Platform: PC (Windows 98SE/ME/2k/XP)
Publisher: Activision
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Release date: September 22nd 2004
Genre: Real-time strategy / Turn based strategy / War
Prequels: Shogun - Total War and Medieval: Total War
System requirements: A 1 GHz processor, DX9.0b compatible hardware accelerated graphics card with at least 64 MB of RAM, 256 MB of RAM, roughly three gigabytes of hard disc space, DX9.0b compatible 16-bit sound card, a 8x CD-ROM drive.

Rome: Total War is the third installment of the Total War series of games by The Creative Assembly. The Total War games combine the real-time and turn-based strategy genres by having two separate modes. The strategic campaign mode is where armies, politics and economy is managed on a large scale, from Feudal Japan in S: TW to the Roman Empire in R: TW. The tactical battle mode is where the armies you have sent do their bloody work under your direct command. The turn based mode has cities where units are trained and taxes collected, and where armies move from one place to the other.

The heart of the Total War games is the tactical battle mode, where armies of literally thousands of soldiers fight on a grand scale, with units that are historically detailed and quite accurate. Of course, in the campaign game you can shape up history the way you like it, so history nitpicks will find oddities like thousands of praetorian legionaries being trained in the second century BC. What's gripping about the Total War games is that actual battle tactics really work: driving to the flank of a group of infantry with heavy cavalry will make the foot soldiers run away screaming like girls.

Rome: Total War takes the two former games of the series and adds to them enough to be called a worthy sequel, and one of the best strategy games of 2004, if not one of the best games of the year.

Non plus ultra 1

First off, there are the graphics. The game engine is gorgeous compared to the earlier two Total War games. Considering how graphics progress over the years this is expected, but R:TW takes it to a whole new level. The units are very detailed down to their weapons and armour and even to their faces - the only gripe with the graphics is that all the soldiers of the same type look like clones. The legionary cohorts, before charging, grab one of their pila, take aim and throw them at the enemy. Then they grab their gladii and run to the enemy to bonk some heads. When an elephant rushes into a crowd of infantry, the men are tossed ten, twenty, fifty feet, when cavalry do the same the hapless infantrymen are thrown about and the horses fall as they impale themselves on spears and swords.

The battlefields also adapt to the terrain the battle is fought on. Battles no longer take place in abstract provinces, but in a certain geographical spot on the detailed campaign map. If your army attacked the enemy army over a bridge, you'll have to cross that very bridge in the tactical battle. If Vesuvius is nearby, a volcano spewing smoke can be seen in the background. If you corner an enemy army to a peninsula, you'll fight on the coast with the enemy army's back to the sea. Cities adapt too - if the city is a huge one with a Circus Maximus, an Imperial Palace and a Colosseum, those very structures can be seen in the city while fighting. But if it is a small village of shacks and a wooden palisade around it, you're stuck with that. And if your army is vast, it might even have difficulty maneuvering properly in the small squares and narrow alleys.

The engine was used in the British television program Time Commanders, where a group of casual wargamers were placed in an elaborate "control room" where they controlled an army in a re-enactment of a historical battle. The History Channel aired a similar show, but with a strictly documentary approach called Decisive Battles. It concentrated on the historical background of the battle, and used the engine to show what happened.

Often I find myself just staring mesmerized at a praetorian cohort stomping on the ground, "thump-thump-thump-thump", as it marches through the battlefield in perfect formation - which brings us to sound. The intense music is reason enough to crank up the volume, and the whooshes of missiles and the cries of soldiers and elephants are a treat. The units could have used more sound clips, but the random "Retreaaaaat" and "Chaaaaarge" work well enough.

Ista quidem vis est! 2

Winning battles is all a matter of strategic thought. Morale is crucial, throwing troops away to certain death will make them turn tail and rout. It's important to maintain the big picture in your head at all times, since your direct attention cannot be everywhere in a large battle. You need to keep in mind where that particular cavalry unit is, and whether or not that hail of arrows will just stab your own melee fighters in the back when things get dirty. To paraphrase Erwin Rommel on armoured warfare, infantry is the shield that pins the enemy down while the cavalry is the sword that strikes at them.

It's also important to keep the troops in formation and to keep them from being encircled, lest they are utterly destroyed. Units also have special abilities that must be used as well as possible. E.g. the legionaries can form the famous "turtle formation", testudo, that protects the unit from missiles - but woe should the testudo be the target of an elephant on a rampage! The General, with his elite bodyguards of heavy cavalry, can rally troops around him to prevent routing units from leaving the battlefield. Cavalry can go to a wedge formation that will sacrifice sheer brunt force over an incisive, piercing strike, et cetera.

