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.