Better management layers
If there is a flaw in Total War games, it’s that they try to cram too many games into one game. Do we really need a complicated spy game on top of the empire-building game? Not really.
Compared to past games, the designers of Rome II have imposed some limitations to address the problem of complexity. No longer do you have tiny armies roaming the map without great leaders. Each province — two to four cities — can field no more than three armies or fleets, each led by a noble general. This limitation means that you’ll concentrate your forces in large armies and fight huge battles, not tiny skirmishes. The number of spies is also limited.
The map interface is also well conceived. You can easily see where you stand relative to another faction through a diplomacy menu or just by hovering over the faction’s region on the strategic map. That’s a smart way to communicate information to the player.
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From an economic view, the player manages a province as a whole, not a region, and you only build certain kinds of specialized buildings. (By contrast, in the Civilization series, you can micromanage the construction of dozens of building types). Public order is maintained on a provincial level. That means you have to keep all of the cities in the region happy or they will rebel. If you own all of the regions in a province, you can gain economic advantages and issue edicts that bring benefits such as extra food. The management layers are a welcome relief because they reduce the complexity without sacrificing depth or gameplay. You can still do things such as engage in spy-versus-spy assassinations; you just can’t do it in every city on the map.
When your empire grows sizable, you’ll run into a variety of challenges, like how to spend money on one province but not on another or how to deal with growing corruption.
Smarter A.I., but not too tough to beat
The compliment I can pay to Creative Assembly is that the artificial intelligence (A.I.) of the computer-controlled players seemed both smart and dumb, reflecting the behavior of a real human player.
The apparent stupidity of the A.I. shows during the sieges. When the enemy attacked me in the walled city of Carthage, it had no siege weapons. So it marched a few companies of spearmen up to the walls. I rained down arrows on them, but they managed to set the gates on fire. Rather than storm the gates, the A.I. pulled back to the edges of the map. Instead of waiting for the clock to run down, I chose to sally forth and started attacking some of the A.I. groups piecemeal. They were all spread out, so I took a large force and routed them one by one. Finally, however, the A.I. did the smart thing. It got between me and the city gates and then rushed them with a large force. I had to chase it down and had only left a weak force guarding the burning gates. So the A.I. forced its way in. But rather than charge for the victory points, it started taking possession of city wall towers. I fought my way back inside and then took the A.I. forces down. It was perhaps the silliest battle in all of history, but I won.
Yet there were also some pitched battles where I could swear I was fighting against a human. Syracuse was a single city-state that seemed like an easy target, but it proved to be the bane of my empire.
Syracuse had a large navy and an army, too. I approached it with several different fleets. But instead of waiting for me to attack, the AI launched an attack on me. It attacked a small fleet and then lured in my reinforcements and took out two fleets in a naval battle where it outnumbered me. It took me awhile to build up another invading force. The next time, I attacked with a large force that I landed on the shores, so I avoided the naval battle. Then I marched my soldiers inland and set up a naval blockade around the city. I consolidated my army and reinforcements and set up a land siege around the city. I took it by storm.
But I didn’t notice that an army had slipped off into the woods. After all, Syracuse’s navy was sailing all around the ocean. After I sailed my army away toward Carthage, the rebel army came out of hiding and attacked my occupied Syracuse. It outnumbered my forces by two to one. It assaulted, and I was able to hold off the larger forces in the narrow streets of the town. But my troops grew weary, and the battle whittled down my force to just a few soldiers. My general got killed, and then my forces melted away. I lost by just a few soldiers, and as a result, I lost the entire city and control of the province. That put a big stumbling block in my road to empire.
Still, I loved having a computer opponent that, for once, gave me a real test and taught me a lesson. There were many such moments in pitched tactical battles where the fortunes swayed back and forth — where one side that seemed to be winning suddenly lost the upper hand and ultimately the battle. It is moments like those that help you appreciate the enormity of historical battles and the heroes that succeeded or failed in winning them.
Trained units add depth to your decisions
After you’ve fought some battles, you’ll see why it pays to have trained generals in charge of trained troops. Your general levels up by gaining skills that give him better leadership abilities in sea or land combat. With a better general and troops that have seen battle, the chances are greater that a cohort will hold its ground in a one-on-one battle against another unit. A wavering line of troops can get spooked easily, and veterans can last longer than green troops. Moreover, flank attacks are more effective now as the combat system allows for multiple attacks against one soldier rather than one-on-one combat. And since veterans can execute flank attacks better, their assaults can have a more devastating impact on an entire wing of an army.
The presence of trained troops will make you think more about the order of battle. You’ll want to have strong units at the critical center and flanks. The only trouble is that the game can play out over centuries, so your generals will have a limited life span. They will either die in battle, particularly if you expose them to frontline combat, or die of old age. (They can also be assassinated by spies, who have their own rankings and promotions.) But units such as famous legions can last forever. They do so by carrying on a name and their traditions for certain kinds of combat behaviors. Those traditions can be passed along for generations. If an army is destroyed, you can restore its banner and its traditions with new troops.
On the political side, you want to keep the balance of power among the different noble houses by appointing generals from each house to positions of power. Your own influence is determined by the “Gravitas” ratings of your household characters. You can gain and lose influence through actions such as marriage and assassination. You can incite a civil war if you want to become the emperor.
I found that this leadership growth among generals and units, along with the political intrigue among various factions of Rome, very intriguing.