McMillan’s Codex #20 By C.T. McMillan
Rome 2: Total War
Sequels can go one of three ways: they surpass the predecessor, continue what came before, or totally fail. For movies the risk is high where a Godfather Part 2 or Empire Strikes Back comes every once in a while in a stream of Vacation movies or annual horror follow ups. With videogames, however, the risk is a lower due to the inherent nature of game design. Being an interactive medium, the feeling of playing is more personal compared to movies. Good gameplay can be improved upon with every new installment, giving players a same, but different experience within the context of a series. Resident Evil 4 was designed from the ground up without the fixed camera angle style while retaining its survival horror trappings. Fallout 3 was a first person shooter RPG in a series that had been asymmetric and two-dimensional. Different and improved can be a good thing, but like a bad sequel, too much can be a detriment like in Rome 2: Total War.
As before in my last review, Rome 2 is a real time strategy game with the same elements consistent with the Total War series. There are the two sides of gameplay with similar battle and building mechanics, but in the context of Ancient Rome. Instead of samurai, there are Praetorian cavalry riding against Greek hoplites and in place of Japan, the whole of Europe is free for the taking. Apart from time period and basic cultural differences, there is nothing to distinguish Rome 2 from Shogun 2 except for everything wrong with it.
Videogame sequels usually carry over concepts from their predecessors. It is a standard practice if you want to maintain audience appeal. In many instances developers are pressured to innovate and try something different, even if it changes the game completely. One recent example is Fallout 4’s omission of Skills and the fusion of Perks with the SPECIAL. This is streamlining at its most blatant, hurting an element of gameplay that worked just fine in its rudimentary state, and Rome 2 is that pushed to its maximum potential.
The organization of cities into single provinces for efficient management is a welcome improvement, but the process of upgrading them is made inconvenient by the lack of menus. Everything is relegated to small windows at the bottom of the screen with buttons that show rows of other buttons that represent upgrades. There is no visible indication as to what comes next or what anything does unless you hover the mouse cursor over the button. In past games, cities had full pop-up windows that told you what you needed to know and showed you what you can do. Now all you have are stacks of pictographs in an overly simplified user interface that grinds the game to a crawl when all you want to do is actually play it like a regular Total War game.
Building ships to transport armies across water has been made easy by simply guiding your army into a body of water. That would be fine and all if having the option to make regular ships were not already there to begin with. Making them and raising a ground army, however, is far more complicated this time around. It used to be you could produce individual units, group them into an army, and go from there. Generals could be attached or they would show up later as you win battles. Now generals and admirals must be selected from the start and you are only allowed a limited number per province. Why this is I have no idea and it hurts the whole premise of the genre: build an army and kill stuff.
Other flawed aspects of the building mechanics include ones that were just taken out completely. Shogun 2 had a great character progression system where a general could gain experience points from victories to spend on skills that help them in battle. It was a welcome addition that made the experience more personal and it is nowhere to be found in Rome 2. There is no reason for it and nothing was put in its place. It is simply gone.
Special cinematics for diplomatic actions like assassinations or sabotages have been replaced with still-frame photos of concept art and text to tell you what happened because that is way more exciting than actually seeing your actions play out in motion. Why not take the series back to the original game from 2004? Medieval 2 had cinematics and it came out two years later.
Rome 2 came out in 2013.
The rest of the game is not as deeply flawed. Visually it takes on a style akin to the television series Spartacus and Rome with a grimy filter that accentuates the antiquated, detailed aesthetic in the armor, weapons, and buildings. Accompanying individual soldiers with great looking gear is a diverse array of animations that are randomized. Units will hop in place in anticipation for the coming battle or physically taunt the enemy when standing in formation. The new dialog is another nice touch with some Latin scattered throughout a relatively modernized script. Best of all, the battle mechanics remain unchanged.
The mounting changes and missing parts contributed to a frustrating experience that made me want to play any of the other fantastic Total War games. Ancient Rome is one of my favorite periods of world history, but the historical dialog, detailed armor, wealth of factions, and always-enjoyable battles were not enough to make me forget what has been taken out. It is never a good sign when a follow-up to a great game lacks everything that made the last one great. Rome 2 is the videogame equivalent of Caddyshack 2.
C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer. He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.