can assassinate leaders or steal allies. As you make progress, you collect political capital and gain wealth. If you marry someone in another house, you can combine the power of the clans.

As you mouse over the campaign map, you can see the different military leaders. You can engage in diplomacy to set up trade agreements, defensive alliances, and exact taxes. You can get allies to commit military support. Above all, you have to make sure the population has enough food to eat.

On top of the political campaign, you can engage in a role-playing game subsystem with your armies. Each army now progresses up a ladder of veterancy as they fight battles. You can head the 13th legion over time and build its reputation. If the army is destroyed, you can reform it under the same banner. Some legions can thus live on for hundreds of years.

That adds a very fun strategic layer on top of the tactical combat game, but the real meat is in individual battles.

rome fleetThe Egyptian battle

As in past games, you can fight historical battles. The Creative Assembly showed off a demo of The Battle of the Nile, where Julius Caesar faced off against Ptolemy in a battle for the control of Egypt in 47 B.C. Caesar favored a faction headed by Cleopatra, Ptolemy’s sister. He was outnumbered and besieged in Alexandria, but he had summoned Roman reinforcements from Asia Minor. As those reinforcements arrived, Caesar rushed to meet them and then attacked Ptolemy on a hill in the Battle of the Nile.

The graphics of the battlefield are breathtaking. You can zoom in on individual units or zoom out to see thousands of soldiers marching. The terrain and river are beautifully rendered.

In the battle, you can play Caesar or Ptolemy. As Caesar, you control both a naval force and a land army. The naval force of triremes has to face off against an Egyptian fleet of five large warships. And on the land, Caesar’s armies have to rush up a steep hill that Ptolemy’s forces completely control. That’s a tough job for the outnumbered Roman forces.

rome archersPtolemy’s ships can easily sink the entire Roman fleet, as I found on my first playthrough. So the second time around, I landed my fleet quickly to get the soldiers ashore safely. I then sent them up the flank of the hill to take out some lightly defended catapults. The Roman Legionnaires are much better fighters, and they can cut through the Egyptian forces easily.

But Ptolemy has some terrain advantages. His forces can set giant balls of pitch on fire and roll them downhill at the Romans as they advance up the ridge. They can also fire long-range weapons such as ballistae and catapults at the Roman lines. And at the right moment, Ptolemy’s forces can charge down the hill to take out any stray Romans. Among the most damaging are the Egyptian elephants and the chariot units.

I found that the Roman cavalry was excellent at chasing off a formation of horse archers. Once they were dispatched, I could send my infantry up the hill. Meanwhile, the sea-based soldiers were winding up the hill and taking the Egyptians on their flank. The Egyptian commander could have taken the Romans down. But the artificial intelligence commander sent his force down piecemeal. I retreated when that happened and crushed the units in counterattacks, one-by-one. Then I launched a combined attack straight up the hill and from the right flank. The catapults fell easily and the Egyptian infantry was no match for my forces. It seemed like an easy victory, though it cost me a lot of soldiers.

But when I watched The Creative Assembly developers fight, they easily defeated the Romans. That tells me that a multiplayer version of this battle would be a very even match. The battle itself didn’t last too long and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s nice to be able to pop into a scenario and play for a quick 15 minutes or so. In the real battle, Caesar did the unexpected, landed his troops behind the enemy, surrounded them, and Ptolemy fled. He slipped off of one of his ships and drowned.

As I said, this game has a lot of promise. If Creative Assembly does its job right, you’ll feel like a commander in the ancient world, sitting on a horse on a hill in a battle that was fought more than 2,000 years ago.

Check out our video interview with Bickham below.

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