Use what you have to its best abilities, make sure you have enough forces in the first place, and you're on the road to victory. If you find the tactical battles tiring but enjoy the turn-based portion of the game, fear not: like in both earlier games, it's possible to automatically resolve battles by the click of a button. These are quite a bit dependent of luck, however, and a battle the numbers show should have been won may end up lost.

The only big problem with the system is the way naval battles are handled. The navy is an important tool since it can be used to blockade valuable sea trade and to transport units overseas. However, since the focus in development was on land battles, naval battles are completely abstract: all of them are automatically resolved. The result screen of naval battles is also buggy, as it doesn't show the casualties suffered by either side at all. Fortunately, you can always just march to their cities and take them if you don't want to take your chances with their fleets.

Bis repetita placent 3

Then there is the scale. It's massive, almost mindboggling. Total War games always manage to outdo their predecessors in this regard. I've witnessed many battles where a Roman army numbering over two thousand encountered an army of up to three thousand men. This is possible with the "Huge" unit scale setting; barbarian infantry units will have up to 241 men, while Roman cohorts will have a maximum of 161 men. The largest battle I have been fortunate enough to have played in had ten thousand men, with four armies of 2500 men each, 5000 on one side and 5000 on the other. That is epic.

This arrangement is possible pretty seldom, however, and the player himself can control directly only one army per battle. The AI will take the other friendly army. Working in concert with the AI can be a pain in the neck, but it does reflect how impossible it would be for a single man sitting on a horse to control five thousand soldiers just like that.

A fair warning, however: my system of an Athlon XP +2500, a Radeon 9600, and 512 MB of DDR SDRAM is often on its knees with over 5000 soldiers on the field: it's playable, but the FPS is low. If you have a lower end system, it's better to just keep the unit scale down.

In the tour de force of the game, the Imperial Campaign, the player controls one of three Roman families: The House of Julii, Brutii or Scipii. The three houses have varying specific goals: The Julii to the north must crush the Gauls, the Scipii to the south the Carthagenians, and the Brutii to the east the Greek cities and the Macedonians. The human player can initially play only the three houses, which have enough to play in themselves, with each foreign people you'll be up against having different units and tactics. The Gaul morale will fold under Julii cavalry, but the Carthagenian elephants will be a big headache to the Scipii.

Once the human player has won the Imperial Campaign, the foreign nations themselves can be played, giving the game lots of replayability. You can also play as a foreign nation if you as a Roman faction have obliterated that foreign faction in a campaign game. There are over a dozen foreign nations, and half of them can be played in their own campaign.

You can also play a Historical Battle to see if you could have managed the ambush in Teutoburg Forest or the Siege of Sparta leading the army of the infamous general Pyrrhus. Customised battles are possible too. The historical battles tend to be very hard and are probably meant for the TW veterans. It's possible that, like in Time Commanders, a specific AI has been programmed for each of those battles. Never mind the fact that in most historical battles, you can only play as the side that originally lost.

Alea iacta est 4

The goal in the Imperial campaign is to control 50 cities, one of which must be Rome. The city, however, belongs to the Senate and People of Rome. The Senate doles out offices for the various family members based on their popularity within the Senate. This, in turn, is gained by doing voluntary missions given by the Senate; often to blockade a hostile port or to take an enemy city.

Keeping the Senate happy will keep them from outlawing you - if that happens, the other two Roman factions will also declare war on you, as the three factions are allied to each other and the SPQR. This means declaring war on the Senate, and at the same time on the other two factions vying for power. You must also have enough popularity within the common man to succesfully win over Rome - this in turn means lots of battle victories, lots of very, very bloody battle victories.

Therefore, to become supreme leader over Rome, you must have political cunning, the ability to win massive victories in the tactical mode, and strategic intelligence in the campaign mode. Timing the moment you cross your own Rubicon and "cast the die" is crucial.

You are in no hurry though, the game covers the age from the 280's B.C. to 14 A.D.*, with turns of six months, meaning almost six hundred turns of gameplay. Later on each turn, with the ensuing battles, can take up to an hour to resolve. The entire campaign can be completed within one to two hundred turns without hurrying things too much - the nearly 600 turns are for the highest difficult levels where you need to act carefully and slowly. And whether you win or not, you can still keep on playing after 14 A.D. and take over the world.

But if you think that is a bit too much, you can play a shorter campaign, where your faction must destroy its designated arch enemy - the Gauls for the Julii, and so on. This will unlock all of the foreign nations too.

To do all this, you need Generals and Governors. Of course, the only men you can trust with such responsibilities are your own family. The family, or faction, you are playing at all times has a family tree that, with luck, will bear fruit and expand over time. You need men to lead armies, and men to govern your cities. Each male family member of age 16 or over has three statistics: Command, Management, and Influence. Each have a numerical value of 0 to 10.

The first statistic, Command. keeps the morale of the men in battle up. Management increases order and income in a city the man is a governor of. Influence increases popularity in the Senate and amongst the people. Ideally, you'll want all of these three in a man - Command to attack or defend a city, Management to run it, and Influence to keep your faction popular and your people happy. The greatest leaders of your faction will most likely have high ranks in all three. These skills can be increased by winning battles, gaining Senate offices, losing battles, etc. - this RPG-like system is similar to the one in Medieval: Total War, but simplified for the better. Family members also fall in battle or die of natural causes, as they did in M: TW.

The three characteristics of a family member are usually inherited. It's likely that the son of a good Commander but a poor Governor will follow his father's footsteps. Of course, this being the Roman Empire, you can also adopt people. The opportunities to adopt are random, but there is a fairly certain way: to have an army without a family member leading it score a Heroic Victory (defined by ratios of friendly soldiers/enemy soldiers on the field, and casualties on either side) on an enemy. Usually this will open up a prompt where you can adopt the commanding officer of the heroic army, due to his skills - which are really yours. The same can happen if an army which has lost its general still manages to win the day. This is one of the little things that give the game a dense atmosphere and pull the player in to it.

Vare, legiones redde 5

Another little thing are the inspiring speeches given by the General before a battle. After a few battles you start to notice a trend: the actual characteristics of the general and the situation at hand are reflected in the speech, which is not an entire recording, but a composition of soundbites glued together according to the situation! If the army is hugely outnumbered, for instance, the general will acknowledge this, yet cheer his men on. Generals also have traits, like "Bloody", that affect their stats, but which also affect their speeches. A "Bloody" General will finish up his speech by crying out: "I want to see blood! I want to bathe in their blood! I want to bathe in their blood for a week!"

The game even keeps throwing in new clips as the game progresses, so you just end up listening to them battle after battle. One more mood-setter are numerous quotes from the Roman era shown in the loading screens, from Ovid to Horace. After a lost battle you might be encountered with "Varus, give me back my legions!" 5

But with all that excellence, there has to be a price. There are a lot of bugs, but they appear to be very random: some will suffer from many, some from none. Some will render the game impossible to play, the others are nuisances or non-issues.

Also, the game obviously has immense potential for a fun multiplayer game. Unfortunately, the options for multiplayer are rather limited: only custom battles. The multiplayer is also plagued by a particularly nasty lot of bugs, although most of them have been fixed in the 1.1 patch that was out a week after the release. The patch did not fix the single player, however, save for improving game balance.

Granted, city sieges with all sorts of toys available like siege ladders, towers and battering rams are entertaining against a human, and the opportunity to save battles as video files is nice, but some amount of oomph is missing. Playing the Imperial Campaign, for instance, would have been excellent, if an exercise in patience.

A human opponent is far more challenging and rewarding to do battle against, even though the game AI does get smarter on the higher difficulty levels, instead of just ramping up the numerical advantage. Few games have accomplished this, and it adds to longevity a great deal.

In short, Rome: Total War is a great combination of the best of the two earlier games with a lot of improvements and little failings - the only big issue is the multiplayer, which was probably secondary in development to the brilliant single player campaign, which just doesn't seem to be missing anything. There even are tarred pigs you can set alight and have scamper squealing at enemy elephants to scare them away.

The game's a must have for any fan of the TBS or RTS genre, and especially so if you are interested in the era in question, as R: TW gives the best treatment so far to the age. The money/time ratio is exceptionally small for the single player mode alone, if the MP mode can be enhanced in later patches it will decrease even more.

If you're still uncertain, just grab the playable demo, showcasing the tactical mode, off your file mirror of choice and see for yourself. You can play as Hannibal in the Battle of Trebia, and you will love the elephants.

* The game itself uses these terms.

The Latin citations in English:

1. Nothing beyond - The poet Pindaros, originally referring to the Pillars of Heracles at Gibraltar, where the world was thought to end. The saying later on developed to mean "there is nothing superior or better", "it doesn't get any better than this".
2. Violence is meant! - Gaius Iulius Caesar, when a conspirator seized him so that the assassins could kill him.
3. Even on the second time, it is still pleasant. - Horace, referring to a better kind of poetry.
4. The die is cast. - Caesar, crossing the river Rubicon with his legions and thus declaring war on the Senate, referring to the gamble he was taking by starting a civil war.
5. Varus, give me back my legions. - Emperor Augustus to one his generals, who had been defeated by the Germanics in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

Source for citations: Carpe Diem - Hauskaa ja hyödyllistä latinaa by Arto Kivimäki, Karisto OY, Hämeenlinna, Finland, 1999.
Rome - Total War
A Technical Game Design Case Study

RomeTotal War (RTW), developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Activision, is a game of empire building and grand strategy set around the rise of the Roman Republic and its transformation into an empire spanning the known world. Gameplay is divided in two sections: the strategic empire-management “world map” component, and the tactical army combat. The strategic component is played out on a three-dimensional map of Europe as it was around 0AD, and is concerned with high-level city management, diplomacy and army maneuvering. The tactical component is a game unto itself, as the player commands his armies against his opponent, with potentially thousands of individual soldiers on either side. Due to the highly discrete nature of the two parts of the gameplay, this case study will examine one design aspect from both, namely, the world building of the strategic element, and graphical concerns in the tactical element.

The world building elements of Rome – Total War are designed to be as accessible and alterable as possible, and such allow a great deal of insight into the methods and reasons used. Although the world map is fully 3D, it is rendered by the game engine from data composited from a series of images that function like height maps (including one that is a height map). Although each image defines different aspects of the map, each holds to the same conventions. Each image is either the same size, twice the size, or twice plus 1 pixel, and each pixel holds the data for a different tile in the world map grid. These images include:

This mostly greyscale image defines the area of the map that is rendered as sea area (the blue colour) and includes all the data on how high each spot on the map grid is, with pure black being sea level and white being the highest mountain top.

This image is the “political map” of the game, defining the borders between each region, and the location of every city and port facility. The image is limited to 255 colours, and since each region must be have a different, however slight, RGB value, there are a maximum of 200 regions in RTW.

This image holds the data for what kind of terrain each tile is, like impassable mountain, plains, swamps, forests, shallow coastal water or deep ocean water. Each different terrain type has a different RGB value, with shades of red for ocean depths, shades of green for the varieties of forested or clear terrain, white for beaches (the only areas ships can disembark troops), blue for swamps, greys for mountainous areas, and others.

This image holds the data for the location of specific terrain features not defined by other images, like rivers, cliffs and volcanoes. Black area is, for the purposes of the image, featureless, and yellow is for cliffs, blue for rivers, and so on.

This image is the last of the ‘key’ image files, and defines the climate types for each tile. Climates are represented by different RGB values, and alter whether that tile gets snowy in winter, whether fighting there in the summer causes heat exhaustion for troops and other effects both cosmetic and otherwise.

On game load, the engine takes the data from all of these image files and a collection of text files and compiles them into a cache file called ‘map.rwm’, which is then always used by the engine to save load time. The only time this file is updated is when it has been deleted and the game must recompile it. These design choices, though perhaps not the most efficient, definitely achieve a goal that Creative Assembly has always seemed to pursue: making the game as expandable and moddable as possible. While using a prerendered map would have marginally sped up loading and rendering times, the game sells far more copies with the vast amount of user customization that is possible. Indeed, Rome - Total Realism, a major mod that has just released v6.0, has had over 100,000 downloads (80,000 of those in one day), and has been featured on the cover of magazines like PC Gamer-UK.

Another interesting facet to the world building of RTW also relates the exposed nature of the game data. Almost everything that is not graphical is stored in plain-English text files in the game’s subdirectories, from projectile ranges and damages, to animation and skeleton definitions to the set up of the world.

When it comes to the set-up of the game world, everything is stored in a series of text files that cover everything. Once the engine has finished creating the render data for the game world, it gathers all the ‘political’ information from these text files, including territory and city names; initial army placement and composition; city populations, growth rates, and developments; AI settings; diplomatic relations; character names, ages and personality ‘Traits’, and; victory conditions. All of this data is then added to the map.rwm file and the game is loaded. Also note that the game allows for multiple different game worlds to be accessible, each with their own maps, settings and environments, although graphical assets and unit statistics are universal.

The final aspect of RTW’s world building elements this case study covers is the interaction between the strategic world map and the tactical battle areas. Since each army is free to roam the world map at will (excepting of course impassable areas like high mountains), it would be hard if not impossible to create stock and reusable battle maps to reflect the area the battle takes place in without the repetition becoming hideously obvious and detracting from gameplay. Instead, each battle map is rendered individually based on the terrain data from the tiles occupied by the contesting armies, providing for endless replayability and a deep connection between the player’s actions and the game world. Although the actual battle is limited to a given area of several square kilometers, a great deal of terrain is rendered around the battle area, leaving visible features like ships in the nearby sea and erupting volcanoes. Also, during city sieges, each and every building and city improvement present in the city on the strategic map are present in the battle area, and any damage to those buildings carries over to the strategic map, which not only further deepens that connection between actions and consequences but also gives rise to a whole host of viable hit-and-run tactics.

Because the battle environment of RTW is fully 3D, with each of potentially thousands of soldiers rendered individually, certain graphic trade-offs and design decisions were made, decisions which greatly streamline gameplay and reduce processor demands while still making for an enjoyable game experience.

Unlike in first-person shooters and other 3D game environments, collision detection in RTW battles is extremely limited. Beyond insuring that units do not walk through, but do fall off of (which leads to some amusing emergent gameplay) walls and that soldiers do not simply pass through each other, there is little collision detection actually computed. Battering rams do not actually pound on city walls, rather they just play their battering animation while the gates play their ‘getting hit’ animation and change visible states as they are damaged. Similarly, arrows do not actually strike soldiers. Rather, the arrows fly at their target, and any units within that target area compute damage that would be received, and the appropriate number of soldiers play their death animation. It is actually possible to watch this happen on close zoom, as soldiers who were not hit by arrows die, and then count the arrows in the ground after the volley and get the same number as were fired, even if numerous soldiers died. This same mechanic is carried over into unit on unit melee combat. Units are treated as gestalt entities made up of each individual soldier. Damage is calculated against the unit as a whole, and soldiers ‘die’ at the appropriate time, regardless of what’s going on around them. Whenever two units are in contact, the appropriate animations are played and, if you don’t watch too closely and carefully, it looks like vicious combat. Soldiers, on closer inspection, just wave their weapons in the appropriate direction while their enemies do the same, much like the three-quarters technique used in film for massed battles. The only minor exception to this is for officers and special characters like named army generals. They are attached to and inseparable from their unit, but they have slightly different statistics from the rank-and-file, and so are given slightly more specific collision detection.

In a similar vein, due to the large battle areas and the potentially vast number of entities to be rendered, RTW uses several tricks to decrease processor demands. Firstly, the actual environment, with a few notable exceptions like buildings, walls and trees, is completely static and is likely only rendered much less frequently as it is quite large and huge sections of it can be visible at any one time, yet never appears to contribute to reduced framerates. For the soldiers, RTW actually uses two separate entities for each one. One is the actual detailed 3D model and the other is a much more simplistic 2D sprite. The game switches this back and forth during render depending on the camera’s distance from the soldier in question, and the render decision is actually based on individual soldiers, not units, so that it is possible for half of a unit to be sprites and the others actual models. While this is not particularly evident at first, it becomes moreso on low graphics settings where the switch line is quite close to the camera, and when using fan-made unit graphics that do not have corresponding sprites.

The final aspect of RTW covered in this case study is animation in the battle element. While RTW does use skeleton-based animation like most 3D games, it is a much more limited form, as all of the animations are arbitrary responses to given states and not free-form reactions to the game environment. Instead of the joint-based skeletons typically seen in 3D games, RTW models are simply a texture mesh weighted to a series of completely unconnected ‘bones’ and the animations are just key-framed sequences of those bones moving and pulling the mesh with them. While this does increase the difficulty level of modifying or creating new animations for RTW, it was a decision made for several reasons. First, without the need to compute the interactions between joints and the texture mesh, processor demands are reduced by a significant amount, and second, RTW uses little to nothing in the way of animation blending or even transitions. Because the player camera is generally in a bird’s-eye perspective and concerned more with the big picture and not with the actions of individuals (unlike FPS games), this amount of detail is not only not needed, but even wasteful.

As can be seen in this case study, Rome – Total War makes a number of interesting trade-offs between efficiency and detail, with the emphasis on the latter in the world building and the former in the battle element. These tradeoffs were made with the total user experience in mind, insuring playability and reducing the need for prohibitively high-end technical requirements which might have resulting from the ability to have literally tens of thousands of individual soldiers on one battlefield or having an empire spanning an entire continent or, with the user-created content available, most of this or other worlds. And by and large, the game succeeds at what it attempts.

Node your homework

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